“All hands to the pump!”
By Danda Humphreys
Bucket brigades, a fire bell, and competing fire engines formed the early fire-fighting systems of Victoria.
The fire bell at Victoria City Hall.
While horns toot, ships whistle, and bells peal at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the large bronze bell outside City Hall stays silent. Standing firmly on a concrete base, clapper long since gone, it’s a relic of a bygone age when bells called people to action. Today, it’s a memorial to the brave men who served as fire-fighters in Victoria’s early days.
One hundred and sixty years ago, when few buildings existed outside of Fort Victoria, fire-fighting was relatively simple. When the alarm was called, everyone ran to help. They formed a line from the waterfront, and buckets of water passed from hand to hand were successful—or not—in dousing the blaze. But in 1858, when the Fraser River Gold Rush focused attention on the little HBC settlement, every- thing changed.
Almost overnight, it seemed, tents sprouted like mushrooms around the fort. Their occupants—gold miners en route to the mainland— were serviced by saloons, stores and other commercial outlets housed in hastily erected shanties. If one of these wooden buildings caught fire, bucket brigades still carried water from the Inner Harbour and nearby wells. It was a primitive and woefully inadequate system.
Local businessmen petitioned Governor James Douglas for a fire service. The HBC—Governor Douglas was also Chief Factor at the fort—agreed to foot the bill for two hand-operated pumping engines and 1500 feet of leather hose from San Francisco. Volunteers were recruited and water cisterns were built nearby.
They were just in time. A warehouse fire threatened the entire business district, and would have destroyed it but for the fire-fighters’ efforts. To protect their interests, local businessmen decided to take it upon themselves to raise funds for even more sophisticated equipment and an alarm bell.
By November 1859, the Union Hook and Ladder Company was in operation. Three years later, when Victoria was incorporated as a city, two more outfits had joined the fire-fighting fray. Union Hook and Ladder operated out of Victoria’s first fire hall at Bastion and Wharf streets. Deluge Engine Company No. 1 was based on Government Street. Tiger Engine Company No. 2 leased property on Johnson. Firefighters now had access to seven water cisterns with a total capacity of more than 150,000 gallons—a far cry from the old bucket brigade days.
Contained to the west and south by the waters of the Inner Harbour and to the north and east by Johnson and Government streets, the city was small enough that the three companies could easily keep tabs on each other. The one that connected its hoses first was the winner. Competition was fierce, and tempers were likely to flare. In one documented instance, a big fire blazed unattended and burned itself out while its equally hotheaded fire-fighters were still in mid-fisticuffs on the street.
On New Year’s Day 1886, the three volunteer companies disbanded, and a paid department was organized. By 1900, Victoria had no fewer than five fire halls. Cormorant Street (today’s Centennial Square) was a hive of activity. It housed City Hall, a public market, the Victoria & Sidney railway terminus, and a fire hall with a magnificent 1500-pound bronze bell, cast in England and purchased for the princely sum of $750, in its watchtower.
In 1907, the worst fire in Victoria’s history raced through several downtown blocks, destroying 90 structures and leaving upwards of 250 people homeless. Three years later, a blaze in Spencer’s Department Store on Government Street (where The Bay Centre is today) destroyed 40 businesses, but amazingly, unlike San Francisco and Vancouver, for example, Victoria remained one of the few West Coast cities never completely levelled by fire.
Today, fire-fighting has become more sophisticated than any of those long-ago volunteers could ever have imagined. In Greater Victoria, just under 280 fire-fighters climb into huge yellow trucks packed with sophisticated equipment. Sirens have long since replaced the clanging bells that once brought volunteers from all walks of life running to haul out the pumpers.
The Cormorant Street bell, replaced in 1904 by a more modern telegraphic alarm system, was tucked away in storage and somehow survived the round-up of metals for re-use in World War One and World War Two. Now it has pride of place on the Pandora Street side of City Hall, a few metres from its original home. On December 31, when bells all over town ring in the New Year, the old bronze bell will stay silent, in memory of the brave men who fought Victoria’s fires all those years ago.
The second edition of Dave Parker’s book First Water, Tigers!, a detailed history of the Victoria Fire Department, is in bookstores now.
Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria’s early days. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the January 2009 edition of Focus Magazine.