Main Road Fire 1861

From Hotels of Ballarat

The great Main Road Fire of January 1861 was a significant event in the early hotel history of Ballarat.

Background[edit | edit source]

Fire was a constant source of danger in the early days, where most of the buildings were wooden, and tightly spaced together. Most of the lighting was candles or lanterns, and cooking was done over an open fire, or wood burning stoves. Kitchens were often separated from other buildings because of the danger they posed. The Main Road Fire occurred in the heart of the original mining township, and many significant and historic buildings among the sixty that were destroyed and the forty which were damaged. This included twelve hotels of Ballarat.

The fire[edit | edit source]

The morning of the 11th January, 1861, will long be remembered as a sad epoch in the annals of Ballarat. Sixty buildings, including shops and stores, two theatres, &c, either burned down or gutted, and some forty others seriously damaged, and a loss of property estimated at £50,000, with scores of families houseless and pennyless, is sufficient to cast a gloom over the whole town, east and west, such as never before has been experienced, women and children flying in the dead of night, to wherever they could find temporary shelter-are all sufficient to awaken our best feelings and enlist our sympathies in favor of the unfortunate sufferers, and share in the general feeling of despondency and commiseration that obtains in all quarters of the town, especially for those who have lost their all by the devastating element. In the midst of these trials and sufferings it is refreshing to behold the feeling of self-reliance which animates some of the sufferers who have already taken steps to erect business premises on the sites of those just burned down; and foremost among these are Mr Smith, of the Montezuma, Dr Hobson, who has already contracted for a brick structure, and Mr Symons, of the ill-fated "old Charlie," who states that like a Phoenix, another building shall arise from the ashes of the former one. These men seem to bear their losses philosophically, and in thinking of the future seem to ignore the past.

With regard to the origin of the fire it yet appears to be enveloped in mystery, although Mr Smith states that he is positive the fire broke out in the property room of the Montezuma Theatre, and that it must have been the work of an incendiary, as when he beheld the fire it was confined to that part of the premises. Others assert that it broke out in the tobacconist shop at the corner of the block of buildings, but which of the stories is correct we are not in a position to decide. At all events, the fire reached the street first through the tobacconist's, and it was the first erection that gave way before the invader. All of the houses on the side of the street opposite to that on which the fire broke out have been more or less injured, especially the Golden Age Hotel, the Old House at Home, the Star Hotel, and the Royal Mail Hotel. The fire several times caught the two latter, but the indefatigable hose-men as often extinguished the blaze. The appearance of the street on Friday morning, and indeed the whole of the shops, stores, &c., on that side of the street, was proof positive of the narrow escape which they had from destruction. The plate glass windows in the Star Hotel were completely destroyed; the windows of the Royal Mail were also broken, as indeed were the whole of the windows of the shops in their vicinity. In some instances we have heard of the rabble, who are always to be found when the work of destruction is going on, forcing their way into premises where they had no business, such as the United States Hotel, and helping themselves despite the barman, at the taps, &c. Some person stole a gold watch and chain from the chimney piece of Raphael Brothers, and the police apprehended some fellows with boots &c. in their possession. Conduct such as this deserves the reprobation of every person in the community. The Eastern Fire Brigade continued to pour a sheet of water on the burning debris up to 10 o'clock yesterday morning, while the houseless sufferers were engaged in collecting together, whatever little property might be found in the ruins of their former homes. Horses and carts were flying in all directions with the remnant that had escaped the flames, and many of the untenanted houses on the Main Road, in the vicinity of the Rock of Cashel, found ready occupants. As we remarked in our previous issue, nearly a quarter of a mile of ground in length was occupied by the houses burned down, and in all that extent of ground there was but one brick building, namely, the Shakespeare Hotel, which very recently was occupied by some Chinamen as a restaurant, and the back buildings of this were even composed of wood. Under these circumstances it is not to be wondered at that the fire spread with such velocity, and that building after building fell a prey to the devastating element in the short space of one hour and a half. In fact the flames licked up one tenement after the other as if they had been stubble, and ceased not in their destructive career until checked by the brick wall of Mr Jones' Criterion Store, on one end, and the pulling down of a building, and a copious supply of water from buckets and hose, on the other. What was once a busy mart of trade and industry is now a charred mass of rubbish, and brick chimneys, like so many monuments of the devastation that has been made, spring upwards, looking down upon the sad and sorrowful scene below. Many of the sufferers were uninsured, although they have made repeated applications to some of the insurance offices, the agents of which evince a decided repugnance to insure house property on the "Flat." Among these is Mr Simmons, who has lost everything he possessed. We hear that the policy of insurance on the Union Jack store arrived from Melbourne on the morning of the fire, and others we hear had only just completed their insurance. One or two persons received slight bruises during the fire, but happily no injury of a serious nature occurred. Several dogs were burned, and a horse that was in some back premises left by a gentleman in the care of Mr Bell, Clerk of Petty Sessions, is missing. Fowls innumerable were destroyed, independent of a variety of pet animals and some goats. A patrol of mounted and foot police were on duty on the Main road on Friday for the protection of property. The telegraph wires which had been melted down near the Montezuma Hotel were repaired early on Friday morning, and the telegraph master issued a notice stating that communication with all parts of the colony was uninterrupted. The insurance offices that are sufferers by the fire are the Melbourne, the Australasian, the Colonial, the Victoria, and the Queen, the latter to a very, trifling extent, and the first considerably.

