During the first few weeks of 1926, a series of disastrous bushfires claimed more than fifty lives in Victoria and laid waste to more than 900,000 acres of Gippsland’s prime forest regions.
These fires reached a peak of intensity on 14th February -a day that was to be remembered for many years as Black Sunday. No loss of life had been recorded in the Dandenong Ranges, but a fire raging from Monbulk to South Belgrave exacted a heavy toll in livestock, property and bush land.
These disasters highlighted the need in Ferntree Gully for some form of organised resistance to the recurring seasonal menace of bushfires. Accordingly, a public meeting was convened in the old Shire Hall on the Main Road to consider the possibility of forming a fire brigade.
The meeting, held on Thursday, 25th February 1926, was chaired by Councillor G.H. Knox (later to become Brigadier the Hon. Sir George Knox, MLA) in whose honour the City is named.
After some deliberation, the meeting unanimously endorsed the motion sponsored by the Rev. A.H. Westley and the Rev. Fr. T.J. Little that a district fire brigade be formed and that it be designated the Ferntree Gully Bush Fire Brigade”.
Thus was Ferntree Gully’s first organised fire-fighting force created An executive, comprising the President, Mr Joseph Carroll, three vice- presidents and a committee of management was elected to see to the administration of the Brigade.
Mr J. Murphy was elected as the first Captain of the Brigade, whilst each of thirty-eight men, in addition to the executive members, agreed to “enrol as a member of the Ferntree Gully Bush Fire Brigade and also to obey its laws and all lawful commands of its fighting officers”.
The names of the foundation officers and members of the Brigade are listed in Appendix “A”.
With the preliminary formalities completed, the Brigade turned its attention to the formidable task of acquiring sufficient fire-fighting equipment to enable it to function effectively. Being no central organisation, as we know it today, the Brigade was compelled to rely entire upon its own resources. A public appeal for funds was launched and, in a further attempt to bolster its finances, the Brigade levied an annual membership fee of one shilling on each firefighter.
Times were difficult, however, and money was scarce, and the resulting dearth of equipment confronted the Brigade with a problem that was to recur constantly throughout its entire life. In fact, from the very outset, the firefighters themselves were obliged to provide and maintain much of their own fire-fighting equipment.
The need for a public fire alarm in Ferntree Gully prompted enquiries of certain traders in Melbourne, but as the response did not suit the Brigade’s requirements, advertisements for a bell were placed in the daily newspapers, the “Age” and the “Argus”. This action produced the desired results, and in October 1926 the Secretary was able to report that he had “purchased the bell from the old ‘Ozone’ from Captain Booth for six pounds same to be fetched from Port Melbourne on the 26th”.
The bell was erected on a tower in the Council yard on the Main Road, a directional code was devised, and the Secretary was instructed to have signal notices posted on the tower itself and “at suitable corners” in the town. Upon receipt of a fire report, the bell was to be tolled quickly, after which one of five signal codes was to be rung out to indicate the general direction of the fire: Forest Road; Upper Ferntree Gully; Chalmers Corner (at the intersection of Glenfern and Lysterfield Roads): the Club Hotel; and the Shire Hall.
Although modified after three years to denote simply the four primary points of the compass, the Brigade’s fire alarm system was to remain essentially unchanged to the end. The bell and the original minute book are retained by the present day as mementos of those early days.
By January 1927, enough money had been raised to permit the purchase of certain essential items of equipment. The Brigade acquired three axes, three files, a “Success” pattern spray pump, a lock and five keys, and a number of beaters “on the lines of the Belgrave beaters” for a total outlay of four pounds, nineteen shillings and five pence.
During bushfires, Brigade members and the Shire Council provided motor transport. The Brigade on one occasion felt moved to record its appreciation of one member’s offer to “help as much as was in his power with the transport of men within a reasonable distance of the town”. The expense outlaid by such firefighters in those difficult times troubled the Brigade, and an effort was made to help defray their costs.
Unfortunately, however, the “whole question of supplying motive power for those who cheerfully give their motor vehicles and can ill afford to do so much, over and above the loss of time, was held over until funds were available”.
The creation of a Ladies’ Auxiliary was foreshadowed in 1927 when Mrs Piper, in taking charge of the “commissariat arrangements at all fires”, assumed the responsibility of providing food for the men engaged in fire- fighting. The then Mrs Knox was to render years of service to the Brigade from its inception, and particularly during the years, which followed her appointment to the Committee of Management in 1928.
Arrangements for mutual co-operation and support in fires were worked out with a number of neighbouring bush fire brigades, including those at Upper Ferntree Gully, Belgrave and Olinda. Having affiliated with the newly formed Victorian Bush Fire Brigades Association, the Brigade was to host a number of visits by the Association’s President, Mr W. Swindon, who was himself a member of the Upper Ferntree Gully Brigade.
