Lake Macquarie History

Charlestown fire brigade history

photo: pascoe's store charlestown

The mining settlement of Charlestown had around 700 residents in the 1920s. There were many thriving businesses along the main street. It had a School of Arts, a Post Office, three hotels, a Mechanics Institute, a school and 2 churches. The one thing it didn't have was a fire brigade.

The Newcastle Sun of Wednesday 1 December 1920 reported on a serious fire which highlighted the lack of preparedness of the community.

Charlestown blaze: £1000 damage done

"John Patterson's grocers shop at Charlestown was burned to the ground last night and damage done to the extent of £1000. The store was the largest in Charlestown. When the blaze was seen by a steel worker at one o'clock the flames had hold. The alarm was given and soon all Charlestown was on the spot. There is no fire brigade in the township, but fortunately there was a big tank of water on the premises.

Dotted about Charlestown are fire extinguishers fitted up in houses, and residents could be seen hurrying from all directions with the extinguishers under their arms. The residents formed themselves into a 'Darktown Fire Brigade'(1) and fought the flames. By their united efforts they managed to save a kitchen at the rear of the store, but the main building was completely gutted.The store and contents were insured for about half their value."

The Charlestown Progress Association began raising funds for proper firefighting equipment and in 1924 it was reported that a volunteer fire brigade had been established. The Newcastle Morning Herald reported on Tuesday 8 July 1924 that equipment had been purchased:

Charlestown: local fire brigade.

"A short time ago the Charlestown Progress Association entered into negotiation with the Board of Fire Commissioners concerning the purchase of a manual fire engine recently discarded at the Newcastle Fire Station, and which had been in use and served the Newcastle district for many years. The first intimation received was at a price far beyond the possibilities of the members of the association, and consequently they were compelled to turn the matter down. Later however, a letter was received, greatly moderating the price. The association closed with it at once, and resubmitted terms suitable to their prospective finances. A deposit was paid, and the association took charge of the engine, together with 300ft of hose, and it is now safely housed at Charlestown. A smart local brigade has been formed, with Captain Shellabeer in charge, and their practising duties are being attended to with pleasure and proficiency. Should they be called upon they will render good service. The people are proud of this splendid asset to their town and the progress association are to be complimented upon their progressive spirit. The appeal for funds to liquidate the financial obligations has met with a response beyond expectations, and now Charlestown is in the fine position of owning absolutely a fully-equipped fire engine, ready at all times to perform duty in case of fire."

It was not long before the brigade was called to duty when just over a month later a fire broke out to which the brigade attended and saved the day. The Newcastle Morning Herald of Tuesday 1 April 1924 reported:

Charlestown: sensational fire.

photo: pacific highway charlestown, 1914

"On Saturday evening Mr. D. Date, after returning home with the under 18 team of cricketers, took his motor lorry into his yard, and was in the act of emptying a tin of benzine into the tank of the machine when a sudden explosion occurred, hurling the benzine tin yards away, and the whole of the motor was soon enveloped in flames. Many willing hands soon rendered assistance, and attempted to save the residence and motor garage, in which was housed a 'practically new' motor car. It was some time before the alarm was given to the local fire brigade, but the new firebell rang out the alarm, and within a few minutes the engine was on the scene, and in two or three minutes had completely subdued the fire. This was the maiden effort of the brigade, under Captain Shellabeer and Lieutenant Johnson, and praise is due to them and the other willing workers for their promptitude, thereby making a splendid save. Three tins of petrol were stored in the garage, and had they become ignited the position would have been most serious The residents congratulate themselves upon now having such a fine fire engine and a band of willing workers to cope with any emergency which might arise.

It should, however, be remembered that on the first intimation of a fire the firebell should be promptly rung, thereby giving the brigade a better chance of coping with it. Mr. Date had one arm burnt, and Mrs. McGeachie rendered him first aid. The motor lorry is now simply a scrap heap. The car is slightly scorched, but not seriously damaged.The garage suffered somewhat through the rafters catching alight, but it can easily be repaired. The loss to the owner is considerable."

