With a large preponderance of wooden houses, often built close together, and a lack of reticulated water, fire was a constant risk in Brisbane’s suburbs. A typical example was a fire that occurred in October 1887.
Anne and Samuel Hunt, both almost 40 years old, arrived in Brisbane in early 1886 on board the “Duke of Buckingham”. With them were their 6 children, aged between 11 and 18. Things got off to a bad start when Sam got into a fight with the warden of the immigration depot the day the family arrived. It seems it was customary for men to be separated from their families for the night. A scuffle ensued when Sam refused to move to the unmarried men’s quarters and he was fined £1 by the court.
Sam found work in his trade of painter and polisher and the couple borrowed from a building society to purchase a small 4 roomed cottage on Baynes Street, off Hampstead Road. Scarcely 4 months after they arrived, Anne died, leaving Sam and his older children to look after the family. His eldest daughter Anne married in 1887, leaving six of the family living on the tiny house.
On a Sunday evening in early October, the family went to bed early, but Sam had trouble sleeping as he had been unwell. He was also kept awake by the rats that had infested the house, along with numerous others in the street. He had kept a kerosene lamp alight in the bedroom to discourage them. At around midnight Sam spotted a rat running along the wall studding and in attempting to hit it, knocked over the lamp.
The ensuing fire quickly spread through the house. The family struggled to carry out their most precious possession, a large harmonium or pump organ, and were left with only the clothes they were wearing and a few other small items. Sam managed to grab a few mementos of his wife.
Neighbours tried to assist by throwing buckets and pans of water on the house and when the Fire Brigade arrived, they tried using a hand pump, all to no avail. The house was razed to the ground. There was limited reticulation of water in Highgate Hill at that stage and the pressure was very low. In any event, it had yet to reach Baynes Street.
The neighbours would have been highly concerned, as the houses in the street were mostly only around a metre apart. It was only the still conditions of the night that prevent a spread of the fire that would have destroyed most of the houses on that side of the street.
Town water supply was gradually extended around Highgate Hill from 1888 when the reservoir on Gladstone Road near Hazelwood Street was established. This is a subject of another post on this blog, Highgate Hill Reservoir 1889.
Despite this, house fires frequently got out of control. A spectacular example occurred in 1893, when the large residence of saw miller Abraham Luya, later mayor of South Brisbane, was burnt to the ground. Once again accidental igniting of kerosene caused the fire. The house featured a tower which acted as a flue, speeding the spread of the fire. The neighbouring house on Gladstone Road, belonging to photographer Poul Poulsen, narrowly escaped catching fire with the paint on its outside walls scorched.
The fire brigade was summoned by sending a message to nearby Webster’s Bakery which had a telephone. Telephones were yet to become common, as described in my post From Telegraph To Telephone.
In the 1880s, home lighting was by means of candles and kerosene oil lamps. Gas reticulation slowly spread across Highgate Hill following the establishment of the South Brisbane Gas Works in 1886. This greatly reduced the risk of fire. A further step was avoidance of very small building blocks and subsequent close proximity of houses, after the passing of the Undue Subdivision of Land Prevention Act in 1885.
The construction of the electricity distribution network took place over the period roughly from 1919 until the late 1920s and homes slowly converted from gas light to electric. However at least one home in Highgate Hill still lacked gas and electricity as late as 1953.
Baynes Street, where the fire occurred, was named after the Baynes family who were prominent Brisbane butchers. One of the family lived nearby, as described in another post in this blog, A Strawberry Afternoon Tea Highgate Hill 1905 .