A history of fire in Southbank 

A history of fire in Southbank 
Robin Grow

“Fire! Fire!” was a cry that was feared during the 19th century in South Melbourne, much of which is now known as Southbank. 

This area contained many wooden warehouses, with contents full of combustibles such as straw, lumber, kapok, jute, cork and the highly flammable materials called “mungo and shoddy”, produced from the recycling of wool waste. 

Factories and workshops figured prominently in reports of the fire brigades, as did fires in wooden houses – often built in groups, heated by open fires and lit by candles.  

As Melbourne grew rapidly in the 1880, the organisation of fire services was quickly seen as inadequate and in 1891 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was created – a professional organisation, managed by a board and with latest communications, modern equipment and fire trucks, located in Eastern Hill from 1922. 

But what about the years before 1891?

Melbourne’s major fire-fighting force was provided by the insurance companies, usually known as the Insurance Brigade. Reports of fires invariably stated value of damaged goods and the name of insurance company. A report on a fire at Sowerby’s ropeworks in Normanby Rd in 1903 stated that the contents of the building were insured with the Federal Mutual Insurance Co. of Australia Ltd. for £500. 


They were supported by brigades operated by local volunteer groups (supplemented by funds from the council, local businesses and property owners). They could be ineffective and very quarrelsome, and often lacked equipment (such as hoses, uniforms, reels and horses) required to fight fires. It was intended that the volunteer brigades and insurance brigades work collaboratively and co-operate under a simple set of agreed rules, which they generally did. But not always. 


When a fire broke out the voluntary brigades rushed to it. The one that got there first commandeered the water hydrant and water. Some merely removed the hose from the hydrant and substituted its own. Or cut the hose of the opposing brigade! 

Southbank was served by a volunteer group from the late 1870s and by the end of the 1880s there were three brigades operating in South Melbourne, generally working well together. The firemen, often a rough and ready group, were often praised for their efforts, generally at much inconvenience and sacrifice, and without remuneration.  

Slow and cumbersome machines (called steamers) were used to generate water streams. But it took them 15 minutes to get up steam and by the time the engine was ready, it was often impossible to save the building. Accidents sometimes occurred when brigades were racing to fire sites, such as 1891 when the wheels of a cart became fixed in tram lines at the corner of Clarendon St and City Rd and it was overturned, causing the occupants to be thrown on to the street. 

The replacement of horse-drawn services with motorised equipment made a huge difference and by the early 1930s horse carts, hand reels, manual engines and steam engines had given way to the most modern appliances and expertly trained men. •

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