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Sensational Bayside Fire: 1913

The Fire boke out in some weatherboard buildings at the rear of Rennison’s store Aspendale, which is on the beach side of Point Nepean road, soon after 12.30 p.m. Messrs Kerr and Gibbons, the proprietors of the place, and owners of the grocery business carried on there, were, with the ladies of the house, having dinner when a boy rushed in from across the road and cried out that the kitchen of his parent’s house was in flames. All rushed to the rear, where, separated by about six feet of space, were three weatherboard rooms used for the storage of surplus stock and a wash house under one roof. Detached from these buildings was a cart shed, a stable, and a feed house, all under one roof. All these structures were ablaze. There were three large tanks full of water in the vicinity, one containing 1000 gallons and two others holding 800 gallons each. Very soon the Aspendale firemen arrived. The taps were torn out of the 800 gallon tanks, the water being directed into a canvas receptacle belonging to the brigade, and from this it was energetically pumped on to the conflagration. As the tap on the 1,000 gallons tank was too near the fire to be got at with axes, gaps were made in the galvanised iron and jets of water were expelled. In some miraculous manner the main store was saved, but all the outlying buildings described were in the course of half an hour destroyed with their contents, including £40 worth of stock, all one of the proprietor’s wedding presents, a rubber tyred jinker, harness and miscellaneous furnishings. The buildings only were insured with the South British company. Messrs Kerr and Gibbons state they and their household are quite unable to conjecture what caused the fire.

Probably the strong north wind had a great deal to do with the saving of the house, but it carried the fire into the surrounding scrub southward, where a whole crowd of fowls was incinerated. Leaping across the eat end of Bank street, where there were several weatherboard cottages left untouched, the flames sped southward, and invested back and front a new unpainted wooden tenement owned by Mr Foley. The scrub around this place was scorched black, but the fire failed to keep hold, and passed on, after breaking a window and only doing external damage. Nestling behind Mr Foley’s building is a sizable weatherboard dwelling belonging to Mr P N Flyger let to holiday tenants. This place was missed by the conflagration, now divided into two devastating wings, and tearing through the bush still southwards. Another 6 roomed cottage, owned by Mr Flyger close by and occupied, with its contents was demolished. Although the property was insured he estimates his loss at over £200.

Twenty yards further on the fire missed devouring a substantial house owned by Mr Wright, although it consumed all the scrub around it. Luckily a 12 feet clearing had been made about the domicile. That no doubt saved the place which was hardly scorched. A considerable area of ti-tree was devastated beyond. Then the blaze engulfed a large house and furnishings and motor garage owned by Mr L Homes a bedstead manufacturer. These buildings stood in grounds traversed by a gravelled drive. Passing on a house owned by Mr T Flanagan, a well known ex city hotelkeeper was attacked. This place was decorated with a tower that had cost £40. The tower was the first part to be consumed. Then the house and all its contents fed the flames including a large first class Alcock’s billiard table only delivered on Saturday. Beyond this the fire got away somewhat from Point Nepean road, working south westerly. It burnt up a house and furniture belonging to Mr Spargo of Brunswick leaving untouched a bungalow tent owned by the same gentleman only a few yards to the east. The runs of Mr Spargo’s house display one more chimney than was on the premises. This was the gaunt relic of a previous disastrous blaze years ago. The two housed belonging to Mr Shaw, one named ‘Peurhyn’ was next burnt out. Then was demolished Beach Cottage owned by a Mrs Warrington and unoccupied at the time. Further on south large houses known as ‘Felstead’ ‘Ben More’ and ‘Pendarvis’ were quickly consumed. The latter belonging to Mr Spargo, contractor of Malvern. The next place burnt out was a well furnished house called ‘Carn Brae’ owned by Mr T J Symons of George Robertson and Co who was living there with his family. Mrs Symons was ill unfortunately and a doctor was attending her when the alarm was given that the flames were approaching. She had to be helped out of the house which directly afterwards with its contents disappeared from the landscape.

