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Bijou Theatre Fire

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Australasian Sketcher 16.5.1889 pp.68,77 Australasian Sketcher 16.5.1889 pp.68,77 SLV Pictures Collection

THE BURNING OF THE BIJOU THEATRE. 

- reprinted form the Argus 24.04.1889, p.5.

LATEST PARTICULARS. AN INSPECTION OF THE RUINS. INTENTIONS OF THE PROPRIETOR AND LESSEE.

The main topic of conversation yesterday was the burning or the Bijou Theatre, and all day long crowds visited the scene of the disaster. Barriers were erected in Little Collins street on either side of the theatre, the condition of the south gable wall being considered too dangerous to allow any traffic to pass.

 

A special examination was made yesterday with a view of discovering any clue as to the origin of the fire. The chimney winch had been blamed was tested and carefully scrutinised but revealed no flaw. The fact that several costumes were recovered from the wardrobe room, seemed to indicate that the fire had not commenced there, and the fusing of the electric wires was not considered possible. Some significance was however, given to the last theory by a small fire which occurred in the Palace Hotel yesterday afternoon about 4 o'clock, and which was unquestionably caused by the fusing of some of the wires. On the other hand, Mr. Wilson, the proprietor, and his engineer explain that this was merely what they anticipated would happen. The water which had been poured upon the place during the progress of the fire had filtered through the floors and came into contact with the wires. The insulating material became affected and lost its power. The electric current was turned on earlier than usual, in order to discover the weak spots, and as soon as the wires fused the flames were extinguished and fresh wires fixed in. It is claimed that is none of the conditions existed on the afternoon of the fire, there was no reason why the wires should fuse Thus the cause of the fire still remains a mystery.

The building has also been overhauled by several practical men, amongst whom was Mr. P. Kerr, the Government architect, and the unanimous opinion is expressed that all the walls must be taken down, as they are   entirely unfit for future use. Mr Wilson is prepared to get to work as soon as the insurance adjuster has finished his work and in the interest of public safety it is to be hoped that no unnecessary delay will take   place. The gable wall and the eastern wall, part of which has already come down, are particularly dangerous and should be razed with all possible haste.  

The inquest on the bodies of the men who were killed will be held at the Melbourne Hospital this morning at 10 o'clock. A special jury has been summoned, and the inquiry will be conducted by Dr Youl. Captain Parsons, one of the victims, was a carriage trimmer by occupation and resided with Ins father at Avonleigh, Highett street, Richmond He was 33 years of age, and a widower, with no family. The whole of the firemen in the city and suburbs are re quested to attend the funeral which will move from his late residence to the Melbourne Cemetery at half past 2 on Thursday afternoon. The firemen are, however, requested to assemble in full uniform with caps at the East Melbourne Fire Brigade station at at half past 1 o'clock . The South Melbourne and Richmond brass bands will also attend to pay the last tribute of respect to their late comrade. The coffin will be borne on a manual fire engine. The other victim, Williams, has been found to be the halI porter at the Victor1au Club, which adjoins the Palace Hotel.  It has not yet been decided whether his îunerai will take place simultaneously with that of Captain Parsons.

The injured men are all progressing favourably but Otto Yehn, another member of the East Melbourne brigade, who was injured by the fall ot debris which killed his captain, is not yei out ot danger. The concussion from which he was suflering has turned out to be more serious than was at first supposed and he still lies in an unconscious condition. James Thomas of the Carlton brigade, who fell from a root and sustained concussion of the brain, is now out of all danger, and will be able to leave the hospital in a day or two, whilst Robert Dando a member of the Richmond brgade, has recovered to such an extent that he wished to leave the institution yesterday, but the doctors advised him not to do so. The others, who sustained minor injuries of a more or less serious nature, are all as well as can be expected.

Superintendent Stein, who was absent on holiday when the fire first broke out, returned to town late on Monday night, and visited the scene. He considers that to stop the fire where it was stopped was all that the brigades could do, and he is thoroughy satisfied with the way in which they kept the flames confined to the theatre, although he is somewhat surprised at th vast quantities of water which were poured on the other portions of the premises. He says that a fire in a theatre must either be of a trivial character or the whole place must go, that is the outbreak must be cheked at once or all the brigades in the world are useless if it once gets well alight.

And in connection with this he says that the fire appliances at all the theatres are insuflicient lo cope with fire. The 110th section of the Health Act, under which the theatres are controlled, reads: -

"That the board (i.e. the Central Board of Health) may… [deleted for brevity]… for the proper using of such appliances."

