Just after 2 o’clock in the morning on 2 October 1890 the alarm was raised after a “lurid glare” was seen in the upper windows of the large warehouse of Gibbs, Shallard & Co on Hosking Place, just off Pitt Street. It was a calamitous fire that changed Sydney’s urban environment forever.Listen to the whole conversation with Lisa and Sam on 2SER here
Gibbs, Shallard & Co was a successful printing business. The printers and lithographers had moved to these expansive new premises in 1886, and the warehouse was full of machinery, paper, flammable inks and solvents.
The arrival of the No.1 Fire Brigade within 15 minutes could do little to dampen the flames. Windows exploded, the flames quickly spread and it was clear by 2.30am that Gibbs, Shallard & Co’s warehouse was doomed.
As more fire brigades arrived, they turned their attention to trying to save the surrounding buildings.
Many of the smaller buildings had shingle roofs, allowing embers and flames to rapidly take hold. It spread to the Athenaeum Club and the Southern Club, the warehouses and stores of drapers, fancy goods and soft goods merchants, dry goods stores and a furniture & joinery establishment. The City Bank building on the corner of Moore & Pitt Street, considered one of the finest banks in the city, was destroyed.
By half-past three in the morning, there was a crowd of onlookers numbering 10,000, trying to get the best views from Pitt Street and Castlereagh Street. Police, the mayor of Sydney, and mounted troopers struggled to keep them back far enough to allow the firemen to do their duty.
There were stables behind the Tattersalls Chambers to the north near Hunter Street, which housed horses for the telegraph boys and the mounted infantry. During the height of the fire the horses were released for their safety, causing a stampede down the streets.
Many of the buildings gutted by the fire became unstable. Ten fire fighters were injured from debris and falling walls. Several private citizens were injured trying to recover possessions from their offices. Fortunately, there was no loss of life and there were no reports of looting.
By 9 o’clock that morning the flames had dwindled to the appearance of a small furnace, burning fiercely but low. Business around the city was at a standstill. Everyone came out onto the streets to view the scene of destruction.
Newspapers described it variously as ‘a calamitous fire’, ‘The Great Fire in the Heart of Sydney’, ‘a conflagration unprecedented in Australia’, rivalling the Garden Palace fire just 8 years before.
The whole block bounded by Moore Street, Pitt Street and Castlereagh Street, up to Hosking Place and beyond was utterly destroyed. The area, covering about a hectare, was considered one of the finest mercantile blocks in the city.
The stock losses were tremendous, into the thousands and thousands of pounds. Many of the warehouses had just got in their summer season stock, increasing the burden placed on their businesses. It was estimated that losses would total over a million pounds sterling, and that the toll on insurance companies would be heavy.
But things could have been much worse. Sydneysiders were lucky that there was only a mild southerly breeze, otherwise the flames could have spread even more rapidly.
Although water pressure was at times low, the coordination of the 25 fire brigades present fighting the flames demonstrated the value of the recent establishment of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.
Within days there was talk of redeveloping narrow Moore Street. Here was the perfect opportunity to create a wide thoroughfare leading from the grand new post office all the way along Moore Street, across Castlereagh, Elizabeth and Phillip Streets all the way to Macquarie Street.
Out of the flames, a phoenix rose: a vision to create what would ultimately become Martin Place.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio