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Fire in Sandhurst (Bendigo) Christmas Day, 1857

Posted 24/12/2018 in History

In the early hours of Christmas Day in Sandhurst (now known as Bendigo) 1857, a fire ripped through Williamson Street leaving a scene of devastation and almost destroying the iconic Shamrock Hotel.

The fire originated within the premises of Mr. Steane, a coffee roaster, and quickly spread to surrounding buildings. Residents narrowly escaped with their lives, however there were several injuries and burns. 

The brave fire fighters and volunteers worked tirelessly to extinguish the fire, but it was being fanned by strong winds and they were left wanting for sufficient water. After several hours they finally managed to get it under control. 

Sandhurst (Bendigo) Victoria, 1857. Published by Sands & Kenny, Melbourne & Sydney, 1857. Plate from Victoria illustrated / S.T. Gill. Image source: State Library Victoria.

Sunrise on Christmas morning revealed the extent of destruction, with Williamson Street littered with broken and damaged furniture, shop stock, broken and burned doors, windows and shop fronts. Pall Mall was heaped with goods, brought out from the various stores for safety. 

Unfortunately most of the buildings were uninsured, and in a stroke of bad luck one of the policies had actually lapsed just a few days prior to the incident.

An article was published on Boxing Day in the Bendigo Advertiser regarding the incident. The cause of the fire was unknown at the time of writing, although it was asserted by some that parties at Mr. Steane's premises had been preparing their Christmas dinner when the fire had begun. An inquiry was suggested.

The following article was printed in the Bendigo Advertiser, Saturday 26 December 1857:


Christmas day was heralded in Sandhurst by the most calamitous and extensive fire that it has ever been our unpleasant task to chronicle. About ten minutes to three an alarm was given that the premises occupied by Mr. Steane, coffee roaster, of Williamson-street, were in flames. The alarm was spread by the various bells in the town, and responded to by our energetic and praiseworthy Fire Brigade, and other citizens. The engines were brought to the spot, the hoses led along, &c., but were useless for some time for want of water. The devouring element had in the mean time, assisted by a strong wind from the southward, extended to the adjoining houses occupied by Messrs. Wilkie, Linnett, Macartney, Divers, Denovan, and Mercy, in Williamson-street, and to the out offices in the rear of the premises of Messrs. Marks, Cook and Sherbon, Parker and Macord, and others. 

At this time the destruction of the entire block seemed inevitable. The Shamrock Hotel, although at one time apparently doomed, escaped miraculously. A recently-erected building - a continuation of the retiring room from the Concert Hall - was actually in flames, though protected by wet blankets, &c. Water was at length procured from the cellars of the Shamrock, and the engines were enabled to do good service, and fortunately stayed the further progress of the flames. The water carts had previously brought a precarious supply, which was of course expended faster than it could be supplied. A quantity of hay and rubbish in the rear of Messrs. Parker and Macord's becoming ignited, occasioned considerable trouble to extinguish, and for some time rendered the safety of the Pall Mall Chambers and surrounding buildings extremely doubtful. The conflagration, when at its height, presented a grand appearance, sending up volumes of flame, smoke, steam, and large flakes of fire, the descent of which seriously imperilled the surrounding buildings of light construction. 

About four o'clock the fire succumbed to the exertions of the Brigade and a large body of volunteers, though the fire could not be said to be perfectly got under for two hours more. Happily the wind lulled slightly, and rendered the extinction of the smouldering embers less difficult. The police were promptly on the spot to keep order and render assistance. The detachment of the 40th were, at the instance of Dr. Roche, turned out and formed a guard over the property exposed. 
As the day dawned, scene of destruction presented itself, which almost beggars description, Williamson-street being full of broken and damaged household furniture, stock, broken and partially burnt doors, windows, and shop fronts. Pall Wall was also heaped with goods, brought out for safety from the various stores. We cannot refrain from remarking on the alacrity and energy displayed by all classes to render assistance. The honor and reward of being the first water-cart at the fire, is due, we are informed, to - Barlow, Leager second, Faul third, and the conduct of the water-carriers generally - as well as some private carts which were volunteered by Messrs. Cohn Brothers, Foley, and Slark, was deserving of commendation. 

An accident occurred during the fire which might have been attended with serious results. While Mr. Taylor (assistant foreman of the brigade) was breaking into the store of Mr. Denovan (then in flames) an explosion took place by which he received a severe blow in the face, and was carried off to the Shamrock in a state of insensibility; he however soon recovered and again entered zealously upon the duties of his position in the brigade. Mr. A.J. Jones was also knocked down by fall of a roof but not materially injured. 

The printing office of Messrs. Cook and Sherbon had a most wonderfully narrow escape, being at one time perfectly surrounded by the fire; with the exception of some damage by the removal of the material, and the effects of the water, it escaped unharmed.

The subjoined is an approximate estimate of the amount of damage done and the supposed losses: -

Mr. Steane's coffeeworks, insured in the Northern Insurance Office for L.1500. Premises completely gutted, stock and machinery totally destroyed; loss L.3000.

Mr. Wilkie's music warehouse, uninsured. Building and stock totally destroyed with the exception, of two pianofortes, considerably damaged in removal; loss estimated at L.4000.

Mr. Linnet, uninsured. Furniture and stock consumed; loss L.200.

Mr. Macartney, watchmaker, uninsured; loss L400. This gentleman fortunately succeeded in saving the watches of his customers, entrusted to him for repair; with that exception his was a total loss.

Messrs. Divers and Co., Age dining rooms, labor mart, and Age agency office, uninsured. Some few articles saved; estimated loss L500.

Mr. Denovan, gold office and store. Not much damage, in consequence of his stock having been promptly removed by Mr Harrison.

