Sydney has been the victim of many a fiery inferno throughout its history, with at least three major fires having raged through the city in the late nineteenth century. In this period, the layout of Sydney looked pretty much the same as it does today, but the buildings that lined the streets were firetraps. Usually they were built without fireproofing, using timber and other inflammable materials, and had no fire egress. Moreover, firefighters tended to be volunteers, and the equipment they were using often proved useless in the face of fierce conflagrations.
One of the most spectacular and mysterious fires occurred on the night of 22 September 1882, when the Garden Palace was burnt to the ground. Built in the grounds of today’s Royal Botanic Gardens, the Garden Palace was completed in August 1879, just in time for Sydney’s International Exhibition. Constructed using timber and iron, it was built within eight months, with the builders working night and day.
The Garden Palace was a great success, and Sydneysiders flocked to the International Exhibition to take in displays of agriculture, art and industry, that were intended to demonstrate Australia’s technological advancement to the rest of the world.
The Garden Palace was originally intended as a temporary structure, but as it had proved such a success, the powers of the day decided to keep it. When it went up in smoke three years later, many valuable and irreplaceable Australian collections were lost, including over 300 art works, government records and scientific artefacts. Rumours abounded that it was arson, especially as the fire had started in four places at the same time.
Some claimed that residents of Macquarie Street had dispensed with the building because it blocked their harbour views, while other suggested that burning down the Garden Palace was convenient way to get rid of the 1881 Census, as it revealed the convict origins of many of NSW’s now respectable citizens. The rumours persist and the cause of the fire has never been revealed.
Eight years later, an entire city block bounded by Pitt, Castlereagh and Moore Streets was wiped out, when a huge fire swept through it.
On 10 July 1901, a fire swept through the Horden’s Palace Emporium at Haymarket, near today’s Central Station. The building was reduced to cinders within two hours, leading to the loss of five lives and the destruction of more than half a million pounds worth of merchandise. This fire, at last, paved the way for better fire fighting services for Sydney and new regulations which ensured that new buildings in Sydney were fire proofed.