NotesFollowing the discovery of an extremely rich lode of silver, lead, zinc and gold by Charles Rasp in 1883, the town of Broken Hill was surveyed in 1886. The Broken Hill Fire Brigade was established in 1887 as a volunteer organisation of fifteen men. The first fire station faced Argent Street on a site that was later to be occupied by the Town Hall. The station's equipment at this time only consisted of a small, six-man hand-operated curricle engine and 300 feet (91.4 m) of hose.
In 1891 the Broken Hill Municipal Council (incorporated in 1888) had the Central Fire Brigade Station in Blende Street erected. This consisted of a fine two-storey stone building which had on the ground floor a watch-room, engine room, stables for two horses, as well as a bedroom and bathroom. On the first floor were two bedrooms, a bathroom and a recreation room. Up to 1892 the brigade was dependent for its water supply on private tank storage. However, once the Stephens Creek Water Supply Scheme came into operation, water was available "to a fair extent" from the water company's mains-hydrants. Nevertheless, due to water restrictions the brigade was not allowed to have "wet drill" off the mains, and all water from the hydrants opened for the brigade to fight fires had to be paid for by the council!
The opportunity arose for Broken Hill Council to improve its firefighting equipment occurred when a steam fire engine, built by the English firm of Merryweather & Sons of Greenwich, England, in 1895, with engine number 1378, was imported into Australia and arrived by sailing ship in Adelaide, South Australia. It was ordered by the Merryweather agents in Australia, A.W. Dobbins & Co., of Gawler Place, Adelaide. This firm imported all manner of items into the colony including bicycles, sewing machines, American organs and German pianos. A thorough test of the engine was undertaken in Adelaide on behalf of the council by Superintendent Booker of the Adelaide Fire Station to ensure that the council wasn't buying a "pig in a poke". Due to his favourable report council decided to purchase the engine which arrived in Broken Hill from Adelaide by goods train in late June 1896.
The Broken Hill Barrier Miner newspaper of 26 June 1896 went on to say that, "The inventor of this particular class of fire engine claims that it is especially adapted for country volunteer fire brigades, for whom a light and simple steam engine, with ample accommodation for firemen, as well as a fair amount of gear is a desideratum. The mechanism of this engine is of the simplest character, so that any person who has worked a portable engine, or anybody of ordinary intelligence, can easily work it and keep it in order."
A few days later it was tried out in the brigade yard behind the Town Hall but there was initial disappointment at the length of time the boiler took getting up steam though this would improve as the firemen became used to operating the engine. In September 1896 a special demonstration trial of the pumper was held at the South Australian Brewery in Broken Hill. In ordinary cases the fire in the boiler was lit before leaving the station, so that the steam had time to increase on the way to the fire. However, the engine was tested at the brewery and lit from scratch. Within 9 minutes enough head of steam had been raised to pump water 70 feet (21.3 m) in height over the brewery and a distance of 126 feet (38.4 m) horizontally to the ground. Any concerns were subsequently allayed that this new firefighting appliance was "equal to all requirements".
On 21 June 1897 the 'Barrier Miner' reported that the new steam fire engine, installed at the Broken Hill Central Fire Station in Blende Street, was ceremoniously christened by the Mayoress, Mrs Holdsworth. A bottle of champagne was broken over the pumper which was named Victoria in celebration of the Queen's record reign. After refreshments the official party watched a demonstration of the engine throwing water over the nearby Town Hall flagstaff tower. Clearly, introduction of the steam pumper was a welcome and much appreciated improvement on the hand-operated curricle used by the brigade.
In 1908 new horse stalls were erected at the brigade station with a flooring of concrete covered with bricks and a gutter to enable the stables to be hosed out. Timber partitions between the stalls were about 4 feet (1.2 m) high with the higher parts covered in galvanised iron to stop the horses from "indulging in their destructive appetite for timber", that is, chewing on the wood. Speedy opening swing doors were also included.
Hale quick-hitching harnesses
In 1910 operation of the Broken Hill brigade was taken over by the Board of Fire Commissioners of New South Wales. Further improvements in the engine's equipment were made in the same year with the addition of Hale quick-hitching harnesses patented in the USA by George C. Hale, chief of the Kansas City Fire Department. The harnesses and collars were suspended over the pole of the steam fire engine by means of spreaders. Once the alarm bells rang in the station this alerted the horses, and the doors to their stalls automatically swung open to let them out. They lined up under their hanging collars, which were then lowered. All that was needed was to harness the horses to the engine, undertaken by four firemen who buckled the reins and clasped the collars together. The driver mounted the seat of the steamer and the firemen quickly boarded. The front folding doors of the station were opened, and the horses bounded out of the pulling the steam fire engine. Contemporary newspaper accounts advised that the steamer was pulled by two horses, Prince and Kate. Prince was a dappled brown horse which had been working with the steamer for the past 10 years, virtually since its arrival at Broken Hill. It was said he had attended about 500 fires. Kate was a younger horse, sired by the racing stallion, Friendship.
