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1924 -  The night Currie Street burned

The details for this account were taken from the Nambour Chronicle. The issue of 11-1-1924, pages 2, 7, 8 and 9 describes the fire that had occurred six days before and its effects, and the issue of 29-2-1924, page 8 describes the events that took place on the night of the fire, as revealed by an official inquiry.

On the night of 5th January 1924, a disastrous fire occurred in Nambour, which burned down 17 businesses in Currie Street, and could have completely destroyed both sides of the town’s main street. In recalling this story, we should remember that in 1924 all the roads in Nambour were unsealed. Every building in the town was made of timber, with one exception - a brick bank building. Some streets in the central business area had concrete kerbing, but the carriageways were dusty dirt, dotted with horse manure.

Street lighting and mains electricity would not come until nearly four years later, but there were telephone poles and wires. A few buildings had their own electricity plants, and a few were connected to the Moreton Central Sugar Mill’s generator, powered by the Mill’s boiler when in steam. The town had no reticulated water supply, only rain water tanks behind each shop and residence, and a couple of wells. Water was available at Petrie Creek which formed the western boundary of the little town, and veered east to cross under the main street at its northern end.

There was no fire brigade of any kind, not even a volunteer brigade. Both reticulated water and a fire brigade with properly trained and paid firemen would have been invaluable in dealing with the succession of serious fires that ravaged the wooden town centre in the early decades of its existence, but both were many years in the future. A professional fire brigade was not organised until 1948, and a reticulated water supply did not arrive until 1959.

An elephant wagon owned by Wirth Brothers' Circus passes the Commercial Hotel in July 1911. At this time the hotel had three decorative gables. After the fire, it was rebuilt in a similar style with four.

Looking down Currie Street from the Royal Hotel towards the Commercial Hotel in 1909. The railway and road bridges over Petrie Creek can be seen in the left background. To the right of the three-gabled Commercial Hotel are: a billiards parlour in a building which was once the premises of the Chronicle newspaper; then Mr J. James' Royal Restaurant and Oyster Saloon selling seafood, meat, fruit, iced soft drinks, confectionery and meals; then Mr Herbert Hill's saddlery and harness-making shop with an upper storey which was his residence; then Mr W. Peterson's shop; then the little Commercial Bank of Australia with a semi-circular façade above twin window awnings (opened in 1904{18-3-1904, p.2}); then Mr S. Donaldson's residence. On the far side of the Commercial Hotel were A. J. Williams' Acme Studios and then Messrs. Isgar and Wilkinson's Mart.
Photographs courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

The same view in January 2009.   

Nambour had had its ‘baptism of fire’ in the early hours of Sunday, 24th May 1914, when the Commercial Hotel and five shops burned down, with a loss estimated at 5000. That fire had started in an adjacent shed, and spread through the two-storeyed hotel and into the buildings on both sides. It spread south, up the hill as far as the little wooden Commercial Bank of Australia, which was saved more through good luck than good management. Though an attempt was made to stop the fire by demolishing the Bank with axes, it was realised that the fire was dying down before too much damage had been done. Ten years later, the little Bank's luck ran out.

 A. J. Williams' Acme Photographic Studios (foreground) and the Commercial Hotel (behind) go up in flames on 24th May 1914.

The Commercial Bank of Australia survives the fire on 24th May 1914. Note the damage done by axe-wielding fire-fighters bent on demolishing the Bank to make a firebreak. On its far side are the ruins of the three neighbouring buildings and the Commercial Hotel with its brick chimney still standing. Isgar and Wilkinson's Mart was saved and is seen in the background.
Photographs courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

Despite the seriousness of the Commercial Hotel conflagration, which cost one man his life, no successful moves were made to set up a local fire-fighting service, and when the 1924 inferno began, no-one had been trained to deal with such a disaster. The only fire-fighting equipment readily to hand consisted of buckets, tubs, blankets and axes, which were appropriated from the stock of the town's general stores.

In 1924, the dirt road called Currie Street had concrete kerbing and channelling from Petrie Creek to Mitchell Street. Telephone poles ran down the eastern side, but power poles on the western side did not arrive until September 1927. The footpaths were also made of dirt, although numerous shop owners had installed boardwalks or gravel between their storefronts and the kerb to keep their shop floors clean. Ramps were installed across the gutters in front of some shop entrances to provide easier access from the street itself.

 The northern end of Currie Street in 1917: in the left distance, the rebuilt Commercial Hotel (now with four gables); then D. & R. Dunn's pastrycook' shop; then J. James' Paris Café, then the little Commercial Bank of Australia, then Palings Music store; then J. W. Ford's Newsagency and A. T. Foley's Barbershop (note the red-and-white striped poles and façade); then Mr G. Donaldson's Family & Carcass Butcher shop. William Whalley's Universal Stores was just out of view to the right, adjoining the Butcher Shop.

A parade led by the Nambour Town Band and returned Diggers passes the Commercial Bank of Australia (left of centre) in 1918. Whalley's Universal Stores is the two-storeyed building to right of centre. Its single-storey section adjoined it on the southern side, and continued around the kink in Currie Street.

