Fire was a real and ever-present threat in early colonial Melbourne. Houses and businesses sprang up rapidly, often in close proximity. High density areas of settlement characterised the young city and a fire could spell disaster. With no organised fire brigade, it was community members and later volunteer brigades that were tasked with fighting fires in 1830s Melbourne.
One of the first fires in Melbourne occurred in 1838 when the first gaol was set alight. The gaoler ran to the nearby barracks for assistance but by the time he returned, the gaol was in ashes. It was not long after this, that the citizens of Melbourne decided they needed to do something to protect themselves and their buildings from fire.
In 1839, a small group of businessmen got together and formed the Melbourne Fire and Marine Insurance Company. After two major fires in two weeks during 1842, the company copied the tactics employed by insurance companies in Sydney and invested in firefighting equipment including axes, leather buckets and iron ladders.
While the Melbourne Fire and Marine Insurance Company wound up operations in 1844, other insurance companies took its place and by 1845 there was talk of forming a fire brigade to combat the chaos that ensued when random, well-meaning passers-by jumped in to assist with many fires. A public meeting held in July 1845 reached the following resolution:
That it is of the opinion of the meeting, necessary and expedient that a society should be immediately formed supported by voluntary subscriptions for the purpose of preventing and extinguishing fires in the town of Melbourne, and that such a society be called ‘The Melbourne Fire Preventive Society’.
The proposed society would be subscription based and have paid firefighters who would respond to fires and organise enthusiastic volunteers on site. With the use of Cornwall Fire Insurance Company’s engine, this fire brigade was an effective force. But Melbourne was growing and needed more than one brigade on hand.
As the then small town of Melbourne grew, more insurance companies were established with their own firefighting equipment and personnel. Firemarks – small copper badges – were placed outside buildings to represent which insurance company they were insured by. This allowed the fire brigades to preference their own insured buildings over others, if the need arose. Businesses such as Carlton United Brewery, Shamrock Brewery and Yarraville Sugar Works, interested in preserving their own premises, also formed their own fire brigades.
During the land boom of the 1880s, an era known as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, there was an increase in the formation of volunteer fire brigades in the burgeoning outer suburbs. Some of these brigades only lasted a few years and little is known about them. One estimate is that there were at least 50 different volunteer brigades established in the 1880s. Another report refers to 68 different brigades attending fires between 1889 and 1891. There were also a few temperance fire brigades established during the time when the temperance movement (abstinence from alcohol) was gaining momentum. There was a well-established link between firefighters and beer, with volunteer brigades sometimes meeting in pubs and firefighters even being rewarded with free beer after (or sometimes during) fighting a fire. The temperance brigades hoped to change that relationship.
Having so many different brigades with varying skill levels meant that there were times when fires were inexpertly put out, causing more damage. As early as 1866, the various Melbourne insurances companies argued that the City of Melbourne should follow the path of the City of London, which had replaced its insurance fire brigades with a unified Metropolitan Fire Brigade. In 1883 the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Association was formed with the intention of working towards passing the Fire Brigades Act.
In 1889 six firefighters tragically lost their lives during four separate incidents. In one particularly extreme fire, one firefighter and one civilian were killed. The inquest that followed determined that the fire management system in Melbourne was ineffective and inadequate.
A newspaper report from that year recorded:
At the present time there are about 1,000 firemen in the city and suburbs … These men are divided between 50 and 60 brigades, each of which has its own particular method of turning out to, and getting to work at, a fire. There is no unanimity of action, and the men, though ready and willing to do their best according to their various lights, are often a hindrance instead of an assistance at a serious conflagration.
The results of the inquest and the high death toll from recent fires finally provided the momentum to push the Fire Brigades Act through parliament. In December 1890, five years after it had been recommended, the Fire Brigades Act was passed and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) was born.
With the passing of the act, the volunteer fire brigades were disbanded and many of them re-formed under the umbrella of the new MFB.