The following are the names of the persons whose houses were destroyed:

  • Raphael Brothers, clothiers, pulled down. The insurance on this building expired on the 7th inst, and Mr Farley, the landlord, declined to renew it.
  • Charles Franz, tin shop, ironmongery, partially down, not insured, family in a very bad state of health.
  • Margaret Oxford, confectionery, not insured.
  • Lucas & Co., general store, not insured.
  • Turner & Hoey, drapery, &c, insured in the Melbourne Office for £700.
  • George Heath, stationer, post office, Sec., insured in the Victoria for £450, and in the Australasian for £250.
  • Michael Levi, pawnbroker and jeweller, uninsured.
  • Henry Farley, greengrocery.
  • John Gellatly, saddler and harness maker, not insured.
  • B. Payne, North British Hotel, insured in the Colonial Office for £350.
  • O'Farrell & Son, sales yard, not insured.
  • Anne Plummer, Greenock Hotel, stock insured in the Colonial Office for £200, and the building by D. Jones, owner, in the Melbourne Office for £700.
  • Grimlett & Hambly, boot and shoe establishment, not insured.
  • James Service & Co., old police court, unoccupied, insured for £600 in the Melbourne Office.
  • T. B. Smith, Montezuma Hotel and Theatre, (owners Sweeney Brothers) uninsured.
  • Frederick Luhning, tobacconist; not insured.
  • Mr Evans, Shakespeare Hotel; building insured in the Colonial for £500.
  • Quong Hoi Loo, Chinese general store; not insured
  • Thomas Pope, fancy bazaar; not insured. Wm. A. Blair, hatter, &c.
  • Mr Whitten, boot and shoe shop; insured in the Victoria for £150 on stock, and £500 on the building.
  • B. Grove, unoccupied.
  • John Skardon, boot and shoe shop; said not to be insured. (The above three buildings were insured in the Melbourne office for £400.)
  • Simon Cohen, pawn office and jeweller; insured for £500 in the Colonial office on building and stock.
  • Hop Cheong, Chinese store; not insured.
  • Holdsworth, fruiterer; not insured.
  • Thomas Carrick, boot and shoe store; not insured.
  • Abraham Morwitch, Great Britain Hotel; not insured.
  • Jane Clayton, fruit store; not insured.
  • John & Thomas Anwyl, drapery, &c. establishment; insured in the Colonial office for £400 on building, and £300 on stock, and in the Queen Life and Fire office for £600, and in the Melbourne office for £1000.
  • Frederick Price, Cornwall Arms; uninsured.
  • George Woodgate, dining rooms, owner Mr Banker of Melbourne; building insured for £200.
  • Bruce Speed, bakery and general store; insured in the Colonial for £300.
  • Mr Ward, fruiterer's shop; not insured.
  • A. B. Simmons, general store, uninsured.
  • R. Jones Hobson, chemist's shop, &c. ; insured for £300 in the Colonial office, and £400 in the Australasian.
  • Palmer Brothers, Sebastopol Brewery; insured in the Melbourne office for £500 on building.
  • Alexander Hill, Eastern Dining Rooms; not insured.
  • Goodman (Meanowski) tobacconist; insured for £250 in the Melbourne office.
  • Martin Bade, tobacconist, &c; not insured.
  • Robertson & Graham, billiard rooms; not insured.
  • Edward Cantor, butcher; not insured.
  • Sydney Abraham, building insured for £200 in the Colonial office.
  • Daniel Symons, Charlie Napier Hotel, theatre, and cafe; insured in the Colonial for £300, and the building by Messrs Lazarus & Levinger in the Melbourne Insurance office for £500.
  • David Jones, Criterion Store; insured in the Victorian office for £1000, Colonial £2000, Australasian £2000, and Melbourne office £1000. Premises partly destroyed and partly gutted. There was a large amount of salvage.
  • George Hathorn, United States Hotel; partial damage, destruction of liquors, &c.
  • Bernstein & Co., Little Wonder Store; verandah and front partly pulled down: insured in the Colonial office, stock £300, building £150.
  • Mr Hayden, fruiterer; verandah pulled down.
  • Lister & Angel, fruit shop, and two others adjoining, partly pulled down.
  • Henry Lyte, Thos. Cox, Miss Brown, milliner;
  • Samuel Isaacs, upholsterer;
  • Messrs Lazarus, auctioneers ;
  • Mr M'Ivor, of the John o'Groat Hotel also suffered damage by some of their windows being pulled down, &c.