 Nambour's first brick building (above) was a branch of the London Bank of Australia Limited. Built in 1916, it was located on the western side of Currie Street, between the Club Hotel and the Town Hall. It was directly opposite the Nambour branch of the E. S. & A. Bank, a building which carried that bank's full name (English, Scottish & Australian Bank Limited.) in Gothic lettering on its high façade (visible at the left margin of the third following picture, below). In 1921 the E. S. & A. Bank took over the London Bank of Australia and the Nambour branch of the E. S. & A. bank moved across the street into the more imposing brick building of the London Bank. They removed the London Bank's signage and replaced it with that seen above in this 1922 photograph. The London Bank's original premises in Nambour were in the two-storeyed wooden building where the 1924 fire started, designated 'BANK' in the two pictures below, and the new brick building had been built as their business in the town prospered. 
Photographs courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

Although the entrances to the shops on the eastern side of Currie Street were level with the footpath, the land fell away steeply under the floors, so that the back of each shop was on high stumps, up to four metres above ground level. This situation still exists today, most businesses having a down-stairs section below the Currie Street level which is only accessible to the public in a couple of cases, such as at the Nambour Book Exchange. Some businesses have storerooms in these under-floor spaces or basements, and the Commonwealth Bank uses much of its lower level as a car park.

The view from Queen Street today shows what fire traps the pre-1924 shops were, particularly as the areas underneath their floors were used for storage of timber, packing materials and all kinds of flammable rubbish.

In 1924, the wooden shops ran in an unbroken line from the Howard Street corner north to William Whalley’s Universal Store, where Whalley Chambers is today. At that point there was a bend in the road, and the shops continued on down the hill past the Commercial Hotel to near Petrie Creek. Today, Lowe Street breaks this line, and runs from the bend in Currie Street east to the Nambour Plaza, but Lowe Street was not put through until 1949.

The first in this line of shops was Kearns and Hockings men's outfitters shop, on the Howard Street corner. Next to this was the Royal Saloons run by A. D. Rawlinson, opposite the Club Hotel. Mr Rawlinson had come to Nambour in August 1922 to take over the Royal Pictures at the Soldiers' Hall in Howard Street. As the new operator, Mr Rawlinson set to work to improve the cinema, replacing the problematic generating set with a new one. He installed attachments to the projector which enabled him to screen multi-reel features “without tiresome stops for changing spools.” The Royal was the only cinema in Nambour where complete films could be shown non-stop.

At the same time, Mr Rawlinson rented from Mr E. O. Perkins a building around the corner on the east side of Currie Street.{27-10-22, p.7} In May 1908 Mr Perkins' building had become a branch of the London Bank of Australia Limited. This bank had played important rôles in funding the various developments in Nambour in its early years, such as the Moreton Mill Board's successful efforts to redeem the Mill from Government control in 1906, and now the London Bank felt that a local office was justified. It was the third bank to open a branch in Nambour, and soon after, opened branches in Woombye and Buderim. Mr Perkins' building was two storeyed, the upper floor being originally the Bank Manager's residence. In 1916 the London Bank of Australia, requiring their own premises, had constructed Nambour's first brick building across the street from their rented office {03-03-16, p.7}, but by 1921 they had been taken over by the English, Scottish and Australian Bank, the first Nambour branch of the E. S. & A. Bank being located a few doors up the same street.

The merger of the two bank branches led their head office to move their premises across to the 5-year-old brick building. Mr Perkins continued to rent out his building, and in late 1922 Mr Rawlinson became his tenant, moving his family, furniture and household goods into the upstairs section. The rooms on the ground floor, which he named the 'Royal Saloons' to demonstrate the link with his 'Royal Pictures', included a shaving and hairdressing saloon and a shop which sold pipes, cigars and tobacco, gents’ toilet requisites, stationery, other “fancy goods” and Golden Casket tickets. At the back there was a billiards parlour, where pool and snooker could be played as well. He also took advance bookings and seat reservations for the cinema at his shop. By mid-1923 he had decided to leave the movie industry, and Mr S. C. Donaldson took over the screening of Royal Pictures. Mr Rawlinson concentrated on his Currie Street shop, which appeared to be quite successful. He kept the name 'Royal Saloons' until the shop was destroyed, having been in business less than eighteen months. This building was where the calamity began.

The buildings on the east side of Currie Street in about 1915. The 'Royal Saloons' building is second from the right, marked 'BANK', and at the time housed the offices of the London Bank of Australia, with the manager's residence located above. Note the boardwalks and the bullock team in the background.
Photograph courtesy Mr Keith Lipke, Gentlemen's Barber, Queen Street, Nambour

 The buildings on the east side of Currie Street in 1923, taken from the first floor of the Nambour Town Hall. All of those in the centre of the picture were lost in the great fire the following year. From left, the buildings are: the old E. S. and A. Bank (survived the fire); Whalley's small building, rented out to dentist V. C. Nash and optometrist/jeweller T. Cheetham; Mitchell's building (large, two-storeyed, centre of picture, containing shops rented by bootmaker J. G. Jones, draper and milliner Mrs J. F. Chadwick, the Geddes Café owned by Edgar Wells, dressmaker Myrtle Caine and saddler F. G. Bendixen); Collins and Co. general store (single storeyed); Mr T. T. Chadwick's buildings (with three identical gables, and rented out to stationer and newsagent Miss T. Humphreys, café owner W. J. Spies, general store owner Edward Kenny, dentist S. A. Hall, tailors Cramb and Friedman, and photographer W. A. Petsky); Rawlinson's shop, billiards parlour and residence (small two-storeyed building at centre right with balcony and 'BANK' sign now removed); and Kearns and Hockings Tailors on the Howard Street corner. According to the Nambour Chronicle of 29-2-1924, p.8, this is the correct order of businesses from left to right in the picture. The seventeenth business to be lost was Solicitor Mr Alex W. Thynne's office in Howard Street, adjoining the tailor shop. The balcony from where two ladies were rescued is above Rawlinson's shop, and the awning along which they escaped is on Chadwick's three-gabled building.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

The same view in January 2009.  

On the western side of Currie Street, the Royal George Hotel and the Club Hotel faced each other across Mill Street, as they still do today. The present buildings are not the originals, though, for the old Club Hotel burned down on 2nd January 1938 and the Royal George on 15th February 1961. 

From these two hotels, shops ran north along Currie Street to the Town Hall. This timber building had a twin-gabled front, and contained at the time a popular cinema for showing silent ‘pictures’ or ‘flicks’.  It was nearly opposite Whalley’s Universal Store.

 In 1924 Nambour’s old Town Hall in Currie Street was also used as a cinema, and was located at the north end of today’s Centenary Square, near the Railway Station. It was burned to the ground on 23rd October 1929.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

Next to the Town Hall was Station Street, which circled a small group of shops including a barber's. Station Street provided access to the Nambour Railway Station from Currie Street. In the 1930s the shops circled by Station Street were torn down, and the area turned into a small park called 'Station Square'. A newsagency and other shops occupy the site of the park in 2008. Facing the Town Hall across the park was the Royal Hotel, a large building on the site of today’s McDonalds fast food outlet. The Royal was lost to fire on 14th October 1961. 

 Station Square in 1917. The Town Hall is at left. The shops in the centre of the Square (to right of picture) were removed and replaced with turf to make a small park, seen in the later photograph below. D. Murtagh's Hairdressers is indicated by the striped barber's pole.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries


 Station Square in 1932. The Town Hall has gone, as it was burned down in 1929. The shops between the Square and Currie Street were fire-damaged. They were purchased by the Council and demolished to enlarge the Square.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

Looking north up Currie Street in 1910. The building where the fire started is the second down the street on the right. The road leading off to the right behind the workman is Petrie Creek Road, later to become Howard Street. There was no Town Hall at this time.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

 Looking north up Currie Street in 1920. The Club Hotel is at the left margin, with one of William Whalley's two stores to its right, and then the brick building of the London Bank of Australia Limited. The next building up the street on the left is the Nambour branch of the Bank of New South Wales. Beyond that in the centre background is the twin-gabled Nambour Town Hall built in 1913, with Kent's building with its large awning to its right. The damaged Kent's building was demolished to enlarge Station Square after the 1929 Town Hall fire. In 1920 it housed D. Murtagh's Hairdressers (see above and below). The two-storeyed Royal Hotel can be seen at the far bend in the street. By this time, telephone poles had been erected on the east side of the street. Power poles would not arrive until late 1927, when they appeared on the western side. The building where the 1924 fire started is just beyond the right margin.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

HRH Prince Edward, future King of Australia in the light grey suit, lower centre, shakes hands with returned soldiers as he passes through a crowd of admirers in Station Square, Nambour, on 2nd August 1920. In the background can be seen Walsh’s Royal Hotel (left), D. Murtagh’s Hairdressers (centre) and William Whalley’s Universal Stores (right).
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

During the first few days of 1924, the people of Nambour were still basking in the afterglow of festive season celebrations, wishing each other a happy and prosperous New Year, and looking to the future with all the optimism of the jazz age of the mid-1920s. Little did they know that disaster was about to overcome their flourishing little town that same week.

On the evening of Saturday, 5th January, many residents made their way into town to attend the Town Hall Pictures. Claiming to be “The Home of the People’s Pictures”, its advertisement in the previous day’s Nambour Chronicle stated that the cinema was showing ‘another mammoth programme: Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy Gish in “The Bright Shawl”, a flaming romance of Old Cuba, to be followed by Wallace Reid in his last picture, “Thirty Days” – Wally in the kind of swift love-comedy that has made him famous.’ The cinema was located in the auditorium of the Nambour Town Hall, and was leased by Mr Charles W. Gearside.  {23-2-1923, p.3} {21-12-1923, p.11} {4-1-1924, p.7}

Nambour Town Hall, with the auditorium used as a cinema.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

    Image courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

As was usual for a Saturday night, there was a full house, and during the interval after the first silent feature, the patrons enjoyed refreshments. Some of them made their way out to the street to chat and smoke. They were blissfully unaware that, in a matter of a few minutes, the pleasant and peaceful evening would be transformed into one of high drama, with courage, fear, panic and desperation in equal measure. The cinema-goers were destined not to see the second feature. 

One of the cinema patrons, the local photographer Mr W. A. Petsky, went for a stroll down the street to check on his photographic studio, which was located on the opposite side of the road from the Club Hotel, about 140 yards from the Town Hall. For many years he had managed his shop as a branch of Gympie's Murray Studios, but in the previous year he had purchased the business for himself. {19-12-1924, p.5} 

Outside the Town Hall, Nambour’s two policemen were on duty. Acting Sergeant James Parker and Constable McLean were watching the people who had come out of the cinema, when a man named Paul Dowd rushed up and drew their attention to smoke coming from Rawlinson’s shop down the street. The three of them ran down the street about 150 yards to the shop, and by the time they got there 'black smoke was shooting up for about 50 feet above the building.' 

A. D. Rawlinson's Royal Saloons building was located where 'The Time Machine' nostalgia shop stands today. It contained a stationer's shop selling Golden Casket tickets, a hairdressing saloon behind, and a billiards room at the back. There was another floor above, which was a five-roomed residence for Mr Rawlinson and his family. Under the billiards room, below street level was a lumber room. Adjoining Rawlinson's on its south side was another shop which was on the Howard Street corner. This was Kearns and Hocking's tailor shop. Sergeant Parker rushed around the Howard Street corner to the back of the tailor shop and, looking down, saw Rawlinson's lumber room ablaze. The walls of the billiards room above were beginning to burn fiercely. Several other men ran to the scene. 

Mr Petsky also saw the fire and rushed into his studio which adjoined Rawlinson's on the north side, but the blaze advanced so quickly that he only had enough time to secure some negatives, some unexposed plates and his camera before the whole place was enveloped in flames. He used this camera and plates to take some of the pictures of the aftermath of the fire that are reproduced below. His assistant, Mr P. Webster, "dived into the building and secured a few of the tools before he was compelled to retire outside by the heat and the spread of the flames."

The conflagration grew rapidly and alarmingly. Back at the cinema there was a shout of "Fire!" The lights were turned full on, and the audience made its way quickly and excitedly but without alarm to the exits. Fear and panic would come soon enough. Once in Currie Street, they looked down towards Howard Street where there was some commotion. They were horrified to see flames bursting through the roof of Rawlinson’s building and the Murray Studio. The proprietors of the tailor's, Mr Kearns and Mr Hocking, had hurried to the scene and were desperately trying to move their stock out of the building to safety on the other side of the street.

Suddenly, women's screams were heard from the balcony of Rawlinson's residence above his shop. Mrs Rawlinson and Miss Mary Ellen (Nellie) Chapman had been at home, and were now trapped above the fire, as the only stairs at the rear of the billiards room had been consumed. Sergeant Parker and other men tried to climb the balcony supports from the street, but to no avail. There were calls for the women to jump, and Miss Chapman put a leg over the rail. 

Fortunately the aptly-named Mr George Dare, brother of Mrs Rawlinson, and Mr John Chadwick whose family owned the adjoining building were able to climb up to the awning of the next-door shop, only a few feet from the trapped women. Both ladies jumped from the balcony into the arms of their rescuers, and all made their way along the slippery and sloping awning to safety. Immediately upon their reaching the ground, Rawlinson's building with his residence and balcony collapsed in ruins.

Currie Street in 1920. Rawlinson's building (then being the premises of Taylor's Market) is second from the right. The balcony where the women were trapped and their escape route are clearly seen.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

Bucket brigades were quickly organised, and concentrated on saving adjoining premises that were in danger. The fire rapidly worsened and spread into Mr T. T. Chadwick's buildings, heading north along Currie Street. The flames produced such intense heat that buildings on the opposite side were put at risk. The Royal George and Club Hotels were seen to be in immediate danger, as a breeze had sprung up from the north and was blowing clouds of burning sparks and cinders towards them. Gangs of men set to work draping water-soaked blankets over the awnings and balcony railings of both hotels. Three times the Royal George caught alight, but each time the flames were extinguished, although the timbers were badly scorched. 

The heat now became extreme. Chadwick's buildings containing Petsky's Studio, Cramb and Friedman’s tailor shop, S. A. Hall’s Dental Surgery, Edward Kenny's General Store, Miss Humphreys' stationery shop and Spies' Café were well alight. "Mr W. J. Spies was able to remove a lot of dishes, and also a counter, which was lying out in the street, and had been carried over to the side of the Club Hotel." Much stock rescued from Chadwick's buildings was carried across Currie Street and placed in the brick English, Scottish and Australian Bank (later the E. S. and A. Bank, now Esanda), the only building in the town not made of wood.

The Collins building next door would be the next to go. The endangered line of shops continued north to near Petrie Creek (Lowe Street did not then exist to break the line). Only a few narrow lanes separated some of the buildings. It became obvious that the only way to stop the fire was by making a fire break. To do this, a building would have to be demolished, and fast! Councillor A. P. Myers conferred hurriedly with Sergeant Parker, and they smashed their way through a front window into Collins' General Store which, as well as selling groceries and drapery, had a hardware department. In doing this, Cr Myers was badly gashed on the hand by falling glass from the window and needed treatment from Ambulance Superintendent T. Beech. Fifteen axes were located in the store, and a team of about thirty men was assembled and issued with the axes. "A rush was made into Messrs. Collins and Co.'s premises, and parcels of goods were brought out into the roadway, but most of these became ignited by the flying sparks, and were destroyed by the quantity of water used to extinguish the blaze."

Almost at once, the fire took hold in Collins' building, and, as people began to realise that their whole town was threatened, a certain degree of panic set in. The two policemen and Council officials organised fire-fighting teams, but soon the heat made it impossible for them to be on any part of the street in the vicinity of the fire. 

The flames were now moving north so rapidly that each building took only a few minutes to be converted into a mass of red-hot embers, charred stumps, ash and hot roofing iron. Fighting such an inferno was impossible, so people at the scene concentrated on removing as much stock as possible from the buildings that were in the fire's path, but had not yet been damaged. 

The northerly breeze put at risk buildings at the southern end of the block. Mr A. W. Thynne's shop in Howard Street suddenly erupted in flame, and furniture from neighbouring buildings was moved out into the middle of the street. 

From all of the hills around Nambour, the view was awesome and spectacular. The high tongues of flame leaped over building after building, and the falling of posts and roofs sent up great showers of sparks. The glow of the fire was visible from many miles away. {11-1-1924, p.3} People from outlying areas drove to town to see what was happening. Motorists coming from the south would not bring their cars closer than the Catholic Church, about a quarter of a mile from the fire, so great was the heat. Meanwhile, it continued to rage out of control, with no end in sight. 

Within the first half-hour, the fire had grown to such an intensity that it had consumed more than half-a-dozen shops along the east side of Currie Street. As well as Kearns and Hocking’s tailor shop and Rawlinson's building, the Chadwick Buildings and Collins' General Store had rapidly been reduced to ruins. The fire had now assumed extraordinary dimensions, and spread from Collins' building into Mitchell's building. All of the shops in Currie Street were now at risk. 

As the efforts of the people fighting the fire were having little effect, a desperate telephone call was made to the Central Fire Brigade in Brisbane, asking for assistance. After being told that water was available at Petrie Creek, only 300 yards from the fire, the Brisbane firemen said that they could come at once by special express train, and could be there in two hours. 

Shops and other buildings across the street from the fire were being badly scorched, and men using only buckets of water were fully occupied in preventing them from catching alight. On the eastern side, nothing could be done to extinguish the fire, as the intense heat was such that no-one could approach it. Dozens of men volunteered their services to remove stock from the buildings in the fire’s path, but such was the effect of panic and desperation setting in that most stock so moved was damaged. 

Soon Mitchell's building containing the shops of F. G. Bendixen (saddler), Myrtle Caine (dressmaker), Mrs J. F. Chadwick (drapery) and J. G. Jones (bootmaker) was ablaze from end to end. Edgar Wells' Geddes Café was also in these buildings and was lost. Now the inferno threatened a small building owned by William Whalley, which was rented by jeweller and optometrist Thomas Cheetham and dentist Dr V. C. Nash. The next buildings after these in the path of the fire were the old wooden English, Scottish and Australian Bank (this old bank having been replaced with a new brick building on a site directly opposite some years earlier), and then William Whalley's Universal Stores, the largest shop in town. {2-6-1922, p.8} {19-12-1924, p.2}

 Whalley’s Universal Stores. The photograph is dated 1905, but the first telephone poles were not erected until 1908. The image was therefore probably taken in about 1909.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

 Whalley’s Universal Stores in 1916, showing how it was built at the bend in the road. The Royal George and Club Hotels are in the distance at right.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

The Universal Stores was located across the intersection where today's Lowe Street meets Currie Street, the former not being in existence prior to 1949. It extended north past what is now Ucango Travel. William Whalley had been in Maroochydore that night, attending a church meeting with Shire Chairman Cr Lowe, but news of the fire reached him by telephone within a few minutes of its starting, and both businessmen rushed back to Nambour by car. 

As the inferno was completely out of control, Whalley agreed that the only way to stop it from reaching his main store was to create a firebreak, by demolishing the smaller building which he also owned. In case this could not be done in time, then a second break would be made further to the north, by pulling down the small Commercial Bank building to protect the large Commercial Hotel. Accordingly, eight axemen went to Dr Nash’s Dental Surgery, where they found him moving out his equipment.  

Some went inside and proceeded to hack at the walls, while others chopped down the awning and pulled it into the street. The others headed to the Commercial Bank, where they set to work without removing any property, not even the safe. About 100 men were present, and when the axemen had cut through enough of the framework of the building, ropes were connected, and with 100 voices yelling “Heave-ho!” the walls were brought to the ground in short order, and dragged  across to the other side of Currie Street. The galvanised iron roof dropped, and was left almost intact on the ground.

Nambour's branch of the Commercial Bank of Australia before the 1924 fire.

Before and after: Williams Emporium and Café replaced the short-lived Paris Café which had been built on the site of Mr J. James' café and fruit shop destroyed in the 1914 fire, two doors uphill from the rebuilt Commercial Hotel and alongside the little Commercial Bank of Australia.

 The demolished Commercial Bank building, scene of the second firebreak. Only the roof survived. The wrecking of this building by panicky residents was not necessary. The two-storeyed Williams Emporium was undamaged, as was the rebuilt Commercial Hotel, two doors further to the left, down the street.

The remains of the Bank's walls, lying in the street.
Photographs courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

Collins' General Store was totally destroyed by 10 pm, and Mitchell's building was ablaze. It seemed that the old E. S. and A. Bank and then William Whalley's Universal Store would soon be lost. The doors of the store were opened, and stock was moved across the road to Station Street. Crockery, glassware, tools and furniture were stacked in the street, and more valuable items were placed in the Town Hall for safe-keeping. The hysteria generated by the on-going disaster caused one man to smash with an axe one of Whalley's front windows worth 25, to save stock worth at most a few pounds. He had been told repeatedly that the adjacent door was open, but was panicking and could not be stopped. 

Men with axes rushed about, chopping down veranda posts and awnings, as they felt that these assisted the flames. Sometimes there were fire-fighters perched on the roofs above, that those same posts supported. They would lower buckets on ropes to be filled, and would pour the water over roofs and down the sides of walls.  

People became tangled in fallen telephone wires, fell over posts and were injured by broken glass. Some were hit by buckets being lowered in haste from the hotel balconies for refilling. Ambulance bearers had their hands full treating these injuries as well as numerous burns.

As Dr Nash’s Dental Surgery was resisting the efforts of the axemen and the flames were fast approaching, Sergeant Parker decided to blow it up. Robert Tomlinson obtained a case of dynamite from the Council's stocks, together with a length of fuse and detonators. Tomlinson wanted to use the whole case, but Parker said that two sticks would be sufficient. The charges were set, and Nash’s surgery was reduced to a pile of broken timbers. The sound of the blast was heard at Palmwoods, from where the glare of the fire was clearly seen. {11-1-1924, p.3}

With ropes, about fifty men pulled the rubble into the street to starve the fire of fuel. This, and the strengthening of the northerly breeze, slowed the fire down. Men climbed onto the hot and dangerous roof of the E. S.and A. Bank and poured hundreds of buckets of water over the building to try to stop the march of destruction.

As it turned out, the first firebreak did its work, and the old E. S.and A. Bank and Whalley's Store survived the inferno. By 11 pm the fire’s onward progression had been halted and the call for help from Brisbane was cancelled. By midnight the danger was past. The destruction of the Commercial Bank had not been necessary.  

In all, seventeen businesses were lost in the fire, which destroyed everything on the east side of Currie Street from Howard Street to the site of the future 1941 masonry building that was originally occupied by Penney's, then Coles, then Target, and now, from March 2011, Autobarn. 

 The scene of destruction in Currie Street, after the fire had been put out. Whalley’s store is the large building in the left background. Taken from the top floor veranda of the Club Hotel which was threatened by the blaze.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries


 Looking south from the old E. S. and A. Bank.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

 Total losses in this great fire were estimated at seventy thousand pounds, which would be in excess of ten million dollars in present-day terms. Unfortunately, much of the stock saved from the flames was damaged by rough handling, soiled or soaked with water. The bulk of the merchandise removed from shops was put on dirt footpaths and left unguarded, resulting in passers-by ransacking the goods. If questioned, these persons stated that they were merely ‘looking for souvenirs’. 

The Nambour Chronicle said that they ‘were picking and choosing, as calmly as the average customer does in a shop,’ trying on this hat or that, and placing the souvenired goods in a little heap, or hidden in folds of clothing. ‘With brazen audacity they were sorting out the best of the stocks. Nothing inferior to a three guinea Stetson in hats, a pair of high-class footwear or silk shirt would satisfy these folk. Their tactics were parallel to kicking of a man when down and out.’ The paper also said that ‘one thief, who is known as an inveterate tobacco fiend, made off with sufficient stock to last eighteen months.’

One light-fingered person approached a man standing next to a pile of shop stock and asked, “Hey, are those things yours?” and was answered with the retort, “No, and they’re not yours either!”  

People rushing into town to help fight the fire were aghast to see others leaving the scene carrying pilfered goods. The paper later claimed that most of these miscreants were travellers seizing their opportunity, not locals. The town’s two policemen worked heroically organising the fire fighting, and once the danger was past, they set to work arresting the thieves. Three were caught in the Showgrounds with stolen property in their possession. The paper reported that the office of the Sergeant of Police was more like a general store, such was the quantity of goods recovered. 

 Local people gather dolefully at the site of the previous night’s fire in Currie Street, 6th January, 1924. The old E. S.and A. Bank where the fire was stopped is at left. Taken from outside the Nambour Town Hall.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

The following Friday’s newspaper contained many advertisements for sales of damaged stock. One at top centre of the front page said Chadwicks wish to record their sincere appreciation and thanks to all those who assisted them in the removal of their stocks to safe quarters during the fire on Saturday evening last, and also to those who expressed sympathy with them in the great loss of business and buildings. Business is being conducted in the Alhambra Hall where the salvaged goods are offering at reduced prices. Our customers are notified that it is our intention to proceed with the erection of buildings as soon as possible, where business will be carried on as usual in Currie Street, Nambour. 

These sales proved extremely popular, as people took the opportunity to obtain cheap goods. At Chadwicks, due to open at 10 am, over 150 people had gathered outside by 9. The crush inside became so great that the policemen were called to restore some breathing space, and the bargain-hunters were then admitted in groups. Later, it was reported that men and women were seen wending homeward, with arms laden with all classes of boots, hats and clothing. As the old adage says, ‘it’s an ill wind that blows no-one any good.” 

Looking south over the still-smoking ruins the next morning, Royal George Hotel at right. Mr T. Cheetham's fire-worn safe is in the foreground.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

Looking south-west over the scene of devastation to the Royal George Hotel (centre) and the Club Hotel (right).
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

Looking north-west to the Nambour Town Hall in centre background. Whalley's Universal Stores in right background.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

 The site of the 17 shops destroyed after most of the debris had been cleared away.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

A number of forward-thinking people saw the destruction of so many shops as an opportunity to re-survey the town allotments at the site. These allotments had their side boundaries parallel with Howard Street, running at an angle of 112.5 degrees to Currie Street, instead of the more usual right angle of 90 degrees. This meant that the floor plan of every building, instead of being rectangular, had the shape of an oblique quadrilateral. This caused difficulties when constructing new buildings, or when modifying older ones, for it is easier and cheaper to build on the square, than on the angle. 

