Main Road Fire 1857

The Main Road Fire of 1857 burned a large number of shops and houses on 4 December 1857.

Background Edit

This fire was one of many that burned through the Main Road business area of early Ballarat. With buildings of wood and canvas, and built in close together, it was difficult to prevent fires spreading, and the fire engines were only primitive pumps, and relying on available surface water.

Event Edit

A report form the Mount Alexander Mail, one week after the fire:

ALARMING FIRE AT BALLARAT. On Saturday night, at ten minutes after eleven o'clock, a fire broke out in the Main Road. That the whole town was not burned down is due to the circumstance that the night was nearly calm, and that the fire, commenced at a time of night when every one is on the alert, and the Main Road, near to the locality of the fire, crowded with people. As it was, the fire spread with fearful rapidity. The buildings, consisting, in most, part, of boards and cloth, were lapped up by the flames like-heaps of shavings, and the lookers-on felt how dreadful was the danger, and how certain would be the destruction of the town, should a breeze of wind spring up.

The Montezuma Theatre had just closed, and the road was thronged with people, when the cry of fire arose. All turned directly in the direction from whence the cries proceeded, and the lurid glare cast upon the sky to the eastward showed that the fire had already become strong and fierce. Arrived at the spot, it was discovered that a crowd of some thousands had assembled in a few minutes, and the intensity of the heat kept all at a considerable distance. The mass comprised men, women, and children, many from the theatres and hotels, others from their own homes, some from the drives where the alarming news had speedily reached, and some again, half dressed and dishevelled, from the houses which had already fallen a prey to the flames. The many strangers in town, too, attending the races swelled the gathering, and they were not the least interested spectators. Altogether the scene was one which it will not be easy to forget.

The proprietor of the Red Hill Hotel was the first person to observe the fire. He observed an unusually bright light issuing from the premises,of Mr. Cohen, of the Variety Store, almost directly opposite, and had only time to direct attention to it when he saw Mr. Cohen himself rush out, partially undressed, and raise a cry of "fire." The flames soon burst out in uncontrollable fury, and before many minutes had elapsed the whole, building was enveloped. There was a light air at the time, and the adjoining stores were almost immediately overtaken by the fire. A crowd of neighbors, &c., soon assembled, but from want of proper direction nothing was done to stay the progress of the flames. In a very short time, however, several members of the fire brigade were on the spot; and Mr. Boyd, the lieutenant whose premises were not far from the scene of conflagration, called upon the inhabitants of the adjoining houses to clear out; and save what property they could, as the only means to stop the progress of the fire was by clearing a space over which it could not leap. Other members of the brigade soon followed with hooks, ropes, ladders, &c., commenced to tear down some buildings, and in a short space of time a break was produced. The engine also was soon on the ground, but before water could' be obtained the buildings on fire were successfully isolated. The stores burned down were, Cohen's Variety Store, Ellis & Smith's photographic rooms, and two stores beyond on the eastern side. On the western side, owing to the light air, the, destruction was more extensive. Brooks iron store (a tin manufactory), the chemist's shop (Red Hill Dispensary), adjoining; Atkin's crockery shop, Robertson's blacksmith's forge, together with other private residences, were either burned or pulled down.

As soon as the buildings on fire were isolated the fire brigade, under whose direction all the proceedings were taken, got their engine into play. The engine was taken to the creek at the back of the Rising Sun Hotel, where there was a good supply of water, though at first the engine spurted forth a mixture of mud and water, the feeding-pipe being placed too low. Soon, how ever, the water flowed freely, and the stream was directed upon the now dying embers of the fire, which had nearly exhausted its force. The utmost good order and subordination was displayed on all sides. Little of that disputing which often mars the efforts of the parties engaged in extinguishing fires was displayed on the occasion — the brigade and' the police; taking the entire management, while the. volunteer assistants were content to obey orders. The police under Mr. Superintendent Foster and Mr. Inspector Taylor, kept the most admirable order.

Of course, no correct estimate of the loss sustained can be arrived at. Mr. R. B. Gibbs, agent to the Colonial Insurance Company, who was present just after the flames had broken out, mentioned, ,that Mr. Cohen was insured in that office for £750. Most of the buildings were good of their kind, and many of them new, and the loss sustained by the proprietors must be serious.

