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  • ArtS1 Grove Estate Plan 1888

    Advertisement for auction sale of lots in Grove Estate, on Saturday 4th February 1888.
    AHS archive no - AHS146

  • ArtS2 Grove Estate map c. 1900

    Grove Estate plan, c.1900. 

  • ArtS3 Ashgrove scouts 1909

    Ashgrove scouts, 1909
    AHS archive no: - 915

  • ArtS3 Seils Dairy Delivery Van 1930s

    Seils Dairy Milk Delivery Van, 1930s, a 1926 Willy’s Whippet,  owned by Seils' Dairy, Toomba Avenue, Ashgrove.  Milk was carried in the Dicky seat. 
    Source:  Neil & Jeanette Seils.

  • ArtS4 Waterworks Road, 1924

    Section of Waterworks Road showing the rough condition of the roadway.  1924.
    John Oxley Library digital image #201390

  • ArtS5 Old St Finbarrs Church Hall 1926

    Old St Finbarrs Church Hall,  Scan, 1926
    AHS Archive No: AHS523

  • ArtS6 Padmore Butcher Ashgrove Crescent c.1946

    WA Padmore, Quality Butcher, Ashgrove Crescent, c. 1946. 
    Source:  Desley Drevins.
    AHS Archive No: 559

  • ArtS7 Tram at Ashgrove West terminus, 1951

    Toast-rack tram No. 65 at the Ashgrove West tram terminus, in front of the Ashgrove West Uniting Church. 1969.

  • ArtS8 Grantuly Ashgrove

    Grantuly, the home of John Killough Stewart, son of Alexander Stewart of Glenlyon House.

The Great Fire of Brisbane in 1864




presented by Duncan Richardson on 6 July 2013


To the Ashgrove Historical Society




Like most people, I hadn't heard of the great fire of Brisbane until about 15 years ago -  it was possibly from this book which has a small chapter on it.  I haven't met too many other people who had heard of it either.  I've done a little bit of looking into why we seem to have forgotten that story and there are other stories connected to it that have been forgotten.  I started with the fire and within my general reading I came across another smaller fire about 15 years later where there was an attempt to blame the local Chinese population and to acquire some land around the developing Chinatown in Albert Street.  In my head, I compressed the two together and came up with time-travel story for older primary children - 'Jason Chen and the Time Banana', where a boy goes back to prevent the Chinese from blamed for the fire.  Even in 1864 there was a growing Chinese community but in this particular case there was no attempt, but not long after there were the well-known anti-Chinese riots that were fostered by the periodical ‘Boomerang' and that resulted in some serious violence.  That was in 1888. 


In 1864, the fire was a major catalyst in turning this old convict settlement into a city that would be recognisable to anybody who knew it in the 1960s or 70s.  Before the fire there were still a lot of convict buildings still being used but this very much the beginning of the time when those things were being replaced.  This is the only depiction of the fire that I can find, an engraving by a recently arrived migrant named Richard Watt.  There were no photos of course - photography  much in its infancy.  The images shows a view looking towards North Quay, with former convict barracks and descriptions of buildings and people.  The day after the fire, the Brisbane Courier had this headline, "Terrific and Disastrous Fire, 50 tenements destroyed.  Last evening will be long remembered in the annals of Queensland as the date on which occurred one of the most disastrous and crushing conflagrations that ever brought ruin and desolation on a town......" and continues in at length in very flowery language.  There were 2 detailed reports in the newspapers. 


Brisbane in the late 1850 had just become the capital of the new colony and one of the first things the State Government did was to repeal the Governor Gipps restriction law which had prevented Brisbane from spreading, and had set aside certain areas for indigenous people.  Governor Gipps had visited Brisbane and declared that it didn't need money for new buildings because it was just a colonial outpost.  The locals disliked that description.  This (photo) shows the kind of entertainment on offer - an visiting show from Sydney - a minstrel performance.  The performers criticised the venue.  Also visitors from Melbourne found the city unfavourable - both the layout of the streets and the sanitation.  There was a population explosion under way.  In 1861 - 64 the growth was enormous (graphs of populations numbers shown). 


I have not been able to find any images of the side of Queen street that was burned.  At this time, people were warned about going for a walk on Queen Street at night, there were tree stumps and holes, and you had to have a lantern. 


Photos -   the foundation stone of the new town hall was laid in this year in Queen Street.  At North Quay, some of the convict buildings that survived the fire - the military on the site of the current treasury building and the armoury on William Street which was still in use and there was a danger of it being effected.  The Brisbane CBD area was very different then - a lot of pollution, a lot of noise,  industrial noise.  In spite of this, there was a lot of bush to be seen within the CBD.


