The great and not so great fires of 1864

Fire presented a grave risk to the timber-built shops which were commonly built in Brisbane 150 years ago. Three separate fires occurred in the centre of Brisbane city in 1864 and inquests held at Queensland State Archives provide details of the origin of the fires, property lost or destroyed and witness statements.

On 11 April 1864 the Queen Street business partnerships of Frazer and Buckland’s, R A & I Kingsford, Bulcocks and Fegan, and the one-man businesses of Mr Jost, Mr Berkley, Mr Mandell, Mr Keith, Mr Thomas and Mr Markwell were either damaged or destroyed. This fire was investigated by Coroner Justice James Wilson. The inquest file includes this plan of the damaged or destroyed buildings.

Plan of damaged or destroyed buildings in Queen Street from the inquest into the 1864 fire, April 1864. Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 27273
Plan of damaged or destroyed buildings in Queen Street from the inquest into the 1864 fire, April 1864. Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 27273

On 4 September, the second fire of 1864 was discovered by Constable Blake in Refuge-Row. Blake was on duty in Edward Street when he noticed a light in the shop known as the Little Wonder. The inquest held at Queensland State Archives records that Blake heard a crackling sound and raised the alarm. The Little Wonder, the business of Mr Francis Marriott, and the adjoining Bulcock’s vegetable store were destroyed. Sadly, Mr Marriott had relocated his book business after the April fire in Queen Street to Refuge-Row.

And what about the third fire in Brisbane? This fire began in Stewart and Hemmant’s drapery warehouse on 1 December 1864. It blazed through the centre of the city destroying many business and houses in Queen, Albert, George, and Elizabeth Streets.

Fire fighters in the 19th century would have relied on early maps such as Mckellar’s official map of Brisbane and suburbs to find and identify the buildings under threat in the 1864 fires. You can view these maps online in Image Queensland on the Queensland State Archives’ website here. You can also learn about the work of volunteer fire brigades including those who dowsed the flames in 1864 on our website at Fiery beginnings .

Newspapers of the day document that many of the store keepers and retailers impacted by the 1864 fires had insurance for their stock. In later years, insurance for the buildings was informed by risk rules and regulations such as those written by the Fire Underwriters’ Association of Queensland. You are welcome to visit Queensland State Archives to explore records relating to early Brisbane.

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6 Responses

  1. Peter Eedy

    Thanks QSA – great article (I saw it via a link on the Facebook page ‘Lost Brisbane’)
    One of the outcomes of these fires was the creation of local building by-laws, which included the establishment of ‘fire zones’ in the town centre and provisions for ‘first-class construction’ (masonry)

  2. Another fire occurred in April 1870 in Elizabeth Street. The report in the Brisbane Courier (16 April) includes the fact that flames in the roof of the cottage occupied by Mrs Mackinlay were extinguished but that the damage to the roof was minor. Mrs Mackinlay was my great-great-grandmother.

  3. judith Oliver

    My Great Grandmother Providence (Thomas) Flegg her Daughter Providence Sarah Flegg (known as Sarah) and Edwin Flegg arrived on the Queen of the South from Liverpool on December 1 1864. They were taken up the Brisbane river on the Salamander and arrived at the Brisbane wharf at 9pm along with the 500 other passengers. I wonder what their thoughts and reactions were when they saw the flames of that fire. What a welcome to their new country. How I wish that they had been able to write of their feelings on that day.

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