In today’s Sydney, if our house or business was on fire we would rightly expect the Fire Brigade to turn up fairly promptly.  However, this was not always the case, and in 19th century Sydney, with volunteer fire fighter’s, this could be a problem.

Fire was a major issue in old Sydney.  Most of the buildings were built from timber, there was not a permanent fire brigade and when they turned up, water pressure was not the best. Before the 1830s, fires were most often fought by the occupants with buckets of water or by knocking over the building before the flames could spread.

In May 1836 the Australian Insurance Company began to insure against fire in Sydney.  This was the first organisation to address the issue.  The Company also kept fire buckets, ladders and axes at a premise in Sussex Street and one on the wharves at Darling Harbour.  To identify who was insured, the company issued small firemarks or plaques that could be attached to the insured buildings.

Official measures came the following year when the first building act was enacted.  The City of Sydney Building Act established a building code which included the erection of party-walls between terraces to stop fire spreading, set up firecocks’ on water mains throughout the city and added an incentive to fire companies to attend fires.  The first engine to arrive and put water onto the flames received 30 shillings (more than the average weekly wage), 20 for the second (still more than some people earned weekly) and 10 for the third.  Further, those wharfies who joined the firemen were exempt from having to serve at sea as mariners.

Soon after the formation of the Australian Insurance Company fire brigade, others began to appear, with the Alliance Insurance Company and the Barracks Brigade, operating from the military barracks in George Street by 1840. However a fire in 1840 at the Theatre Royal and Hotel between George and Pitt Street (near Dymocks) that destroyed the theatre, the 100 room hotel, four houses and stables illustrated the inadequacy of the military brigade.  Their hoses reached less than one storey and soldiers were caught looting the burning buildings.

Parramatta volunteer fire brigade 1871

The result was the first official brigade, with the Barracks Brigade taken over by the police force with an inspector, two sergeants and eight constables appointed.  Although it only lasted about 18 months, it was the first attempt at some organisation.

In 1842 the first two fire engines were imported by the Mutual Fire Insurance Association. These ‘engines’, were powered by a manual pump and so were only as effective as the men’s stamina.

Despite improvements in fire equipment, insurance brigades still only attended fires at buildings with a firemark.  The problem with this policy for the city was graphically illustrated in 1853 when the Kent Brewery of Tooth and Co on Broadway burnt for five days.  This prompted the Government to try to introduce legislation to form a fire brigade, but this failed.

Andrew Torning, founder No1 Volunteers, fire fighter, artist, actor, painter. 1876

The Tooth fire prompted new volunteer brigades to form.  In 1854 the former Victoria Theatre Fire Company was re-constituted as the Victoria Volunteer Fire Company No.1 with a new imported manual fire engine known as ‘Pioneer’.  Led by theatre owner Andrew Torning the Company built a fire station in Pitt Street, Haymarket which served the company between 1856 and 1886.  This fire station still stands opposite Belmore Park, the oldest fire station in Australia.

No.1 Brigade was soon joined by No.2 Brigade based in Phillip Street.  In 1859, the first suburban brigade was established at Parramatta.

In 1865 the Insurance Company Brigade purchased the first steam powered fire engine.  With a greatly improved performance it prompted the No.2 Volunteers to get one the next year.

The existence of two types of brigades, the Insurance Brigades and the Volunteer Brigades led to some unfortunate rivalry.  In 1875 volunteer fire fighters and insurance fire fighters squabbled in the street as the Castlemaine brewery burnt behind them.  Scenes like this saw more pressure on Government to form an official brigade.  In 1880 9 brigades, led by the Insurance Brigade, formed a Metropolitan Associated Brigade and lobbied Government for action.

Finally in 1882 the destruction of the Garden Palace forced the issue.  With the defeat of Parkes’ Government who had differed on the issue, in 1883 the Fire Brigades Bill was passed through Parliament 29 years after the first version was put to Parliament.

The establishment in 1884 of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade gave the old volunteer and insurance brigades three options.  Join the MFB and be subsidised by Government, go it alone with no help or disband.  Of the 27 different brigades, 16 joined the MFB, 6 went it alone and 5 disbanded.  The first to join was the Theatre Royal Brigade, 44 years after their old theatre had burnt to the ground.

Want more? Try Colin Adrian’s book: Fighting Fire