The Central Board of Health require that during the time of every public pertformance at any theatre there shall least two firemen on the premises. They also Stipulate that…[deleted for brevity]… The best suggestion that can be offered is that the members of the Central Board should consult with a few practical firemen, and decide upon some measure more stringent mid conducive to public safey.

No further particulars are at present ascertainable as to the insurance on the various premises All the offices were closed, and the managers of the insurance companies out of town Mr. Wilson still considera that he will lose between £15,000 and £20,000. He recognises that a suitable theatre cannot be erected much under £30,000, and the insurance on the building destroyed is not more than £15,000.

Messrs. Brough and Boucicault have found one silver streak of luck min the dark cloud of misfortune that has overshadowed them. All the manuscripts of the various comedies, burlesques, &c., of which they hold the exclusive Australian right, have been recovered intact. This is of more importance to them than the public are aware of..They couldnot have been replaced without considerable delay, and also expense, and without them the work ot the company would have been very materially interfered with. In addition to this they have saved their office books, with the exception of their letter-book. A box containing some rich and costly costumes was also found uninjured amongst the debris. The takings at the theatre on Good Friday and Saturday nights were also found to be safe. This sum was, however, much smaller than is generally supposed, as Saturday morning was treasury day, and all the salaries were paid out of the receipts.

Messrs. Brough and Boucicault still estimate their loss at £10,000, and regard the result of the disaster as really the destruction of their three and a half years' work. Of the persons connected with the theatre, Mr W. R. Spong, the artist, is the most to be commiserated. Prior to his coming to Australia, be had visited various parts ot the old world, and wherever he went he took sketches of the scenery, buildings, dresses, &c , to serve him in his work of scene painting. In addition, he had a number of large photographs which were of incalculable value to him for reference. All these are totally destroyed, and no amount ol money can replace them.
With commendable enterprise Messrs Brought awl Boucicault have lost no time in getting to work again They have completed arrangements to lease , the Hibernian Hall in Swanston street for a short season, and will appear there to night with their comedy company in "Betsy," which was only revived at the Bijou on Saturday last. Their re-appearance to-night will no doubt be even more cordially received than it was on Saturday, and will afford occasion for evidence ot the practical sympathy of the public.

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NOTES BY A VISITOR. 
Observers at the Coffee Palace, Bourke street, saw a column of smoke rising; and increasing in volume over the fated theatre at 10 minutes to 5. They were powerless to give the alarm, except by calling "fire, fire," a cry that was speedily taken up by people in the street. A better method obtaned in European and American cities, where a telephone or a telegraph on nearly every street corner reaches a fire department. A touch of the button indicates a fire and the locality.

When the fire engines and the reels drove up to the Arcade, an immense concourse gathered, and pressed close on the firemen. At first the few policemen on duty were powerless to keep much order, but gradually, as their numbers increased, they kept the crowd back. In other large cities ropes are drawn across the street, traffic is stopped, and the firemen have ample room to work. Then furniture and fittings stacked in the cleared space are not likely to be looted, as the police have power to eject or arrest trespassers within the cordon. After watching proceedings from a coign of vantage for fully four hours, I must say that the police were busily employed in keeping the throng from closing in and impeding work these men displayed much tact and patience in dealing with the larrikin element – a few of whom were hustled off to the city gaol for their misdeeds. It was not till the mounted troopers moved their horses that the press edged well towards the pavement. An English visitor declared that Captain Shaw of the London firemen would have swept the street clear by turning the hydrants on the people. Probably so drastic a remedy would have to be legalised here before it could be applied, through its efficacy is not be disputed. As engines and reels came to the front, it was evident that they were manned by eager and impetuous young spirits. These firemen worked with a will, and some of them worked up to a point beyond criticism. Nevertheless, from the beginning there was a glaring want of organised effort, or rather of a mastermind to mould and control operations. This defect is nothing new; its existence has been pointed out, and remedy has been suggested. Valuable as voluntary aid is, in many large cities the municipal governments never depend on it. Take San Francisco as an example. There the corporation brigades work under the direct pay and rule of the city government. The underwriters' brigades work in the interests of the insurance companies, and are paid and kept under discipline. These efforts of the 'Frisco firemen are well worthy of record, though they are not beyond emulation. Another painful feature in the late fire was the faulty ambulance arrangements. If the disabled men were conscious their sufferings must have been increased by the well meant but rough handling they received. Two of them were placed in fire-reel carts and two others were put in cabs and driven or jolted over the streets to the hospital.
Perhaps it has not occurred to our city fathers that ambulance wagons, with cots or hammocks, are in use in other parts of the world. These wagons are on duty day and night, to pick up street accidents and to attend on fires.
The material to make firemen is abundant, and the means to get the greatest return in the quickest tune, and with the least expenditure of power, can be found here or else where.

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