Messrs. Morey and Snow, saddlers, uninsured. Succeeded in saving some of their furniture and stock; computed loss L250.

(The last two shops, together with another, unoccupied, also destroyed, were the property of Mr. Ferris.)

Messrs. Heffernan and Crowley, Shamrock Hotel. The recently erected building destroyed, windows broken, and furniture destroyed by removal, water, &c.; loss between L.400 and L.500.

Mr. Marks', auctioneer, uninsured policy expired only a few days since. The rifle gallery, private residence, and out-offices destroyed; stock and furniture injured by removal. Loss estimated at L.1000.

Messrs. Cook and Sherbon. Out-houses destroyed; stock and plant slightly injured by removal and water. Damage, about L.50

Messrs. Parker and Macord. Out-houses destroyed.

Mr. Levy, auctioneer. Loss by removal nominal.

Mrs. Woolf, dressmaker, Market-square. Residence partially burnt and pulled down. Damage unascertained.

By noon all was quiet, and the ruins presented but a few smouldering embers. With reference to the cause of the fire, no reliable information can be procured. It is asserted that some parties at Mr. Steane's were cooking, or commencing to cook, their Christmas dinner. We would suggest an inquest or inquiry in all cases of fire, as in such cases evidence is frequently elicited which goes far to prevent a recurrence of such a calamity. The system has been adopted for years in the sister colony of South Australia, and found to work well.

The conduct of the Brigade was admirable throughout, and reflected great credit on them as a body; and it would be invidious to particularise any. All appeared to vie with each other in furnishing their quota of usefulness on the occasion. About half-past seven o'clock, the fire being subdued, the engines were ordered back to the depot, though doubts existed in the minds of some parties whether the measure was not premature till the smouldering embers were totally extinguished, for fear of a fresh outbreak. The roll was read over, and fifty-nine members answered to their names, or were answered for, as having been present and aiding at the fire. The foreman of the Brigade, Mr. Conolly, in a brief speech proposed a vote of thanks to the volunteers for their efficient assistance. This was seconded and carried with three hearty cheers, and it was resolved to enter the resolution in the minutes of the Brigades. The 40th regiment were similarly complimented, and the Brigade separated after giving three cheers for their manager and officers.

The opinion of those who thought that the engines had been removed too speedily appeared to be verified, by the fact that between eight and nine o'clock an engine had to be brought back to quench the fire still burning in a large mass in the coffee on Mr. Steane's premises. In a short time it was totally put out.


While we express our admiration of the general conduct of the community to those suffering under this severe dispensation, we cannot too strongly express our indignation at the following case. - 

Mrs. Morey, in her night-dress only, barefooted with a child in her arms, escaped from the burning house, and assisted by Mr. Morey, went over for shelter to the Bank of Australasia, one of the doors of which stood open. The succour requested by Mr. Morey for his wife, was denied to the unfortunate lady, and the door pitilessly shut against her by some one, apparently a servant on the premises. We only hope, for the sake of humanity, that some explanation can be given for this, to say the least of it, inhuman conduct. Fortunately, for the credit of humanity many bright and honorable contrasts to this case were found in the generous offers to the sufferers by many citizens of every grade of any accommodation and assistance in their power. 

Several unfortunate fowls were burnt in the rear of the premises. Some, but for the circumstances, ludicrous scenes might be observed during the fire gentlemen, totally unaccustomed to the business of hose directing, &c., entering into the affair with energy and courage, and presenting the soiled and smoked appearance described by Hotspur after the fight. Towards the latter part, it is stated that volunteers were not wanting to assist; but that in the earlier stage of the conflagration, sufficient hands for establishing a cordon for passing water could not be procured, and that considerable delay was occasioned from this cause. Mr. Heffernan, during the fire; generously supplied all comers with refreshments gratuitously, and we are happy to believe that in a few instances was this liberality abused.


Several boarders at Osborne's Temperance Hotel, in Bull-street, were awoke by the screams of a female. The reflection of the fire caused them to rush to the windows, when they discovered the fire burning with great fierceness, the flames issuing through the roof of Mr. Steane's premises. The cries of the female came from Mr. Wilkie's, who with his lady and family, barely escaped with their lives. We understand Mr. Steane's stock was not insured - only his building. The first alarm was given from Mr. Wilkie's, although the fire originated at Mr. Steane's premises.

Various surmises are afloat as to the cause of the conflagration, but at present it is unknown. We understand the coffee roasting apparatus had been at work the preceding afternoon, and from an inspection of the premises some are of opinion the fire originated in the roasting department. It is said that a convivial party were celebrating Christmas Eve at Mr. Steane's, and did not separate until past one o'clock. The man who sleeps on the premises was awoke by the suffocating heat and found the flames creeping along the ceiling; he avers they came from the private dwelling. So swift was their course, that he barely escaped with his life, and had to leave all belonging to him behind. The servant-girl in rescuing Mr. Steane's child had her clothes burnt, and is slightly scorched. 

Several persons whose property was burning, or was in immediate danger of becoming a prey to the devouring element, were to be seen standing-list-lessly looking on, apparently paralysed, while others risked their lives in rescuing their property. Mr. Augustus Mackay was severely burnt in the hand, in assisting to remove a portion of Mr. Marks's building, and the heat and smoke were so intense as almost to overpower all those working at this place. Mr. Wilkie is said to have fainted on coming the street. He is the largest sufferer by the unfortunate occurrence; the house was his own, he having purchased the house and ground from Messrs. Delano and Read. 

A young man boarding at the American House, who rendered great help in clearing out the property from the various stores, by some means got fastened in a room at Messrs. Morey and Snow's, and became surrounded by the flames. Eventually he broke open the door, but he is very severely burnt in the hands.




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