Solicitor Alex W. Thynne, secretary of the Nambour Chamber of Commerce, until 1923 a part-owner of the Nambour Chronicle and a victim of the fire himself, approached all the owners of the burned buildings individually on the Monday after the fire, and proposed to them that the area be re-surveyed into rectangular blocks as a matter of urgency, and that a lane be built along their back (eastern) boundaries. All owners seemed to be in agreement, but when Mr Thynne called a meeting to discuss the proposal, only a few turned up. He expressed his disappointment in the paper, and said that, if the re-survey were not carried out, then a future generation ‘would see a million or two of ratepayers’ money being spent in buying up the land’. Before long, the owners were rebuilding on the old angled-survey allotments, and the opportunity was lost.  {11-1-1924, p.8}

Mr Thynne re-established his business in a spare office at the Nambour Town Hall, and 5½ years later had the misfortune to be burned out again when the Town Hall was destroyed by fire late in 1929.

The Governor of Queensland His Excellency Sir Matthew Nathan sent a message of sympathy: ‘Regret destruction and losses in attractive Nambour, but confident its progressive citizens will rebuild better than ever.’ Many similar messages were received, including one from Archbishop Duhig. 

In the Nambour Chronicle of 11th January 1924, numerous business people affected by the fire placed small advertisements expressing their thanks to the people who had provided assistance in some way in their time of need.  {11-1-24, p.2}

"Wm. Whalley of the Universal Stores, Nambour and Mapleton, desires to express thanks very sincerely to all those who with indefatigable endurance and energy succeeded in preventing the fire from spreading to stores on Saturday evening last. It is impossible to thank individually all who rendered assistance, but those who are in any way affected, will they please accept his thanks and appreciation of their efforts. Also, to the many willing and loyal helpers concerned in the removal and replacement of stocks, and to those who have conveyed expressions of regret, his thanks are specially due."  {11-1-1924, p.2}

"Miss Ashby, proprietoress of the Royal George Hotel, wishes to publicly express her gratitude to all who worked so heroically and unflinchingly in saving her premises on Saturday night last."

"Kearns and Hocking, proprietors of the 'Corner Shop' wish to thank all persons who helped in removing stock etc. during the fire. Also, to those who have expressed regret at the loss sustained."   {11-1-1924, p.2}

Some notices asked for understanding and assistance as they worked to restore their businesses.

"To the People of Nambour and District. Dear People, As all my books were burnt in the fire, I have no lists of addresses to send your books and papers out by. I can only remember some of them, so if you don't get your paper as usual, please write and let me know the paper you get and your address. By doing so you will help me pull through. You can get your paper, books and tobacco as usual at my new Book Stall at the Club Hotel. Yours sincerely, T. Humphreys."  (The unfortunate Miss Humphreys had only occupied her shop for two weeks. Nil desperandum, she was able to transfer her trading into the rebuilt Chadwick's Chambers, and was still operating a newsagency there in 1929.)  {23-12-1923, p.11}

"Notice. Messrs. Collins and Co. would be very grateful if those owing accounts will kindly take the first opportunity of meeting same in order to help tide the firm over their difficulties. Such assistance will be highly esteemed. Temporary Premises: Next to Club Hotel. Grocery department now in full swing. Drapery department ready for service in a few days. Collins and Co., Currie Street, Nambour." 

One said, "Mr Rawlinson and family extend their thanks to the many people who assisted to save Mrs Rawlinson and family and Miss Nellie Chapman from the disastrous fire which destroyed their home and business, and also to the people for their kind offer of immediate assistance and help. Royal Saloons will be rebuilt and opened as soon as possible, when we hope to again receive a share of your generous support." This, though, was not to be, for the Royal Saloons were never rebuilt. Perhaps Mr Rawlinson felt responsible for the fire which started under his shop, or perhaps townspeople were looking for someone to blame for the disaster - the record does not say. We do know that, since his arrival in Nambour 18 months before, Mr Rawlinson had placed advertisements for his Royal Pictures cinema and Royal Saloons in nearly every issue of the Nambour Chronicle. After his expression of thanks (quoted above), there are no more references to A. D. Rawlinson in the local newspaper. {11-1-1924, p.2}  

Four weeks after the fire, a public meeting was held in the Town Hall to set up a volunteer fire brigade. Referring to the attendance of less than a dozen people at the meeting, the Chairman of the Maroochy Shire Council (Cr. W. H. Harvey) stated, "I think it is very unfair when a body like the Nambour Chamber of Commerce brings such a vital matter as a fire brigade for the town before the Council, and the Council agrees to call a public meeting, that so few members of the public and less of the Chamber attend." {7-3-1924, p.3}  

Despite the public's lack of interest, which the Nambour Chronicle called 'lethargic slumber', a Nambour Volunteer Fire Brigade with eleven members (most of those at the meeting) was formed. Mr Thynne, Secretary of the Nambour Chamber of Commerce who had lost his solicitor's office in the fire, was at the meeting. He had some previous experience as a member of the Cairns Fire Brigade Board. He told the meeting of "a special Haig fire-engine which he claimed would suit Nambour very admirably for fire-fighting purposes, especially in view of the situation of the town with its creek almost encircling it. {7-3-1924, p.3}

"Cr Harvey agreed; he had been told of the same engine, which was worked from a Ford motor lorry, and could be brought into operation in a few minutes, and force a jet of water 150 feet high." The meeting decided to ask a fireman instructor from Brisbane to come to Nambour either weekly or fortnightly, to drill the volunteers in fighting fires. It also requested a demonstration of the Haig fire-engine. {7-3-1924, p.3}

