Brisbane had no fire engine when the first serious conflagration for the town broke out on 8 July 1855, a Sunday morning, in the building that housed William Pettigrew’s steam saw mill. With no fire engine and few people about, Pettigrew’s first attempt at the mechanisation of timber saw milling in Queensland burnt to the ground, causing him an estimated loss of nearly £3,000.
Pettigrew’s saw mill had commenced its operation just two years previously. Each working day its output was around 7,500 feet (2,300 metres) of milled timber, a resource supporting the growth in construction being experienced then in Queensland. This mechanisation, however, threatened the livelihoods of those involved in the traditional means of timber preparation. Sawyers, who worked in pairs with one man above and one below in the saw pit, were less efficient. Mechanisation made their replacement inevitable. A suspicion that the fire was lit deliberately was raised at the time of the fire, but no proof could be found.
Pettigrew was sleeping on the premises. He discovered the fire in the early hours of the morning, well after it had taken hold. With no fire engine, water from the river was carried in buckets and by this means kept the fire from spreading to other buildings and stacked timber nearby. Unfortunately, the saws at the heart of mill operations were warped and twisted in the disaster.
Pettigrew started again. His rebuilt and expanded saw mill was employing 100 workers when another fire broke out on 18 October 1874, again a Sunday, this fire more serious and damaging than before. Such was its ferocity that the exertions of thirty members of the fire brigade could, as in the first fire, only prevent a spread to surrounding buildings. The flames from the fire were so fierce that Pettigrew’s ship the Gneering, with her rigging and mast ablaze, had to be released from her moorings at the saw mill wharf and moved into the river where the blazing sections could be cut away. Such was the fear that a change in wind could cause the fire to spread that people moved the furniture from houses nearby, causing considerable damage to property in the process.
With his cast iron machinery cracked or warped and his milling buildings destroyed, Pettigrew estimated the losses at between £20,000 and £30,000. The community too would feel this fire’s impact with nearly half of the mill staff being laid off and the supply of milled timber, already in demand, being significantly reduced. A knock-on effect was predicted in the building industry.
As he had done before, Pettigrew rebuilt. His sawmill operated in William Street until 1900.
- Moreton Bay Courier, 14 July 1855, p. 2.
- Queenslander, 24 October 1874, p. 2.
William Pettigrew’s diaries, Royal Historical Society of Queensland
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