The Grim Toll of Dissension

Engraving by F A Sleap of the 1889 Bijou Theatre fire where a fireman and a civilian died.

Yesterday was Firefighters’ Memorial Day, an occasion for remembering firefighters killed in the line of duty.

On my mind yesterday were the six Melbourne firemen killed in 1889, amid the chaos of the turf war that had unfolded between paid and volunteer fire brigades. These deaths have been credited with giving Government the impetus to finally intervene, partitioning Victoria into areas served by separate fire services: the all-volunteer Country Fire Brigades Board and the all-professional Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board. There would be no more firefighter deaths in Melbourne for decades. But what a horrible price to pay for much-needed reform.

That reform brought an end to the turf war chaos, a lesson we ought to learn from with regards to the current intractable dispute.

Thinking about these six fallen firemen prompted me to pick up Life Under The Bells, a history of the MFB by Sally Wilde. What Wilde had to say about this sorry saga is an interesting read. I’ll quote it here since the book is out of print and very hard to come by.

On 28 December 1888 there was a big argument at a small fire in Russell Street. Stein [Superintendant of the paid insurance brigades] ordered a small hose from his own men and no water at all from any of the other brigades. Unfortunately, one of the [volunteer] Association brigades had been first at the fire and already had a hose and stand-pipe installed before Stein arrived. There was something of a brawl, to the delight of the watching crowd, and blows were exchanged. The brigades had hardly had time to return to their stations when they were called out again, this time to a fire in Swanston Street. Once again, members of the Association disagreed with Stein as to who should put how much water where, and about fifty firemen became involved in a fight. They fought over the fire plugs, and they fought over the hose, and at least one hose-line was cut in the process. Both Superintendent Mauger of the Association and Superintendant Stein appealed to the police for help. One of Stein’s men was arrested and had to be bailed out, and the fire burned merrily for some time.

The result was a public outcry. Sir Benjamin Benjamin, Mayor of Melbourne, issued a public statement the following morning that Melbourne’s fire plugs were only to be used under the direction of Mr David John Stein. That answered the question of who was in control at city fires, but unfortunately this did not solve all of Melbourne’s firefighting problems. In 1889 a total of six firemen lost their lives, a very high price to pay for the passing of the Fire Brigades Act of 1890.

  • On 22 April 1889, Captain Parsons of the East Melbourne Volunteer Fire Brigade died at a fire at the Bijou Theatre on Bourke Street. A civilian, Thomas Williams, died at the same fire and six other firefighters were injured.
  • On 10 August 1889, Joseph Fox of the Carlton Brewery Brigade fell from a roof and died at a fire in Collins Street West.
  • On 13 September 1889, John McLeod of the South Melbourne Brigade, and Ernest Johnson and Thomas Laite, both of the Insurance Brigade, died at a fire in the George and George store in Collins Street.
  • On 23 October 1889, John Box died following an accident at a torchlight procession.

In December 1890 a Fire Brigades Act, based on the recommendations of the Select Committee five years before, finally passed through Parliament.

The Bijou Theatre fire took place on Easter Monday and drew huge crowds. The following day, a whole page was devoted to the event in both The Age and The Argus. An inquest was held on the death of Parsons and Williams and it became clear that all was not well with Melbourne’s fire brigades. Enormous damage was done by excessive use of water, many firemen got drunk, and most only took orders from the Insurance Companies’ Brigade when they felt like it. Stein was on leave at the time, and his deputy McDowall was theoretically in charge, but there was no system by which brigades automatically reported to him. Many simply turned up at the fire and set to work wherever they fancied. Not surprisingly, one of the findings of the inquest was that the current fire brigade system was totally unsatisfactory and that, as a first step, some sort of overall control was required. As a result, the brigades got together and finally agreed to take Stein’s orders at fires. This was just as well, for on 13 September they had to fight a big fire. As it was, three firemen died. What might have happened if the brigades had still been fighting doesn’t bear thinking about. The final tragedy of the year was not even at a fire. John Box’s clothes caught fire from the torch he was carrying in a brigade procession.

This series of disasters sobered up proceedings considerably, and while the Fire Brigades Act was going through Parliament, the various brigades worked together at fires.

So there we have it. Rest in peace, brothers, and may we learn from your tragic deaths.