Heroes of history

The book is full of historic images like this photo of Hamish and General, horses drawing a steam fire engine in front of Perth Fire Station, c1905. Photo by State Library of Western Australia, 009965PD

A BOOK about the history of WA’s fire service and Murray Street’s Old Perth Fire Station launches this weekend, with 2021 marking 120 years since the station opened. 

“120 Years of WA Fire Service History” was written by long-time fire service members Phil Cribb, Ron Harley and Bill Rose.

Mr Harley compiled fire service memorabilia for years, dating back to when the old brass and copper gear was being phased out.  

“I said, ‘we’ve got to save this old stuff for future generations’,” Mr Harley said, and the gear he saved now populates the museum housed the old station (‘Firey fanned a flame’, Voice, March 20, 2021)

In the 1880s before the station opened Perth had just three permanent paid staff working out of the former Pensioner Guard Building on Barrack Street, at the south side of the Perth Town Hall. 

If a fire broke out, volunteers would hitch up the water truck to the only transport at hand: 

“Horses required to pull the fire appliance were sourced from the horse drawn taxis parked outside the building,” the book says.

As the 1890s gold rush led to a booming population the need for a bigger fire brigade was clear, and insurance companies, the colonial treasurer and local governments pooled cash to establish the WA Fire Brigades Board.

The Perth Fire Station on Murray Street was finished in 1901, and they now had their own stables with 18 horses instead of having to press taxi mounts into service. 

In case of fire, the fireys had to be dressed and horses saddled up in a minute to keep the chief officer happy, though one legendary record saw it done in just 16 seconds. 

The horses were well-conditioned to respond to the sound of bells. The book records one instance where “a retired fire station horse, which was pulling a milk cart, heard the pounding of hooves coming down the street and the strident ringing of the fire bell and raced along the street with its former workmates”.

The station got its first motorised fire appliance in 1908, but horses continued to be used in the city until 1920 and in the country for a few years longer.

The vehicles led to changes at the station, as the old limestone arch had to be dismantled to fit the taller appliances, and other old columns, mouldings and doors were pulled out over the years.

But apart from the minor changes the building was still mostly intact when it closed in the 1979. It narrowly avoided demolition and today the building’s been restored and now acts as the DFES Education and Heritage Centre. 

The full tale is in “120 Years of WA Fire Service History” and is available for pickup at the centre after the April 18 launch at 2pm, where the authors will be on hand. Free but book via educationandheritage@dfes.wa.gov.au

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