The History of Hunter Street
Hunter Street,  Information Pages  (H2)
Lost Hunter Street, Newcastle NSW Au

1859 Fire

  • In November 1859 the most disastrous fire that had ever occurred in Newcastle destroyed several buildings in the main streets of Newcastle. The Commercial Hotel was one of them. The following account was published in the Argus on 21 November 1859
    A destructive fire the greatest which ever occurred in Newcastle, and so serious in extent as to amount to a public calamity occurred here yesterday (Sunday)
    The seat of the conflagration, for such it was, extends from Spragg's store, in Hunter street (saved only by the most extraordinary exertions) to the corner of Watt-street, and thence up the west side of Watt-street to the Victoria Inn.

    The premises destroyed are those occupied by Mr. Shoemacker, Mr. Hawley, Mr. Stafford, The theatre, Mr. Croft's Commercial Hotel, Mr. W. H. Whyte's butcher's shop,
    office, and back-houses, and the Victoria Hotel, all of which are complete ruins, the remains of them being now only a few tottering walls. The value of the property destroyed is necessarily large, being estimated roughly at 10,000 or 12,000; but there is room for congratulation in the fact that no lives have been lost, and that the fire was stopped at points where to prevent its further extension seemed at times almost impossible, and where that extension would probably not have been limited to the remainder of the block of buildings bounded by Bolton-street.

    The fire was first observed at about a quarter past 2 o'clock a.m., when it was seen to break out in the upper part of the Commercial Hotel, the second story of which building was, in a few minutes afterwards, a mass of flames, which extended almost immediately to the basement, the inmates having little more than sufficient time to escape; and, although the good feelings of the few persons who were first on the spot induced them to assist in removing some of the property which was next to hand in the lower part of the house, but comparatively little was saved. In the meantime the flames, carried by a strong north-east wind, were rapidly extending above, and in an extraordinary short space of time had reached the roof of Mr. Whyte's front premises, in Watt-street, and, spreading across a narrow passage, caught the roof of the Victoria Hotel, the whole of those buildings being almost at once hopelessly in flames. From these latter, also, but little property was rescued. About this period the first engine, from the fire brigade station in Newcomen-street, reached the spot and, worked by such of the brigade as first arrived, and by a number of volunteers, played, under the charge of Mr. Webb, on the back premises, towards which the flames were spending. In this direction the efforts to prevent the extension of the fire to the large store of Mr. Whyte were successful, although the flames, carried by the wind, were driven alarmingly towards it; and although a quantity of dry loose timber, stored up in the space between, was, repeatedly on fire. The direction of the wind had for some time confined the flames in a great measure to the southward of where they first broke out; but now, about half-past 3 a.m., a strong breeze came on from the eastward, which drove the fire along Hunter street, and with most alarming rapidity. The theatre was at once in a flame from end to end. Extending from thence to the butcher's shop of Mr. Stafford, the flames were carried along to the low tenements occupied by Mr. Hawley and Mr. Shoemacker, which it became immediately evident that nothing could save. Here occurred another and more serious struggle, to arrest the progress of destruction, as, if the flames extended to the store of Mrs. Lee (late Spragg's), the destruction of the whole square, at least, became certain.

    So hopeless did the struggle here seem- while every possible effort was at this point and elsewhere manfully battling with the fire that along Hunter-street and up Bolton-street an immediate removal of moveable property of every kind instantly took place, the wide street opposite and the Court-house being filled with goods, which the inhabitants of every class were anxiously assisting to remove, even ladies joining in the charitable effort ; but it is deeply to be regretted that, with the success which invariably attends well-meant efforts of this kind, the destruction caused in the removal was, next to the effect of fire itself, of the most serious nature ; Mr. Knagg's extensive stock of medicines, books, perfumery, stationery, furniture, and even fixtures, being, in particular, so damaged and broken as that a thousand pounds would seem not too high an estimate of the loss. By partly anticipating the fire in tearing down Mr. Shoemacker's house, and by the incessant play of the two engines on tho roof and side wall but above all, perhaps, by a providential shift of wind-Mrs. Lees store, which is comparatively a high brick building, although several times on fire at the roof, was almost unexpectedly preserved, and the further progress of the fire was stopped at that side. All this time the flames had been extending, spite of every means taken against them, along the back of the premises of Mr. Whyte, travelling westward; and here they were met by the same efforts to prevent their extension, as, had they reached Mr. Whytes stables, the dreaded communication with the other buildings would have been effected.