Here another conspicuous miss was made. The fire circled around the rear of ‘Ithaca’ a large furnished wooden house owned by Miss Boyes of Spencer street Essendon and let to the ‘Moonshiners’ camping club. There was only one Moonshiner about. He worked to the point of exhaustion in beating off the flames when they singed the south-west corner of the building. Back towards the beach from ‘Ithaca’ a house rented by ‘The Barcarolles’ campers was consumed, with its contents, and Miss Boyes sustained the loss of a furnished weekend house that she used personally at intervals. Still keeping away from the road and blazing now 50 yards wide, in flames 50 feet high, the fire capriciously missed an insured weatherboard cottage known as ‘Lanark’ owned by Mr Kellaway, draper, of Brunswick, directly in its way and burnt to the ground., with all they contained several houses contiguous. These were ‘Elsiedale’ belonging to Mrs Busteed; ‘Marama’ owned by Mr J R Ellingsworth, of Box Hill; ‘Glen Lynn’ the property of Mr Wenborn tailor of Hawthorn; a house occupied by a Mr Norden and one leased by ‘The Matadors’ camping club. Mr Ellingworth’s house was insured for £240 and his furniture was insured for £50. All that was left standing was an iron front gate and some picket fencing. He states he is a considerable loser.

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Image Alfred Morton with brothers, sisters and friends camping on the foreshore, c1890.
Courtesy Chelsea & District Historical Society.


Father on ‘Craigie’ owned by Mr Heathcote of Essendon was demolished with some of its contents. A load or more of the furniture was got out on to Point Nepean road. There was an insurance of £200 on the house and furniture with the Royal Exchange Company. Mr Heathcote estimates his total loss at about £400. Beyond his place to the south-west, approaching Chelsea, a house known as Mr Chapman’s was consumed. ‘Corio’ a substantial fibro cement and timber house with a large number of rooms fronting the road was missed. This was owned by Mrs Morton. At the rear two other cottages of her’s with their furniture were demolished. Another house in the vicinity burnt out belonging to Mr A W Allen of Moonee Ponds and his brother. Near by Mrs Seaton lost a six roomed house and a boat shed in the fire, with the furniture in the house. This was the only case in which the conflagration penetrated to the beach and burnt anything there. Mrs Seaton’s property was insured. Closer towards Chelsea several more dwellings were consumed namely a house and furniture belonging to Mr Mitchell; one owned by Mr Ringwood boot and shoe dealer of Brunswick road West Brunswick; premises belonging to Mr Fred Parkin and two houses owned by Mr Moore. All that was saved from Mr Ringwood’s place which was a spacious villa consisted of a pair of tongs, and a white cup without a handle labelled ‘Father’. A fine new piano was burnt with the furniture. Mr Moore’s houses were insured but not his furniture. A valuable motor car of his was fortunately in use some miles away when the fire occurred, but he lost two new uninsured motor tyres and a large stock of Christmas goods. Then another remarkable miss was made, this being Mr Toogood’s house ‘Rennie-lea’ in the line of the fire, which escaped with the singeing of a back room.

It is estimated that £600 was lost in the destruction of ‘Bermen’ the property of Mr F D Smith, civil engineer of Brunswick. The house was used for week-end purposes only, and contained 6 rooms. Everything was lost, a heap of iron roofing only remaining to indicate where the house had stood. The place was uninsured. The saving of the house behind ‘Berman’ owned and occupied by Mr J M Dawson is regarded as extraordinary. The first warning given Mrs Dawson was that a man which was followed immediately by the swishing sound of water as it was hurled over a burning chair in one of the rooms. A spark from the burning scrub had alighted on the chair and set it on fire. Luckily the wind chopped round at this juncture and the house, with a number others in a cluster, were saved. The fire burned within a few feet of the houses but no damage was done.

Mr C C Sandford owned two or three cottages which were demolished and timber had arrived for the erection of another house. All was destroyed. Mr and Mrs Sandford fought valiantly to hold the flames in check and just escaped with difficulty through the raging flames. Their children became terror stricken but they were hurried to the beach where they were in comparative safety. Mrs Kay who occupied one of Mr Sandford’s houses lost all her belongings.

Adjoining these properties were six small house which had earned the distinction of Tiny Town. All that is left are six bare chimney stacks. The places were owned by Messrs Lewis, Kennedy, Dicketts, Channdey, Cook and Loel. With the exception of those occupied by Mr Cook and Mr Lewis the houses were used as week end resorts. Both Mrs Lewis and Mrs Cook were at home with their children and in the panic which followed the cry of fire Mrs Loel’s children, a boy and a girl of tender years were missed. A vigilant search failed to disclose their whereabouts. For three hours the distracted parents gave way to the worst fears. That her children had been devoured by the merciless flames she felt sure. At last the welcome news was communicated that the children were in the safe keeping of a neighbour.