Unfortunately, only few references can be found to the fires, which the Brigade fought in and around the hills, and these are not mentioned in any detail. There was to be plenty of work during most seasons, but the Brigade’s administration was geared to its level of operations, for in 1931 the minute book is simply endorsed: “No meetings called (very wet season) – A.W. Westley, Hon. Sec.” It was apparent, too, the then Brigade’s activities were not confined to the field of fire suppression, for at one meeting “an appeal to help a destitute family was read by the Secretary; total collection eight shillings”.
In February 1938 the Brigade endorsed a recommendation that endeavours be made to have the bush fire brigades in Victoria placed on the same footing as their counterparts controlled by the Country Fire Brigades Board. That Board (which, along with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Board, had been established in 1891) provided fire protection in the provincial cities and in the larger towns outside the metropolitan area, with finance contributed by the government, the municipalities and the insurance underwriters. It was argued that the recommended proposal would give the bush fire brigades the same advantages of overall control and equipment resources that were then enjoyed by the country fire brigades.
Although in that same year the government established the Bush Fire Brigades Committee, under the auspices of the Forests Commission, to disperse fire fighting equipment to individual brigades and groups of brigades, the original proposal was not pursued, for in January of the following year Victoria was to experience a disaster, the magnitude of which was unparalleled in the State’s troubled history of fire tragedies.
The situation which had been allowed to develop during the weeks leading up to the terrifying conflagration of “Black Friday”, and the widespread loss of life and property on the day itself, provoked such an outcry that the government appointed a Royal Commission (in the person of Judge Stretton) to investigate the causes of the disaster and make recommendations on the improvements needed in the State’s fire services.
In Ferntree Gully, the passing of time had changed the small rural community of the twenties to a progressive and thriving township, which could now boast among, other amenities the electrification of the railway service to Melbourne. By the beginning of the Second World War it had become apparent that the community needed a fully equipped organisation capable of providing year-round protection from fire.
In March 1941, the Shire of Ferntree Gully asked the Country Fire Brigades Board to “investigate and report on the possibilities of placing this area under the protection” of the Board. A petition circulated by lieutenant, S.E. Parker, and subscribed to by “some forty residents of Lower Ferntree Gully” had prompted the council’s initiative.
As a result of this move, the present Brigade, then known as the Ferntree Gully Country Fire Brigade, was found in July 1942.
These developments, naturally enough, affected the operations of the old Brigade, for much of the area it protected had now been incorporated into the Country Fire Brigade’s district.
The Bush Fire Brigade continued to function along side the new Brigade for some fifteen months, but at its annual meeting, held in the Shire Hall on 29th November 1943, the decision was made to disband.
The Brigade’s funds, which amounted to twelve pounds, one shilling and sixpence, all of which had been raised in to the town, were handed over to the Country Fire Brigade. The small stock comprising hand tools and knapsack tanks was apportioned between the new Brigade and the Upper Ferntree Gully Bush Fire Brigade.
Several of the Brigade’s office-bearers addressed that final meeting, expressing thanks to the people and organisations who
had assisted the Brigade in its work during the preceding seventeen years, and on that quiet note the meeting closed and the organisation was dissolved.
Although they had completed their appointed task in their service to the community, the work of pioneers such as these was not to be forgotten.
Lacking the apparatus we possess today, the firefighters of yesteryear were compelled to rely almost solely upon their wits and personal courage in their grim seasonal battles with the bushfire scourge. Through necessity and in adversity they gained a real understanding of the behaviour of fire, and they developed and refined the skills and techniques that continue to form the basis of fire fighting tactics today.
But, nevertheless, an era had ended and a new one was to begin …
THE NEW BRIGADE THE FOUNDATIONS
The establishment of a Country Fire Brigade in Ferntree Gully served a twofold purpose.
Primarily, of course, the expansion of the township, and with it the introduction of a reticulated water supply to the lower-lying areas, influenced the resident’ petition to the Council and, in turn, the Shire’s formal approach to the Country Fire Brigades Board.
A secondary but nevertheless important factor was also taken into consideration. It was wartime, and Australia’s northern settlements were under aerial attack. Sydney had experienced enemy attack and, while the tide was turning in the allies’ favour, the possibility of enemy action against the southern coastal cities could not yet be discounted. It was evident that there would be a need for effective fire fighting forces able to provide ready support in the event of conflagrations in Melbourne’s metropolitan area.
Accordingly, then, Country Fire Brigades were created simultaneously at Ferntree Gully, Boronia and Diamond Creek to bolster the existing network of brigades in Melbourne’s outer fringes.
A public meeting, convened by the Council for the purpose of forming a Country Fire Brigade, was held in the Ferntree Gully Shire Hall on Tuesday l4th July 1942. The Shire President, Councillor A. Tye, presided at the meeting and introduced Chief Officer Alex McPherson of the Country Fire Brigades Board, and Captain Harold Barnes of Chelsea Brigade who, at that time, was a member of the Board.
The Chief Officer explained that the Board proposed to place a hose tender in service at Ferntree Gully, while a hose reel and hydrant would be out stationed at Upper Ferntree Gully.