A report was prevalent that several children were destroyed in the flames, but as far as we could learn there was no foundation for the rumor. The members of the brigade deserve much praise for their exertions. Not much was effected by the engine, but that was not the fault of the brigade so far as we could see, and with their hooks and poles they did, good service in pulling down the houses.

All the stores to the west, of Mr. Cohen's were destroyed as far as that known as the Universal Store, which escaped the flames, but. was gutted, and we fear the loss incurred by the proprietor must be considerable. The other stores west of the Universal Store were also emptied of their contents as far as the Rising Sun Hotel, which was the first in the row that entirely escaped. In the other direction the houses were destroyed as far as Mr. Smith's photographic rooms, which was pulled down. Here occurred perhaps the most exciting incident of the fire. Mr. Smith's premises, which were of a very light and inflammable description, were being pulled down, and the policemen and others were working with desperate energy, when the fire seized upon the roof. There seemed to be then scarcely any hope that the spread of the fire could, be prevented; but the men worked on with unabated energy, and succeeded in demolishing the house just as the fiery element had taken full possession of it. A cry of relief arose from the lookers on. The owners of property, on, the opposite side of the road were naturally in a state of great alarm and from the prompt measures we saw many of them use to preserve their houses, we think they must have had such an emergency in their thoughts beforehand. The heat was sufficiently intense to scorch the face at a considerable distance, yet the inhabitants, of premises opposite the fire, when it raged its, fiercest, leaned from their windows and perseveringly damped the wooden walls to keep them from taking fire. They also hung out blankets saturated with water from the eaves of the houses— a precautionary measure which, being adopted by one, others were quick to adopt also.

It is a very remarkable coincidence that exactly two years ago the great fire at the United States Hotel occurred, by which Mr. Nicholls and others lost their lives. That fire was also on a Friday night ; it was also on the night of the last day of the Spring- Race Meeting, and within a day or two of the present date. — Ballarat Times.

A meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, was held at the Red Hill Hotel on Saturday evening, for the purpose of forming a self-constituted court to inquire into the cause of the fire of the preceding evening. After examining a number of witmesses, Mr. Rodier moved, and Mr. Levinson seconded, the following resolution : — "That it is the opinion of the members of the Chamber of Commerce, assembled at the Red Hill Hotel, after a careful investigation, of all, the facts obtained as to the origin of the late. fire that (1) the lire originated at the south side of Mr. Cohen's shop, within Mr. Cohen's premise's ; (2) that the stock and premises exceeded the amount of his insurance; (3) that it cannot be discovered that any blame is attributable to Mr. Cohen ; and (4) that no evidence has been adduced as to the cause of the fire. Carried unanimously.

The Ballarat Star, in giving additional, particulars concerning the disaster, says— With respect to the circumstances attending the fire, there are Several things worth mentioning. We are sorry to have to say that there did not appear to be that organisation for protection of the goods exposed which their ought to have been nor are we sure that proper care was taken to obtain something like method in the work and authorisation of the act of demolition. We know how difficult it is to restrain an excited crowd within proper limits, even when engaged, as in this instance, in a good work ; but it is reported to us by Messrs. Gainsborough, Selph, Challenger, and Abramovitch, that their premises and property were not only assaulted and battered, in spite of. their protest, but that the most violent and reckless, and even wanton, destruction of goods was committed by the crowd. Mr. Gainsborough, or his representative, was knocked down, the pillars of his place hewn nearly in two; the whole store nearly shaken from its position, and the contents hauled out into the street— looking-glasses, jewellery, other stores, windows, glass door, were mingled together in the smash; and what with missing property, and injury done to property not missing, we hear the loss is estimated at £200 or £300. The same remarks apply, save as to amount, to the other three persons whose names we have mentioned. This must be prevented in future. The scene of the disaster has been busy ever since from the crowds of flocking, visitors who were eager to witness the wreck done by fire and steel. Within twelve hours of the breaking out of the fire the proprietors of the Fish Mart commenced the re-erection of their premises, and by Saturday evening a shingle building was up and occupied, while the charred debris still lay almost untouched around. The building occupies the corner of the projected cross-road and no more erections will be permitted between it and the Universal Store.[1]

See also Edit

References Edit

  1. 1857 'ALARMING FIRE AT BALLARAT.', Mount Alexander Mail (Vic. : 1854 - 1917), 11 December, p. 3. , viewed 02 Apr 2017,