This is one of my favourite articles about Hamilton’s history. The Argus of 23 September 1870 reported that on the Sunday morning past, September 18, at 3am “the residents of Hamilton were aroused from their beds by the cry of “Fire!” and a large crowd soon collected in Gray Street…” What follows is a story of a desperate battle to save not only the shops surrounding the grocery story of Nickless and Wells but beyond.
The article gives an interesting insight into how a fire of such intensity was managed in the 19th century. Many buildings were wooden and there was little or no water pressure. An early decision to pull down the butcher shop of Messrs. Brown Brothers to create a gap between the fire and the rest of the buildings in the block was to no avail as the fire was quickly spreading from the other side of Nickless and Wells. Firefighting attempts were also hindered by the large crowd that had gathered.
Hamilton’s main street, Gray Street, is no stranger to fire. Actually, there seems to have been an unusually large number of fires, causing significant damage often to several buildings in the town’s CBD. I did a quick browse of Trove and found fires such at these in the following years alone: 1874, 1885, 1888, 1900, 1912, 1914, 1920, 1930, 1932, 1938, 1944.
On August 1, 1962, one of Hamilton’s largest fires occurred when Strachan’s Department store, on the corner of Gray and Brown Street burnt out in a spectacular fire, talked about for years after. During my time in Hamilton, 1970s and 80s, a large car showroom was destroyed on the opposite corner of Gray and Brown Street. Since then, I can think of two other fires in Gray Street in the block between Brown and Thompson Streets. The most recent saw the Target store destroyed in October 2004 by a fire the Mayor of the time, Cr. Don Robertson considered large enough have burnt out the CBD. What differed between the fire of 1870, with the same potential, and the Target fire was that in the case of the latter, a $1.2 million ladder platform truck was rushed from Ballarat and thermal imaging equipment came from Portland. Huge advances from the times of horse-drawn fire-carts!
With the tendency for fires in the CBD, it was no surprise that after a fire in Gray Street in 1932, Councillor Hughes thought smoke helmets could be of some use to the fire brigade.