On Saturday Mr and Mrs Schollenberger took possession of a furnished four roomed cottage facing the Frankston road. A quantity of clothing and other personal effects was taken down yesterday morning and these with the house and furniture were burned. The house belonged to Miss Freyden but it is not known if it was insured.

Mr Callaghan is a heavy looser by the fire. He recently constructed three houses at the corner of Avondale avenue and Point Nepean road and these with their contents went. Mr Callaghan occupied on of the houses and the others were rented by Mr Chitts assistant station master and Mrs Kearns. A house next to the three cottages owned by Mr Mainwaring was burnt like so much matchwood.

The break provided by Avondale avenue was the means of saving Mr Bennett’s house. Sparks set fire to the place and the surrounding scrub several times but the flames were held in check. Curiously enough the fire swept through houses a few yards away and occupied by Mrs Ward, Mr S J Cook and Mr Morris. Further on towards Chelsea station Mr Hooper’s bungalow and shop were devoured and also a house occupied by Mrs Wardley. The stables at the rear of Duncan’s store was swept away and it was only through the heroic efforts of the fire fighters the whole property was not demolished.

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Cyclists in the ti-tree on the Chelsea/Aspendale foreshore, c1900. Courtesy Chelsea & District Historical Society.

A house owned by Mrs Sandford known as ‘The Rest’ which was the admiration of all Chelsea was consumed by the fire. The house was completed only a few weeks ago and about £2000 was spent on the building and its general furniture. It was occupied by Mrs Sandford, Mr Fruen, property valuer for the Melbourne City Council and Mrs Mrs Rainford a daughter of Mrs Sandford who arrived some days ago from South Africa on a holiday. Mrs Sandford and her daughter were in the house when warning was given of the fire. Both women pluckily seized axes and rushed towards ti-tree which fringed the property. The fire driven by the north wind was sweeping on them at a great pace, but they stuck gamely to the self imposed task of hewing down the scrub with the idea of forming a ‘break’. On came the fire devouring everything in its course until its tongues of flame reached the house. The women became panic stricken when they found themselves almost surrounded by flames. They had thought of saving some treasured valuables from the house but it was too late. The building was a mass of flames and the whole place was engulfed. The women fled for their lives before the flames taking with them only the clothes in which they were dressed. Mrs Sandford was so overcome at the sight of her beautiful home falling before the consuming elements that it was only with difficulty Mrs Rainford was able to induce her to flee. Mrs Sandford was sparsely clad on account of the heat of the day. A medallion railway pass which she wore round her neck was so blackened by the smoke and heat that it was almost unrecognisable. The house was magnificently furnished and contained besides a large amount of personal effects and jewellery, a valuable library, the property of Mr Fruen. Included in this were some irreplaceable records of property sales on which Mr Fruen based many of his valuations. The homeless women were accommodated in a house owned by Mrs Cleveland only a few years away from ‘The Rest’ but which escaped damage by the fire.

Seen after the conflagration had subdued Mrs Rainford said in all her travels she had never witnessed such a frightful spectacle as that of the sweeping devouring flames. She had lost all she possessed by the fire, ‘but’ she added ‘poor mother’. There was no insurance on the house or contents but it is believed Mr Fruen had carried proposal papers for a fire policy for several days. When he left the house in the morning he was reminded to effect the insurance.

One of the many narrow escapes was that experienced by Mr Swaile, an invalid, who with his wife had rented a furnished cottage known as ‘Corra Lynne’. For years he had been moved from place to place in a bath chair having lost the use of his legs. I was not until the fire was upon them that the couple were warned of their danger. Mrs Swaile anticipated some difficulty in getting her husband to a place of safety, but strange to say he suddenly regained his walking powers and was able even to assist in the rescue of a number of canaries and a parrot and removed them to the seaside. Nothing but the birds were saved, all furniture, house and personal belongings being destroyed.

Rushing frantically from a fiercely burning tenement on to the Frankston road a mother implored a motorist to help her. “For God’s sake save my baby” she cried; “there are others in the house”. The motorist, in reply to the woman’s supplications is stated to have retorted “I’ve got to save my car”. His action was witnessed by a waggoner who, rightly or wrongly, jumped from his vehicle and slashed a tyre of the motor with a clasp knife. “Save your car if you can” said the waggoner as he took the baby from the grief-stricken woman.

