The Great Fire: A history of Sydney's fire brigade

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Just three years after it was built, Sydney's Garden Palace building was destroyed by a great fire. The palace was engulfed by flames in the early hours of the morning on 22 September, 1882.

“The Australasian Sketcher in October 1882, reported the loud roar of the flames which could be heard throughout the city, and the towers and walls falling with a great crash resembling the roar of heavy guns. The zinc-work on the dome was sent flying far and wide, some spinning over to Woolloomooloo. The skeleton of the timber-work ‘appeared like a magnificent firework design.’”

Helen Proudfoot, ‘The Dream and the Great Fire: The Poetry of Exaltation and Destruction’, Colonial City, Global City


The widespread destruction caused by the Garden Palace fire highlighted the need for Sydney's own formal organised fire brigade. Despite a host of devastating fires in the 1850s, Sydney relied on two metropolitan volunteer fire services, and a number of smaller suburban brigades. The Insurance Brigade and the Metropolitan Associated Brigades saw each other as rivals rather than collaborators, and it was not until 1882 that the State Government were able to pass the Fire Brigades Bill.

This bill helped set up The Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) in 1884, which later became Fire & Rescue NSW. MFB headquarters operated from the old Insurance Brigade Headquarters in Bathurst Street until 1888, when the current quarters were established in Castlereagh Street.

The original fire station relied on horse-powered engines, and accommodated a small stables at the back of the building. A twenty-metre 'pigeon box' tower allowed fires to be spotted from kilometres away.

"A watchroom was located on the northern side of the ground floor and telephone exchange board, fire alarms and electrical apparatus were operated from there. The electrical contact in the room, when pulled, rang the bells throughout the entire building, turned up the gas lamps in the engine bay, released the stable doors (which immediately flew open by means of springs), and released a weight situated in the single men’s quarters on the first floor which opened two flaps to enable firefighters to slide down a pole. The original switchboard has been restored and is on display in a replica of the watchroom at the Museum of Fire, Penrith."

Fire & Rescue NSW: History of City of Sydney Fire Station


The destruction of the Garden Palace, although responsible for great loss, also prompted the generation of some of Sydney's best known and most fundamental institutions and services.

Image: Gibbs, Shallard and Company (printer), Burning of the Garden Palace, Sydney, 1882 . Colour lithograph, 44 x 57.2 cm. Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, P2239