We are assured by Mr A. P. Bowes, that were it not for the exertions of Messrs Rees, Boyd, and Allen, his premises, known as the Horse Bazaar, and nearly opposite O'Farrell's Saleyards, would have been completely destroyed. Exertions such as were made by the persons alluded to were the rule, and not the exception, during the fire, as the firemen generally appeared to have a total disregard for their own safety. They mounted burning roofs with alacrity, passed buckets of water from one to the other, and did everything they could to stay the progress of the fire. Nor were the members of one Brigade alone conspicuous for their deeds of daring, as the members of both seemed to vie with each other as to who would be the most useful. There was an absence of arrangement, however, among the members, which was apparent to every one present; but no doubt this laxity of discipline will be remedied in future. There was an unusually excellent supply of water-thanks to the Municipal Councils for the catch water drains which they got cut round the Swamp. The Gas Company are severe losers by the unfortunate occurrence, as nearly all of the houses destroyed were supplied with meters, which were rendered all but useless by the action of the fire.

A meeting of the local insurance agents was held in the office of Messrs R. & S. Gibbs, at half-past twelve o'clock on Friday and steps taken to secure and take charge of the salvage property which will be considerable, especially at the Criterion Store. They also inspected the various partially burned premises, and the outhouses where goods were piled, and an inventory of all that was saved was to have been taken during the day.[1]

The aftermath[edit | edit source]