A map of Brisbane - showing inundation from floods in Albert Street and elsewhere.  Also shows the April fire, the September fire and the big December fire, and areas where houses were destroyed by a cyclone in March.  Boats were sunk in Moreton Bay and people were killed so it was a pretty devastating 12 months.  A bridge was needed but as with fire prevention, there was no money available to continue.  Travel outside of the town was still dangerous - fear of attack by aboriginal groups and bush rangers.  There was a move to set up a gas company - gas light was a technology of the future.  Chinese people were being used as indentured labour - a kind of slave labour.  Often used as a debt - a family might sell their son to cover a debt to a local entrepreneur and then sent to sheep stations in Australia - young boys of 15, not able to speak English. 


Brisbane had a problem with water.  Water was delivered and paid for - no plumbing system available.  It was not very clean.  It came from a pond in Roma Street which was fenced but animals were getting in, drinking it and dying in it.  There were however 90 pubs and drunkenness was common and a criminal offence.  The police spent a lot of their time arresting drunks.  Infant mortality was quite significant - the poor water, dead animals, pollution.  Bleeding and leeches were still used  as medical treatments.  There was no removal of rubbish or industrial waste, there were fumes from tanning.


This view is looking towards Kangaroo Point a few weeks before the fire.  The population was growing rapidly - there were up to 7 ships a week coming into Moreton Bay and the accommodation shortage was drastic.  People had to pitch tents, building humpies out or bark and tin and some were then rented to others at extortionate rates.  This photo shows the female factory, the old convict barrack for women and that was the fire station in the early 60s.  There were a lot of land sales at this time, maps show the area drawn out in blocks but photos show that a lot of those blocks were bush. 


In March the cyclone hit and 'frogs hollow' in Albert Street always flooded regularly.  The land from levelling of the hill at the GPO site was put there so that it doesn't flood so badly now, but in those days it filled very easily.  In 1864, the Brisbane Courier was trying to get some political response to the growing fear of fire because of everything being made of timber.  "What would the nations of the earth think if they knew that in the chief city in the colony of Queensland, there was not a properly organised fire brigade, neither paid nor voluntary.  There is a fire engine, certainly, such as it is, but it is a miserable affair, compared with those made in America, though I have no doubt, it has cost as much money.  The great fire this morning tells a tale which should not be disregarded.  Some fine buildings have been thoroughly burned down, to say nothing of the contents, most likely of far more value.  Will not the government and the city council bestir themselves so that this city shall be placed in comparative safety from fire?"  So in that April fire, 14 property were destroyed.  The fire started at 3am and a fire engine did come but it didn't have much effect on the fire.  Afterwards, they formed a fire committee but The Courier was quite strong in its criticism of the city council.  Whether it was just a shortage of funds but there was also a dramatic turnover of mayors in the first 15 years.  Very few served more than 12 months.  So it was very difficult to get anything organised when your tenure was so short.  No doubt there was a lot of political instability, there were no formal parties, and people were voted in individually as mayor.  A photo of the fire engines at the time show the length of ladders was too small to be able to do a great deal and the pump was powered by human hands.  The fire brigade formed in 1860 and before 1864, 5 separate ones had formed and collapsed.  They tried to maintain them by subscriptions but often the only people paying were the firemen themselves.  They had very little support from the council and often donations were promised and not followed through.


 In September there was another fire.  Edward Street burned and spread into Queen Street and Refuge Row was effected, which was where the people from the previous fire had taken refuge with their stock.  But this time there was a water tank nearby that was used so that the spread of the fire was slowed and eventually stopped.


In December the fire was discovered around 7.40pm in the cellar of Stewart and Hemmant's drapery.  The fire alarm was a bell, which until recently they did not even have.  The store was on the corner of Queen and Albert Streets.  This image is of a token produced by Stewart and Hemmant, similar to others used to attract custom, but more durable than today's junk mail.  One witness to the fire said,  "At the outbreak, a few buckets of water could have put it out.  The fire seemed to come up from under the shop at the corner and all that could be done was to watch the flames taking everything before them.  The fire brigade was useless.  A number of accidents happened and the fire was interesting to the onlookers".  The fire became a type of entertainment.  The doors of the buildings were broken and the whole interior was a vast sheet of flame.  William Hemmant tried to save some property.  Using buckets from either frogs hollow or where the town hall is now, they tried to tip water onto the fire.  William Hemmant says that he heard the fire bell ringing and rode into town to find out where the fire was.  He tried to save a small drawer in the office containing papers, but could not save anything else.  The North Australian paper said that the fire was caused by the bursting of a kerosene lamp which a boy, when taking from a shelf, let fall.  This was pure speculation. The neighbouring shops were evacuated, and goods dumped in the street and before long the street was cluttered.  Mr Cutbush was in charge of the fire brigade and climbed on the roof of the Oyster Saloon, but was injured while trying to pull off the more flammable material.  Many people refused to allow their property to be pulled down. 