The Commercial Bank of Australia rebuilt their little bank in 1924 on the original site next to Williams' Emporium and Café, but in brick this time. The Bank survived into the 1960s when it was replaced by a more modern building (see below). Williams' Café was sold to Edgar Wells after the 1924 fire, and as Wells' Café it became a gathering place for townsfolk and organisations, such as the Nambour Town Band. {28-7-1922, p.5} {19-12-1924, p.5}  In early 1925 it came under the management of Nichols & Baildon, Caterers, who changed its name to the 'White Rose Café'. {30-1-1925, p.6} {18-12-1925, p.7} Its popularity increased, and many club and organisation meetings were held there until well into the 1950s. The top floor was a banqueting hall with a dance floor, often used for public and private gatherings such as wedding breakfasts, socials, dinners, celebrations and other functions. In its later years it was turned into a block of flats (Hill's Flats), and remained in use as one of Nambour's oldest wooden buildings until it burned down in 1978.

 The Commercial Bank of Australia (C.B.A.) modernised its bank in 1958, at the same time spreading into a shop which had previously occupied half of the building. It is seen here next to Hill's Flats in 1973.
Photographs courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries

The same site in December 2009. The building at far left looks much the same as it did in 1973. Both Hill's Flats and the Commercial Bank have gone. Peter Wellington M.L.A. has his Nambour office on the C.B.A. site today. The store 'Curtains & Covers' and the offices of the Sunshine Coast Daily and Nambour Weekly (joint successors to the Nambour Chronicle) are both on the site of Hill's Flats, the erstwhile White Rose Café.

Mr Edgar Wells, whose café was destroyed, bought a new one from Mr Alf Williams soon after the fire. The following year he entered into a partnership with Mr E. Aspland as joint proprietors of the Returned Soldiers' Garage.
They rented their premises from a Mr F. W. Walsh of Brisbane. In March 1926 they decided to buy the building from Mr Walsh, and purchased it on 20th March. Ten days later, it burned to the ground in another of Nambour's disastrous fires. This was the second time Mr Wells had been burnt out in 27 months. Eight other business premises went up that night, including that of Mr F. Bendixen, at that time a general merchant. Like Mr Wells, Mr Bendixen had also lost a previous business in the great fire of 5th January 1924. {12-12-1924, p.8} {1-4-1926, p.9}

In the years after the 1924 fire, the volunteer fire fighters remained few in number. Their training did not eventuate, and they had no equipment whatsoever. They could only use buckets, axes and maybe some hand spray pumps that they could beg, borrow or steal once the fire had started. Purchase of a fire engine had been discussed by Councillors, but never implemented due to the cost. The volunteers and on-the-spot helpers forming bucket-brigades could not handle the regular succession of fires. Each was a matter of concern in a mostly wooden town, for until mid-1924 Nambour had only one brick building. Serious fires broke out on 15th February 1925, 30th March 1926, 12th November 1926, 8th January 1928, 26th June 1928, and 6th October 1928. {7-3-1924, p.3} {20-2-1925, p.9} {1-4-1926, p.9} {12-11-1926, p.9} {13-1-1928, p.8} {17-2-1928, p.9} {12-10-1928, pp.2, 7}

The one attempt made by the Maroochy Shire Council to limit the ravages of the 'fire fiend' was to declare Currie Street a 'first class area', and so from mid-1924 on any buildings built in this street needed to be constructed of brick, concrete or other fire-resistant materials.

On 12th October 1928 the Nambour Chronicle published the latest in a long line of scathing editorials, decrying the lack of fire-fighting facilities in a town that had a permanent water supply running through it in the form of Petrie Creek. It said, "At such a time as a fire, it is really lamentable to note the absence of organisation, or indeed any concentration of effort that is really worthwhile. It is not that the bucket-brigaders' efforts are in any way discounted, but it is the total absence of equipment with which fault must be found."  The new electric light reticulation was good, but it could not take the place of water reticulation in reducing the risk of fire. The editor had for many years advocated that reticulated water be provided to the town. This time he suggested that electric power be used for pumping creek water into a high tank or reservoir for a public water supply, which could be used to quench any outbreak of fire before it took hold. As ever, the words of advice and warning fell on deaf ears. {13-1-1928, p.8} {12-10-1928, p.2}

Some business owners preferred to build wooden buildings, as they were very cheap to construct. As an example of this way of thinking, the Commercial Hotel owner, after his establishment went up in flames in 1914, had said that he would rather rebuild in wood and take a chance against fire, than shoulder the expense of brick, concrete or other fire-resistant material.

On 23rd October 1929 the Nambour Town Hall burned down, together with its cinema, the Town Library next door, a Bank and several more businesses. A new, impressive Maroochy Shire Hall was built in its place, but still nothing was done to provide fire-fighting facilities for seventeen more years. It was not until the expensive Maroochy Shire Hall itself was seriously damaged by fire in 1948 that a proper Fire Brigade with paid firemen was finally established. A reticulated water supply did not appear in Nambour until 1959. {18-7-1924, p.9} {19-12-1924, p.5} {12-10-1928, p.2} {30-4-1948, p.1} {10-9-1948, p.1}

 The ruins of the Nambour Town Hall, destroyed by fire on 23rd October 1929. Only the walls of the brick addition and the brick strongrooms remain standing. Whalley’s Chambers is opposite.
Photograph courtesy Sunshine Coast Libraries


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