MAIN ROAD IMPROVEMENTS. The Main Road of Ballarat East has a prodigious recuperative power of its own. We have no very precise evidence touching the appearance of the mythological salamanders or phoenixes, after a good roasting in the flames, and cannot say therefore whether or not they looked any the fresher, and handsomer, and livelier, for the burning process they underwent. In the absence of any proof to the contrary, we incline to the opinion that they would look decidedly the worse for the fire, and in this respect we suspect the modern phoenix; yeleped the Main road, beats the antique ones hollow. Anyone who knew what the Main road was two or three years ago, before the largest of our conflagrations took place; and looks at it now, will quite understand our meaning. It has been "purified by fire" over and over again, and once it was apparently in danger of being, purified out of existence, some 50 or 60 houses being swept off at once. But it has sprung up in such renovated smartness as takes the shine out of all the phoenixes all the poets ever sung about, and has led to the conclusion with many that of all the strokes of good for tune that ever could happen, to the Main Road, none is equal to a fire. The long line of dark and desolate ruins that marked the site of the great fire of January last has been almost entirely changed into a series of handsome and substantial shops, offices, and dwellings. The site of the old "Charlie" is, it is true, occupied in part only by a mean wooden shanty; but next to it there rises the handsome two storied place be longing to Messrs Godfrey and Abrahams, the jewellers, and designed by Mr Korn. There is not a better looking building any where along the road. The next place of substantial material was that just burnt down in the occupation of Mr Bade the tobacconist. Then we come to a good looking two storied building belonging to Dr Hobson, consisting of shop, consulting room, and dwelling. The material is brick, tuck pointed, and is plain and substantial in appearance. A one storey brick shop, belonging to Mr Skardon, boot maker, leads us onto Burridge's Cornwall Arms Hotel, a two-storied brick building, neat and smart in appearance. Anwyl Brothers' drapery establishment is the next in the line, and is a strongly built one storied brick building. Already our readers will perceive that the denizens of the Main road appear to be as independent of uniformity in street architecture as they are invincible by fire. Two-storied and one storied buildings alternate, with delightful irregularity, and each one is built with an apparent aim at as great a dissimilarity to its neighbor as possible. But to digress to further, we pass on to the wide frontage occupied by the two-storied brick building known as the Great Britain Hotel, occupied by Mr Morwitch. All the buildings we have noticed have an air of strength about them but all, except the one belonging to Messrs Godfrey & Abrahams, are deficient in height and ornament. We next come to a block of three two-storied buildings for shops, now in course of erection by the representative of Mr Groves, one of the victims in the wreck of the Royal Charter. If this block is carried up a sufficient height, and is fairly finished, it will be one of the very best-looking places in the street. A one-storied, then two-storied brick building, come next, built on the site of the shop formerly occupied by Messrs Cotterell & Asher. The two-storied ironmongery store belonging to Mr Cohen comes next, at the corner of Main street and Eureka Street south and is a very sightly ornament to the corner. Passing the cross street and the ugly wooden buildings that cover the site of the old "Monte," where the great fire originated, we come to Mrs Plummer's Greenock Hotel, a two storied brick building, plain and substantial in appearance. Mr Heath's one-storied brick shop comes next, and next to that a two storied building in course of erection by Mr Samuels or Levinger, and which promises to rival that of Messrs Godfrey & Abraham in architectural appearance. The architect in this case also is Mr Korn we believe, who indeed seems to have had nearly all the designing work in connection with the improvements we are now noting. The one storey shop belonging to Messrs Roberts Co., drapers, and one or two other one-storied places of smaller dimensions, complete the list, including that known as Harris' Dining Rooms, on the site near the John o'Groat once occupied by Messrs Evans Brothers booksellers and stationers. Mr Lazarus has also a small one-storied place farther west; and farther west still, next Dyte's auction rooms, are two other one-storey shops, occupied as an ironmongery and general goods store. At the corner of Victoria Main, and Bridge streets, Messrs Smith & Co. are about to erect a handsome and substantial block in lieu of the wooden premises so long known as drapery and outfitting establishment there. The design, which is by Mr Korn, will be somewhat ornamental, and will involve an outlay of some £2000. The many handsome one and two storied buildings in Bridge Street, on sites where fires have raged, and where they have not raged, we have noticed on previous occasions; but we may again mention, without being disagreeably invidious, the ornamental places of business belonging to Messrs Baird & Co., decorators ; Messrs Wittkowski Brothers tobacconists; Messrs Draper and Tabel upholsterers and furniture dealers; Mr Dunk, British Queen Hotel; Messrs R. B. Gibbs, Great Western Hotel; Mr Levinson, jeweller, and Mr Steinfeld, furniture dealer. The rather long list of substantial erections we have thus noticed as sprung up, or springing up, along this old thoroughfare, proves, we think, the proposition with which we started, that Ballarat East has already beaten the fabulous phoenix; and perhaps we should not be hazarding too much if we were to say "the men of the East" are ready to beat it again. We only hope, however, that they may never have the opportunity, a hope in which, doubtless, our readers will heartily join.[2]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1861 'THE CONFLAGRATION ON THE MAIN ROAD.', The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), 12 January, p. 2. , viewed 29 Dec 2016,
  2. Ballarat Star, 20 August 1861.

See also[edit | edit source]