STATION 1: EASTERN HILL
MFB’s long-time base was the 1893 Eastern Hill Fire Station, situated on the corner of Victoria Parade and Gisborne Street in East Melbourne. This site is now the home of the Fire Services Museum of Victoria. In 1979 MFB moved its headquarters to a new building at the rear of the original structure, on the corner of Albert and Gisborne streets. This is where Eastern Hill Fire Station No. 1 and the current MFB headquarters are located today.
The original Victoria Parade complex, now listed on the Victorian Heritage Register, was the first major building project undertaken by the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board. At the time of the Board’s establishment in 1891, its main station had been located at 447 Little Bourke Street. However, with a view to the future, in 1891, MFB purchased the Victoria Parade site at a cost £12,000. A competition was launched to select a design able to incorporate all the necessities of this important new facility, including turnout bays, office space, living quarters, stables and workshops.
Controversially, MFB refused to accept the winning plans (as chosen by the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects) and instead selected a design evocatively titled Toujours Pret (Always Ready) by the firm Smith and Johnson. After much bickering and re-working by new architects Tayler and Fitts, builders Thomas Cockram & Co. were engaged and the building was opened on 3 November 1893 at a further cost of £15,989. In true Melbourne style, the official opening was dampened by dreadful weather causing a scheduled ‘water throwing’ demonstration to be abandoned as ‘squally’ winds sent water cascading over the crowd that had assembled for the festivities.
With its elegant Queen Anne revival façade and its 150-foot lookout tower, Eastern Hill Fire Station became a Melbourne landmark. How striking the tower must have appeared as it hovered above the Melbourne skyline, allowing firefighters, then on 24-hour lookout, to see ‘as far away as Brighton, Coburg, Footscray and Williamstown’. Originally the tower was accessible by a tiny timber-panelled electric lift. Despite the convenience of this modern apparatus, occasionally the eight awkward ladders that also led to the top of the tower found a different use as punishment for badly behaved firefighters.
Eastern Hill would see MFB through many important developments. In 1908 the first motorised vehicles were produced on site and in 1918 the last horse and cart were sold. In 1972 No.1 Station was moved to the Albert Street site and, in 1979, the imposing new headquarters building was opened. In 1982 the mosaic Legend of Fire by Harold Freedman, State Artist of Victoria, was added to the Albert Street façade. On 7 October 1983, another landmark occurred in the ‘comms room’ at Eastern Hill with the changeover to Firecom, the new alarm and dispatch system.
Today the Eastern Hill complex remains a working facility as MFB’s bustling headquarters and head station, even as the organisation embarks on its new life as Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV). Filled with stories from the past, Eastern Hill has been part of life for countless members of the Melbourne firefighting community who have lived and worked within its walls, and it will remain a vital part of fire safety in Victoria for years to come.