Interested persons at the meeting were invited by the Chief Officer to enrol as firefighters, and eleven men were registered as the foundation members of the Brigade.
An election of officers was then conducted, the result being that Messrs H.G. Dinsdale, S.E. Parker, W.J. Ross and W. Swindon were elected, respectively, to the positions of Captain, Lieutenant, Foreman and Secretary. Mr V.J. Baird, who enrolled in August, was to be elected Apparatus Officer in September.
The continuity of the town’s fire service was assured with the election of Captain Dinsdale and Lieutenant Parker, for both these men had held corresponding offices in the Bush Fire Brigade.
The names of the foundation members of the Country Fire Brigade are listed in Appendix “B”.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Chief Officer McPherson and Captain Barnes, who addressed the members of the new brigade at some length, explained the responsibilities and obligations of firefighters, and the role they would play in the service of their community and the organisation as a whole.
The Chief Officer then formally handed over to the Brigade its first fire appliance, a Chevrolet utility (Truck No 139), carrying 600 feet of canvas hose. He then selected the Brigade’s youngest member, Firefighter Ray Parker, to drive him in the new truck to the railway station where he caught the train back to Melbourne.
The new Brigade settled down to begin the training programme would raise it to the level of competency and efficiency demanded of it.
In its first three years, much of the Brigade’s effort was directed wards preparations for war incidents, and it worked in close liaison with local units of the A.R.P., V.D.C., St John Ambulance and the Red Cross. An emergency landing strip had been prepared on the Blackwood Park property, and it fell to the Brigade to lay the flare path (comprising a series of cut-down drums containing cotton waste doused in kerosene) in the event of a forced landing at night.
The original complement of eleven men was progressively supplemented by further enrolments, and the Brigade continued to recruit firefighters fill the vacancies created by those who departed to enlist in the armed services. Generally, efforts to sign up men of military age were discouraged the Board; it was said that most Brigades comprised old men and boys during the war, and they were acknowledged to be a most efficient combination.
Ferntree Gully’s first fire station was erected in November 192, on a block of land on the east side of Selman Avenue, opposite the present state government offices. The Shire of Ferntree Gully had donated this land to the Country Fire Brigades Board.
The station, a timber frame with fibro cement walls and roof, was large enough to accommodate the Chrevrolet. It was built in
prefabricate form by Reg Matthews, a well-known Ferntree Gully identity, at a cost ninety pounds. At the same time, Mr Matthews built two more identical stations for the newly formed Brigades at Boronia and Winchelsea.
In May 1943, Lieutenant S. Parker, who had been elected upon the resignation of Harry Dinsdale, assumed the Captain’s position. Having been a foundation member of the Bush Fire Brigade in 1926, Stan had for many years served that Brigade as an officer, and he was to render another seven years of service as Captain of the new Brigade.
Wartime scarcities in material and equipment precluded the immediate supply of a pump for the fire appliance, but in February 1944 the Board Engineer, Mr Trengrove, fitted to the vehicle a front-mounted single stage centrifugal pump with a rated output capacity of 350 gallons per minute.
The new pump was obviously an asset, but there remained the problem of extinguishing fires occurring beyond the perimeter of the town’s limited reticulated water supply, or out of reach of any static supplies. To minimise this problem, the Brigade devised a number of drills, including relay pumping which proved to be quite effective, for at one fire water was pumped nearly 2000 feet through two pumps set in relay.
Further resourcefulness was displayed by the Brigade members mounted a 400 gallon water tank on a stand from which it could be rapidly fitted to a tray truck. With the addition of a small motor pump, this unit was instrumental in enabling the Brigade to suppress many an outbreak, unaided.
Under an arrangement worked out with the Bush Fire Brigade, firefighters were summoned to fires by the bell acquired in 1926 by the old Brigade. The directional codes used for so many years were, logically enough, adopted by the new Brigade, which maintained this alarm system until April 1944 when the Board had a telephone and an automatic electric siren installed at e fire station.
In 1944 the Board sanctioned the establishment of a Junior Fire Brigade in Ferntree Gully, and on 5th December of that year, fifteen boys enrolled as members. They elected as their leaders Junior Captain R. Wrigley and Junior Lieutenants R. Ross and T. Griffin. Many of these boys later graduated to the Brigade itself, where they continued to serve for a number of years.
In October 1944 the government introduced a Bill to improve Victoria’s fire services along the lines recommended by the Royal Commission investigating the 1939 disaster. Having gained certain impetus from the serious fires, which occurred early in 1944, the Bill passed through the legislative process and, despite some quite strenuous opposition from some quarters, emerged as the “Country Fire Authority Act”. The Act provided for the control of all Victorian fire brigades, with the exception of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Forest Commission’s fire service to be vested in a new statutory authority, which, in turn, would be responsible to Parliament through the Chief Secretary, for the protection of an area of some 66,000 square miles.