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Fire December 1912 – Commercial Road

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Fire December 1912 – Commercial Road

Disastrous Fire in Morwell

The most disastrous fire that has occurred in Morwell for over twenty years broke out shortly after 1 o’clock on Tuesday morning last, in the terrace of fine two-storied brick buildings in the main street, and for a considerable time there was every reason to believe that practically the whole town would be reduced to ashes; but fortunately, by the splendid efforts of a hastily formed but splendidly organised “bucket brigade”, and a parapet wall, the damage was confined to three buildings and their contents.

As is the case of the last fire, the prolonged whistling of a midnight goods train that happened to arrive in the station yard at the time the fire started, disturbed people from their peaceful slumbers. In a moment everyone realised that there was another fire, and a very hasty toilet was made. Soon there was a hue and cry of fire; the Presbyterian Church bell started ringing (by Mr. Clayton), and there was a general stampede in the direction of the main street, where smoke and flames were seen issuing in increasing volume.

The first person, however, to get disturbed by the fire was Mrs. Hall ( Mrs. J. W. Bryden’s mother), who with her husband had been spending a few days with Mr. and Mrs. Bryden, who at the time were sound asleep enveloped in smoke, in an upstairs room. Mr. Hall and a young man, a recent arrival from Scotland, were also asleep in an adjoining room. They all realised there was not a moment to lose, and grabbing a wrap or two they hurried down stairs in night attire. There is no doubt that but for the timely warning given by Mrs. Hall more than one person would in all probability have been suffocated by smoke. Mr. Bryden noticed that Mr. F. Rogers’ saddlery shop which was the end building on west side of terrace, next to Mr. J. Rintoull’s premises, and Mr. Lowe’s workshop on one side and adjoining Bryden’s shop, was full of fire.

He quickly informed Mr. Steve Cooper, who at the time was working in bakehouse close by. Steve ran to the front with a bucket of water. The door of Roger’s shop being locked, Steve smashed the window, but immediately he did so he was nearly “licked up” by a tongue of flame that shot out through the opening, and enveloped him, and he was forced to retreat singed and burned.

Miss Rintoull was about the next to notice the outbreak, and in a surprisingly short time the whole town was astir. As the crowd gathered in the street the hopelessness of the situation was fully realised. People looked at one another and said “What can be done?” to which the general reply was “Nothing, but remove the things”. So people set to work to remove goods and chattels from every shop up to Haiz’s, where there was a substantial break between that place and the Bank of Australia.

At the latter place the windows were protected with sheets of iron and spraying pumps attached to tanks, so as to save the bank and prevent the fire spreading to Barry’s Hotel and adjoining places to J. Hall’s establishment, which had a strong wind sprung up looked not only possible but very probable.

It was impossible to save anything out of Roger’s shop, the Masonic Lodge rooms above or Mr. Trood’s apartments at the rear. Neither could anything be rescued from Bryden’s shop, upon which, unfortunately, there was not a penny insurance. A good deal was however, got out of Cooper’s and all the adjoining shops, the street and railway reserve being strewn with a miscellaneous collection of all sorts of things.

When everything in the way of removal of goods had been accomplished the fire was still burning fiercely and increasing in volume. Old residents remembered the scene a little over 20 years ago, when the whole block was previously destroyed by fire, and they were loath to see a repetition of things. Everybody realised the great need for a water supply and a fire brigade, but as unfortunately there is neither in the town, it was suggested that the Traralgon Fire Brigade be wired for, and that course was adopted. it was recognised that it would be at least an hour before they could be expected to arrive with an engine, and it was doubtful whether upon arrival they could get the fire under control with the water that was available. Everyone felt they could not stand still and see such a fine lot of buildings destroyed without an effort being made. It only needed someone to suggest something practical and there was an army of willing workers ready to carry out commands.

… by a tongue of flame that shot out through the opening, and enveloped him

Mr. Wm. Tulloch pointed out that between Cooper’s and Brown’s shops there was a thick parapet wall, also a passage way. it was the only parapet wall in the terrace. Mr. Tulloch believed that with a fair supply of water the fire could be checked when it reached the said wall. If it could not be stopped there, it would go to the end of the terrace. Mr. D. Dunbar, Mr. Hoyle and others were of the same opinion, and it was resolved to make the effort. Ladders were procured, and a “bucket brigade” hastily formed. Percy Norman and Col Davey were first to scale the wall to make investigations, and amid showers of sparks and intense heat they announced that if supplied with buckets of water they could beat the fire. Then the work of the brigade began, and how the lads worked! They put the renowned Trojans completely in the shade. Percy Norman is a “fireman” (on railway engines), but he proved a fireman in every sense of the word in fighting the flames, and he was well backed up by Col Davey on top of the wall. It is surprising how in the face of heat and fire they “stuck to their guns” and threw bucket after bucket of water upon the leaping devouring and merciless flames. On the top ladder were Percy Hopkins and Percy Kelly, whilst Bill Miller, Rowell Bros., P.James, J. Bryden, G. Phillips, H. Cooper, and a host of others formed a chain and supplied buckets of water from an underground tank at rear of Brown’s chemist shop. From the front Messrs. R. Noy and Steve Cooper kept a continuous stream of water going from two spraying pumps, which proved very effective, especially when the front window of Cooper’s shop gave way, and great tongues of flames shot out and threatened to set things going on opposite side of parapet wall. Jack Lowe, Stan McKay, Jack and Bill Rintoull and others battled hard on the west side, and so the fight proceeded; many working hard, some giving advice, and not a few watching the proceedings with anxiety.

After about half an hour’s strenuous fighting, it was recognised that the fire was beaten, and word was sent to Traralgon telling the Fire Brigade, which was about to start, not to come. The front portion of buildings having been got well under control, energies were directed to the rear, where the fire was making some headway. It, however, did not take long to check its progress there, and just as daylight appeared the battle ceased, and the army of onlookers soon after retreated to their respective homes, realising that although considerable damage had been done, things might have been worse.

The origin of the fire is unknown. Mr Rogers was working in his shop until about 9.30 on Monday night, and left everything apparently quite safe.

Mr. Rogers’ stock was insured in the Law, Union and Rock Insurance Company for £225, and the building in the Royal Company for £400. Mrs. Cooper’s stock was also insured in Royal Company for £220, and Masonic furnishings etc, for £85. We understand the other buildings owned by Mrs. Samuels and trustees of late Mr. Geo. Firmin are insured in the Norwich Company, but for what amount we have not been able to ascertain. Mr. Bryden, unfortunately, had no insurance on his stock or furniture, and although he saved some furniture, he is a heavy loser. Mr. Duncanson lost a gold watch that had been presented to him by friends prior to leaving Scotland. Mr. Hall also lost a gold watch in the fire. Mr. J. Rintoull, blacksmith, also suffered loss in consequence of brickwall falling on top of his machinery shed, which was completely wrecked. Sets of harrows and other implements were also damaged.

Mr. J. Lowe was another to suffer loss owing to wall falling on his workshop, which it demolished, damaging tools etc. A splendid photo of the ruins was taken by Mr. Green shortly after daylight, and before the crowd had dispersed. It is to be hoped no time will be lost in pushing on with the water supply scheme, and that efforts will be made to form a fire brigade.