STATION 47: FOOTSCRAY

Footscray Fire Station, 1910. H15341/1 State Library Victoria.

Footscray Fire Station, 1910. H15341/1 State Library Victoria.

 

The area known today as Footscray was first surveyed by colonial settlers in 1848. By 1859, Footscray was declared a municipality and by the 1870s schools, churches and the town hall were being built. The rich basalt plains led to the establishment of quarries across the western suburbs, including in Footscray. With its close proximity to the Maribyrnong River, Footscray was also home to many of the noxious trades, including tallow works, glue factories, tanneries and slaughterhouses.[1]

These noxious trades were hazardous and when fires did occur, the residents of Footscray had to rely on firefighters from Melbourne, Hotham (North Melbourne) or Yarraville to assist. When fire broke out at Hallenstein’s tannery on Saturday 16 December 1871, the fire brigade from Melbourne did not arrive until an hour and twenty minutes after the blaze was spotted. It took many more hours before firefighters could get it under control and by Sunday evening the wreckage was still smouldering. Newspapers estimated close to £3,000 worth of damage.[2] The residents and business owners of Footscray needed their own brigade. Local residents agitated for the establishment of a local fire brigade, and by February 1875 the Footscray Volunteer Fire Brigade was born.[3]

The council was asked to assist in equipping the brigade and after several months of delaying, it finally agreed to supply the brigade with a hydrant and hose. The volunteers would be responsible for paying for their own uniforms.[4] There is no clear record of where the volunteer brigade was located but there are photographs of the brigade practicing at the Royal Hotel on Barkly Street. There is also a reference to a hose reel rented by the brigade on the corner of Charles and Victoria streets. This remained in use until 1915.[5]

Without official local fire brigades, some areas had several volunteer brigades emerge. Usually these brigades would have to raise their own finances, which encouraged competitive behaviour. After the establishment of the Footscray Temperance Brigade in 1886, the residents of Footscray witnessed the very worst in competitive behaviour when both the Footscray and the Footscray Temperance brigades attended the same fire.

On the evening of Tuesday 28 December 1886, a fire broke out at Mr Pritchard’s tailoring business. Both the Footscray volunteers and the Footscray Temperance brigade responded to the scene. The paper reported the next day under the headline ‘Disgraceful Fight Between Two Brigades’:

A struggle for precedence at the plugs took place, and a series of fights between the two sets of firemen, which were varied with a vigorous squirting of water at each other. The scandalous conduct at last culminated in a serious assault on Captain White of the Footscray Brigade.[6]

The fight between the two brigades made headlines for the next few days and Captain James Randolph White was permanently incapacitated by the blow to the head he received trying to break up the fight.

Captain White was not the last firefighter who was injured on the job due to chaos and ineptitude on the part of the volunteer brigades. Since the formation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Association in 1883, there had been discussions around the most efficient way to fight fires in Melbourne. Arguments for a unified system with central direction and paid firefighters continued for several years, before finally in 1891 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) was formed.

Footscray volunteer brigade at the time of their disbandment 30 April 1891. H7642, State Library Victoria.

Footscray volunteer brigade at the time of their disbandment 30 April 1891. H7642, State Library Victoria.

There have been two official fire stations built in Footscray. The first recorded one was constructed in 1894 at 7 Droop Street, very close to the Royal Hotel where the volunteer brigade liked to practice. The red brick, single-bay station and land cost a total of £920.

The earliest record of permanent MFB staff at Footscray Fire Station also starts from 1894, however, there may have been staff employed earlier. Or, as in the case of other early suburban brigades, the volunteers might have continued in operation until the arrangements for paid staff were in place.

By 1897 Footscray Fire Station was numbered 37 but two years later in 1899, it was given the number 41. It was renumbered again in 1908 to station 47 – a number it retains to this day.[7] The brick station building was extended sometime in the early 1900s to include a second vehicle bay with living quarters above.[8]

In 1941 Footscray Fire Station moved from its location at 7 Droop Street to 69-71 Droop Street. The new station was designed by Stuart Calder, who also designed a number of other fire stations for MFB including Box Hill and Croydon fire stations.[9] Footscray Fire Station today is home to two Mk5 Pumpers and a Ladder Platform.

[1] John Lack, ‘Footscray’, eMelbourne: www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00594b.htm; Rod Faulkner and Garry Vines, ‘Factory on the River: Innovations in Industry’: www.livingmuseum.org.au/publications/DLdownload_pdf/broadsheet1.pdf.
[2] The Leader, 16 December 1871, p. 13.
[3] The Williamstown Chronicle, 6 March 1875, p. 2; The Age, 18 February 1875, p. 1.
[4] The Argus, 28 August 1875, p. 10.
[5] Sally Wilde, Life Under the Bells: A History of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Melbourne 1891-1991, p. 103.
[6] The Argus, 29 December 1886, p. 5.
[7] Munro, p. 25.
[8] Munro, p. 24.
[9] Footscray Conservation Study, p. 4.44, http://images.heritage.vic.gov.au/attachment/8022