The first fire in Melbourne, after European settlement, is believed to have occurred in Melbourne’s first gaol in 1838. The incident was later depicted in watercolour by WFE Liardet in 1875.

Photograph of horse-drawn fire engine and firemen outside the Collingwood Fire Station, Hoddle Street.

[Collingwood fire engine at Hoddle St.]H8332

Up until 1890, fires were fought by employees of various insurance companies. A fire mark, like the one below, was attached to a building in order to identify which insurance company they belonged too.

A fire mark from a Melbourne building in the early 1900's.

A watercolour of a Ballarat fireman from 1880.

                                                               [Ballarat fireman], H6736

In 1890, and then consolidated in 1958, the Fire Brigades Act was passed through Victorian Parliament. As a result, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Board (MFBB) and the Country Fire Brigade Board (CFBB) were established. The MFB started in 1891 and used horses to pull the carts, hoses and reels and firemen (women were first inducted in 1988), throughout Melbourne. Street fire alarms were gradually placed on city and suburban street corners and a watch tower at Eastern Hill, which still serves as the MFB headquarters today, gave a 360 degree view over Melbourne. By 1919 the MFB was fully motorised and continued to grow and adjust to a modernising city, adopting breathing apparatus and becoming increasingly involved in road accident rescues.

A colour certificate for the Warrnambool Country Fire Brigade from 1894.

[Certificate for ] The Country Fire Brigade Demonstration, Warrnambool, March 6, 7, & 8, 1894, H2009.161/19

As Victoria expanded and towns were established, volunteer country brigades were formed, the first being at Geelong in 1854. By 1888, there were 100 brigades in Victoria and in 1919 the CFBB provided motor vehicles for several brigades. Modern equipment was vital in coming years as huge fires took homes, land and lives in 1926, 1939 and 1944. As a result the Country Fire Authority (CFA) was established in December 1944. It divided Victoria into regions and appointed Regional Officers who would represent the CFA in country areas. Today the CFA have 1120 brigades and are supported by 59,000 volunteers and 1800 staff, fighting not only fires but floods.

The Library holds many resources about fire fighting in Victoria, which can be accessed in the Library, as well as many images on our website. We also have a collection of firemarks on display in the exhibition The changing face of Victoria. For more information on bushfires in Victoria, you can use our research guide.

Written by Paul Dee
Librarian, Australian History and Literature Team

Murray R, White K 1995, State of fire: a history of volunteer fire fighting and the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, HargreenFitzroy, Vic.

Wilde, S 1991, Life under the bells: a history of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Melbourne 1891-1991, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire

Chitty, A 1921  ‘Fire insurance offices and fire marks in Australasia‘, The Victorian Historical Magazine, vol V III, no 4, pp 113-116

This article has 5 comments

  1. Hi Paul,
    The following is a direct extract from CFA’s History Timeline in their official website.
    “The Country Fire Authority commences on 2 April 1945.”

    • Thanks for the comment Neil.

      The blog refers to when the Authority was established- which was December 1944, by an Act of Parliament (Country Fire Authority Act 1944.)
      Quoting from the book State of fire: a history of volunteer fire fighting and the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, (HargreenFitzroy, Vic.),
      (p. 121), ‘The Act to establish the Country Fire Authority passed through the Victorian Parliament in two stages on 22 November and 6 December 1944. The Authority was appointed on 19 December 1944.
      …The Authority held its first meeting in rented premises of the former CFBB at 60 Market Street, Melbourne on 3 January 1945.’

      The copyright of the 1995 book is held by the Country Fire Authority. I’m not sure what precisely commenced on 2 April 1945- as I couldn’t find mention of that date in the book.


  2. Episode 11 of “My Marvellous Melbourne” podcast — the tragic story of Carlton firefighter Christopher Gee.

  3. Leonard Sargent

    Does anyone know what years the country fire brigades demonstrations were held and the location they were held?


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