Operation of the Merryweather
Over the years the steamer was sent out to fight fires in timber yards, houses and hotels around Broken Hill. It also assisted in underground mine fires by pumping water down shafts, such as the fire in September 1897 at Broken Hill's Block 12 mine.
Another steamer added to the brigade
It is claimed that the Broken Hill Fire Brigade was called out more frequently to fires than any other single station in New South Wales so it wasn't surprising that a second steam fire engine arrived by train in Broken Hill from Sydney in February 1909. Ordered from Britain and built by Shand, Mason & Co of London, this engine was an improvement on the Merryweather. It incorporated Shand Mason's patent "double vertical" engine which was capable of delivering 260 to 300 gallons (1,182 to 1,364 litres) per minute and was said to have weighed two tons.
Broken Hill fire alarms
One interesting aspect of fire-fighting operation at this early mining town was the alarm system of mine whistles instigated in about 1889. A code of blasts from the Jamieson's shaft of the Propriety Mine indicated the troubled district. For example, one short whistle and a pause signified the line of lode, one long tremulous whistle and a pause, was for the southern part of the township, while two short whistles and a pause indicated around Railway Town. The whistles would be continued until the bell at the fire station was heard in response. Individual mines also had their fire alarm whistles which were also sounded.
In October 1914 public fire alarms were installed at 11 locations around Broken Hill and comprised white painted metal boxes with the lettering "N.S.W. FB" and a brass handle to open the door. Inside, a lever had to be pulled down which sent a signal to a mechanical switchboard at the station. Known as the Kirkby open circuit alarm system, it was developed by the Australian inventor, Edward Hope Kirkby (1853-1915). Kirkby's system was a great improvement from having to run a mile or more to the station to alert the brigade or find someone with a telephone. This was in addition to the mine whistles which were still in use then.
More new appliances
In 1915 further additions were made to the station, and in the same year the first motorised unit, a Willy-Rees Roturbo, was acquired. In November 1917 a new motorised fire engine was installed, featuring a double delivery pump and two branches while another one arrived by train in August 1919 which comprised a Commer-Simonis motorised pumper. On arrival in Broken Hill, the new appliance was driven from the railway station to the brigade. The pump was manned, and drill gone through to test it. The force of the water was so strong that the firemen had to struggle to maintain control of the nozzles on the hoses and it was reported that at times the water shot high above the buildings pumping 300 to 400 gallons (776.9 to 1,035.9 litres) per minute.
By 1919 steam-operated units weren't quite finished with at Broken Hill as a second-hand, 350-gallon (906.4 litre) capacity Shand Mason steam pumper arrived from Sydney to supplement the other equipment. However, the motorised units had replaced the steam ones by 1921.
Sale of the steamer, its use and restoration
In July 1921 a steam fire engine in good working order (known to have been the Merryweather) was advertised for sale by tender together with two horses, two sets of harnesses (single and double), a hose cart and a spring cart.
The Merryweather was purchased by a Mr Leckie and driven 115 miles (185 km) east from Broken Hill to the town of Wilcannia, an old river port on the Darling River. The long journey over rough roads necessitated numerous changes of horses. Mr Leckie intended to use the steamer to pump water on his property outside the town, but it wasn't put to this use and never left Wilcannia. Instead, it took part in local street processions.
In June 1958 the steamer was "discovered", in an old woolstore at Wilcannia by Howard Knowles, a postal officer from Broken Hill. Mr Knowles advised the Museum of the whereabouts of the steamer. He volunteered to locate its owner, Mr Leckie's son, and organised for its donation and removal to Sydney. The engine was sent by rail to the Darling Harbour Goods Yards in Sydney, not far from the Museum in Ultimo, and arrived on 15 September 1960. Five days later it was collected and taken to the Museum's store where it remained for 22 years before restoration was commenced in 1982. The fire engine was restored to steaming condition by the apprentices of Sydney's Garden Island Dockyard. In 1988 it was placed on display in the Powerhouse Museum's 'Steam Revolution' exhibition together with a photograph of it operating at Broken Hill being pulled by Prince and Kate.