The Courier said an immense body of flame shot up from the piles spreading to the rear and converting the square into great surging mass of fire.......... and continued in very flowery language.   Then the troops, who were barracked not far away, arrived and kept the crowds back.  There were about 6000 people watching.  The flames spread never-the-less.  The Weekly Herald pointed out that the ropes for pulling down buildings were too weak and often broke.  Many people refused to pull down their buildings until it was too late.  They often smashed the windows which let in the air, thus feeding the fire.  Some of the roofing material was metal but the shingles went up very readily.  Within an hour, most of the destruction had occurred.  The buildings were very close together and there was a breeze blowing from North Quay.  Behind the shops on Queen and Adelaide streets, there were a lot of very small houses, humpies built with packing cases and wood, and they went up very quickly.  There were some successes - the music hall on Elizabeth Street was saved by men from the town hall.  The music hall was thought to be owned by the mayor.  There were also vacant blocks on Elizabeth Street which helped to slow the fire down.  By 10pm the fire was at the George Street end.  The buildings on the opposite side were being protected by pulling their hoardings and putting up wet blankets.  All of the hotels had stables which were full of straw and all they could do was rescue the horses.  The bullion was also rescued from the banks before they went up.  The Courier was pleased that some buildings had gone and that there was now a lot of space.   The wealthy gentlemen of the colony thought that the old humpies did not give a very good impression of the town.  The people then took refuge in the archway of the old convict barracks.   The saving of the building on the corner of Albert Street on the downhill side, was described as a miracle.  After the fire, a photo taken from the top floor of the convict barracks, shows a couple of brick and stone buildings had survived but most were flattened blocks.  Mr Edmonstone, the butcher, was seen out in the street cutting up meat and trying to sell it.  The debris was being guarded by the soldiers, who were criticised by the papers for being dirty and using bad language.  They replied to this criticism in a newspaper article. After the fire, the papers are full of business people thanking those who helped rescue their stock, including Stewart & Hemmant.  A lot of fragile goods however, were damaged in the rescue. 


There were a number of different ideas about how the fire started.  One stated that mice had been found gnawing on a box of wax vestas and he suggested that this was how the fire at Stewart & Hemmant’s may have started.  There were no safety matches in those day, so it is possible.  The paper stated that the police had discovered that there were a "number of young blackguards who were in the habit of assembling at Stewart & Hemmant's corner every evening.  Some few minutes before the fire was observed, about half a dozen boys, whose ages ranged from 11 to 17, were lighting pipes and cigars at the back of Stewart & Hemmant's cellar and the lighted matches were thrown about in the most indiscriminate manner.  The party then adjoined to the back of Mr Mayne's shop and shortly afterwards the fire was seen to break out.  The police have vainly endeavoured to obtain sufficient evidence to warrant them in initiating  a prosecution".  No charges were ever laid.  These problems led to plans for a water works and  proper fire.  The Courier wanted a ban on wooden buildings and control of rubbish piles which caused problems when ash fell on them. 


At the inquest, Mr Stewart claimed that he turned the lamps out at 7 and had no idea how the fire started and the porter confirmed Mr Stewart's story.  There was also a complaint as to why the witnesses were all together listening to each other’s testimony.  Thaddeus O'Kane of the North Australian stated that a boy dropped a kerosene lamp but later admitted it was pure speculation.   A fire committee was formed but hardly anyone came to the meeting so it fell apart.  The plans were to have a system of pipes running from both ends of Queen Street with pumps to pump the river water up.  Another plan was to have the fire engine as the source of the pump, using the same pipes and a third idea was to have portable fire extinguishers which were in use in some large department stores in Europe.  These were canister which was operated by a hand pump on the machine and they would be distributed around the town.  The Milton Fire Brigade came much later. 


Some of the new building after the fire were the new Town Hall on Queen Street, new shops on the site of the April fire, and in 1872, stone was becoming more common but the ban on timber was not yet passed.  The Oyster Saloon had to be demolished and some businesses had insurance but others didn't. 


So why didn't we know about the fire.  Australian history, and Brisbane history, seemed to have been dominated by the convict period and obsession with bush rangers and the gold rush.  The human stories were often neglected in favour of mapping exercises and urban stories were not mentioned at all.  There was some success but a lot of failure - a lot of energy but a lot of it wasted - and a huge amount of apathy.  There was a lot of hindrance to the development of the fire brigades and preventing the fires from happening.  There was a lot of bickering about funding and especially helping those who were injured.  A lot of projects were started, such as the building of a bridge, but it was left to others to complete, which was made difficult with the short tenure of the mayors.


If you are interested in researching further there are many books available, especially 'Boosting Brisbane', which includes letters and diaries, photos and engravings.  Also web sources and Trove have lots of information.