    At this point it was again literally a hand to hand struggle with the fire, and it was only by the use of blankets kept continually wet spread on the roofs, by pulling down communications, by the incessant play of the two engines, and by every other available means of throwing water, that it was kept within the mentioned limits ; the closeness of the struggle being appreciable by the fact that Mr. Knaggs' back premises were on fire twice. Here the exertions of Mr. Howden, the foreman of the brigade, with a number of his men, were invaluable ; and it was only by his attention having been fixed on this point from an early period of the fire, and by a providential arrangement made for water, that the fire was stopped. Here also, the mayor, Mr. Charles Bolton, Mr. Knaggs, Mr. Adam, Mr. Richardson, and others, rendered greatest service, and even female hands helped to work the pumps.

    Thus far, is a brief history of a calamity which, spreading over a considerable area of ground, was really heartrending to behold, and which will be long remembered in Newcastle. The particulars, thus far if, perhaps, unavoidably inaccurate in some slight details, are correct in outlines ; but it would be difficult to describe the general feeling excited in the town by the fire, and the universal sympathy felt for the sufferers. The exertions of the mass of the in- habitants indeed of all who could render aid were above praise, and nothing but such aid could have kept the visitation within bounds. To a spectator viewing the progress of the fire the scene, apart from its intrinsic horrors, was truly pitiable. The terrified inhabitants of the houses nearest the spot, with their families, deserting their habitations, and filling the streets with those articles which, in the haste of the moment, each considered most valuable. Indeed it was impossible, for a considerable time, to say what houses were safe, as, while a shower of burning matter was carried by the wind in one direction, the intense heat seemed to expose the houses on the east side of Watt-street to most serious hazard in the other. The following, it is known, are covered, or nearly so, by insurance :-Messrs. W. H. Whyte, Kemp, Croft, Knaggs, and Mrs. McGreavy.

    It is a matter of some difficulty, where so many exerted themselves, either to notice or withhold names, but it would be both unjust and unwise (as praiseworthy examples) not to give the names, in addition to those already noticed, of Mr. J. P. Luke, Mr. James Buxton, Mr. J. Tippin (who received a rather severe injury in the face). Messrs. M'Pherson, Sharrack, Porter, and Talford, and of Frank (a coloured man). The exertions of the Volunteer Fire Brigade cannot be estimated by any praise here. They were, from the first, the nucleus of the force which met the fire, and combatted with it in every direction, and they hold charge of the burning ruins even to the present moment. The origin of the fire is unknown.

    The following paragraph from the Sydney Morning Herald of the next day gives some additional details As stated in our correspondent's letter yesterday morning, a large portion of the property at Newcastle destroyed by fire on Sunday last was uninsured. The Imperial office will be the greatest losers by this calamity, their risks upon the premises owned or occupied by Mr. Croft, Mr. Whyte, and Mr. Kemp, amounting to upwards of 7,000. the whole of which sum will probably have to be paid. The stock and furniture of Mr. Knaggs and Mr. Richardson wore insured in the London and Liverpool Company ; the principal damage to these was caused by their removal, and it is estimated that about 500 will be required to put them in repair. The only one of the buildings insured in the Sydney Insurance Company was that occupied by Mrs. Lees ; probably between 500 and 1000 will be required to make good the loss they have sustained, including that incurred in the removal of foods from the houses. None of the other Sydney offices will be sufferers by the fire. The reports from the Newcastle agents, and also letters from other parties, speak in very high terms of the valuable services rendered by the Newcastle Fire Brigade ; and also by the inhabitants generally in their efforts to extinguish the fire.

    By Spero Davias
    from information kindly obtained from 'Free Settler or Felon'


The History of Hunter Street
Hunter Street,  Information Pages  (H2)
Lost Hunter Street, Newcastle NSW Au