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Melbourne/Frankston Road at Chelsea, c1910. Courtesy of Chelsea & District Historical Society.

Twenty or thirty young ladies were on the beach sun bathing and romping in the surf when the fire, with great suddenness swept over the country. Before they could reach their homes the flames had cut off their tracks. They were thus forced to remain on the beach, clothesless, homeless and tealess until overcoats were requisitioned from the gallant young men of the township. Some of the ladies resorted to tears, but realising the futility of such a weakness when prevailed on by their more philosophical friends they accepted the situation with commendable calm. “I would not mind so much,” remarked one of them “had I been conventional enough to put on a pair of stockings before I left the camp.”

It is understood several relief fund lists will be opened to aid those who have lost their belongings in the devastation. A request has been made to the clergy of the Church of England for portion of the Christmas offertories but what action the churches will take in the matter had not yet been stated.

A boy named Glen Wiedermann aged seven somehow got lost in the scrub near Chelsea and was surrounded by the fire. His screams of distress were heard by the fighters, two of whom rushed into the scrub and brought him out. The little fellow was badly burned about the legs and was sent straight away to the Children’s Hospital.

One of the fire fighters at Aspendale, Mr Joseph Logue, reported to the police that, having put off his upper clothing to assist in stopping the spread of the flames, on seeking it again he found his watch and chain had been stolen.

A remarkable thing about the whole affair was the monotonous similarity of each domestic tragedy, as represented by the remains of the burned down houses. There stood as witnesses to what had been one, two or three isolated chimneys; at their bases some pieces of corrugated iron, which had been part of the roofing, here and there the head of an iron bedstead protruded and that was practically all. Everything else was consumed. Flanking the debris in almost every case was to be seen a more or less collapsed water tank, often full of water, that was noisily boiling long after the flames had passed on. As the occupants when the houses were occupied were mostly holiday visitors who had no property in the places beyond their clothing and money, hardly anyone remained to ponder over the ruins an hour after combustion took place. The owners never heard of the fire in many cases until the evening was well advanced; so very few of them appeared on the ground by daylight. On the whole the scene after the fire was comparable with many abandoned diggings in Victoria, where engine house stacks marked where formerly there had been busy mines.

The children suffered considerably. In the height of the fire they came running from the beach barefooted. Much of the sand they trod on had been traversed by the flames and burning hot. They ran upon this for a few paces squealing and then fell down one after the other. The fire beaters had to leave their work, pick them up and carry them out of reach of harm. One little boy named Windham however was badly burnt about the feet, and had to be given medical attendance. Several children had their boots and shoes burnt off and having lost their seaside homes had to be taken away by train barefooted.

The rapid course of the flames is well illustrated by the experience of Mr Pitman a young man who belonged to a holiday club called The Dandies, who were in occupation of Kelvin grove, a spacious weatherboard house on Point Nepean road near Chelsea. He said he was bathing in the sea and getting scared by seeing three large sharks which had been reported as hovering about the coast all Sunday he got quickly to shore incidentally warning some woman bathers of the danger. As he moved off the beach he noticed a glare and some smoke nearly a mile off in the direction of Aspendale. He got back to Kelvin grove and was dressing, being alone in the house when, ten minutes from when he first saw the flames, he saw smoke and sparks drift past the window. The fire was upon him, having travelled, as he said, faster than the train would have done. Simultaneously some firemen broke in. They assisted him to move out a valuable piano belonging to The Dandies and when they had got this to a place of safety, Kelvin grove was a heap of ruins. Another instance of the swift progress of the flames was within the experience of a lady visitor who travelled to Chelsea by a train in the early afternoon. After passing Aspendale she saw the fire raging and several houses in flames. Presently, a long way southwards of where the conflagration then was, she saw the boarding house where she was to stay apparently quite safe, and she pointed it out to a friend. Chelsea being the next station she alighted and walked expeditiously towards her proposed temporary home. When she reached it the house she had seen intact out of the train window but a few moments before was represented by two chimneys in a heap of blazing ruins.

Author

The Age [1]

Footnotes

  1. The Age, December 23, 1913.

Article Cat. Events in the Past
Article Ref. 138

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