The shortcomings of leaving such an important task as fire control to part time volunteers, and having no dedicated fire station was realised just 6 years later when intense heat caused bushfires to rage in many locations across Australia, including Charlestown. A house was lost in the blaze, as firemen were prevented from attending due to problems with the equipment caused by inadequate housing. The Newcastle Sun of Wednesday 1 January 1930 reported:

Charlestown debacle: Rotten Hosing - firemen's plight

"Charlestown wants an up-to-date and efficient fire-fighting plant. The last occasion on which the brigade was called out was during the disastrous bush fires which menaced several dwellings. Rotten hosing which burst almost as fast as it was laid down hampered the fighters on that occasion. On the occasion of yesterday's fire the plant was useless. The hosing rotten and leaking and the plant put out of action by exposure to the weather, could not be put into commission, so the brigade did not attend. Belmont now has it's fire brigade and it is expected that one will shortly be established at Toronto. Charlestown alone, among the more important of the outer suburbs, has to be content with hopelessly inadequate equipment, which is worse than useless for emergency. Local feeling is high since yesterday's debacle. Little care has been taken of the equipment, it is alleged, and no steps taken to ensure that the hosing should be kept in a decent state of repair. A public meeting of protest, demanding adequate fire protection for Charlestown, residents feel should be called at once."

A public meeting was called for March that same year and was well attended. A letter from Lake Macquarie Council was read out to the effect that the first procedure was to have Charlestown declared a fire district. The district must be approved by the Board of Fire Commissioners, then it would be necessary to levy a rate to provide for a fire brigade. The council wished to ascertain if the association would agree to the levying of the local rate. A member of the Belmont Progress Association was present to advise on the procedure to be followed and the costs involved. The maximum rate would be a farthing in the pound on the unimproved value of the property in the town. The ratepayers pay a farthing, and the government a farthing, and the Underwriters Association pay double the combined rates. Where a fire station is installed, insurance rates would be reduced under certain conditions. Six-inch water mains would have to be establishcd in the main street, and four inch water mains in the other streets. The Progress Association determined to begin the process and ask the neighbouring areas of Kahibah and Dudley for their support.

photo: charlestown fire brigade

The Board of Fire Commisioners visited the area on June 1935 and "it was found that Charlestown was a fair sized township. It was noted that a great number of the houses are of a poorer type, and together with a large quantity of bush and scrub land throughout the locality, some difficulty may be experienced in affording Fire Protection of a practical nature and at the same time, economically". Ultimately the report of the visit stated that Charlestown was a "township of 350 houses with a population of 1,357. The buildings were mostly of weatherboard construction. It was considered that there were no ‘major risks’, the area being mostly residential with little bush and well served by a reticulated water supply." This paved the way for a professional fire service to be established. Details of the Fire Commissions several visits and reports are outlined in the attached document.

Suitable premises had to be found to house the vehicle, and initially it was proposed that the recently closed court house in Smith Street would be a suitable location.

The NSW Government Gazette of 6th November 1936, recorded that Charlestown Fire Brigade was now covered under the Fire Brigades Act, and this is the official date of establishment.

photo: l. fisher charlestown fire brigade

The previous day, crew took delivery of No. 27 Garford Hale, Fire Engine. It was driven to Charlestown and temporarily installed it in a garage at the rear of Mr Bell's residence in Stuart Street. Fourteen applicants for the brigade were interviewed with six being accepted. The new recruits were then trained by a Sydney firefighter.

The new fire station was opened on 20th November 1936. The original crew were:

  • Alfred Fisher (Captain)
  • Joseph (Jock) Gillan (Engine Keeper)
  • Robson Bradbury
  • Malcomb Wood
  • Frederick Potter
  • John Pascoe

Joseph Gordon Buchanan Gillan was known by everyone in Charlestown as Jock Gillan. He at one stage became Captain of the brigade. He owned a shop directly opposite the Primary school.


In common usage this refers to an ill equipped, untrained and ineffective group of amateur firefighters.The phrase comes from a series of negative and racist lithographs produced by American printmaking firm Currier & Ives between 1879 - 1890.


Boyce, Gary 2007, Brief Overview of the Formation of Charlestown Fire Brigade (1936), NSW Fire Brigade, [Sydney, N.S.W.]

Swane, Julianne 1990, A directory of local history sources for Charlestown, J. Swane, [Charlestown, N.S.W

1920 'CHARLESTOWN BLAZE', The Newcastle Sun (NSW : 1918 - 1954), 1 December, p. 5. , viewed 11 Sep 2018,

1924 'CHARLESTOWN', Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954), 4 March, p. 5. , viewed 11 Sep 2018,

1924 'CHARLESTOWN.', Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954), 1 April, p. 5. , viewed 11 Sep 2018,

1924 'CHARLESTOWN.', Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954), 8 July, p. 5. , viewed 11 Sep 2018,

1930 'HOUSE DESTROYED', Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954), 1 January, p. 5. , viewed 11 Sep 2018,

1930 'CHARLESTON DEBACLE', The Newcastle Sun (NSW : 1918 - 1954), 1 January, p. 4. , viewed 11 Sep 2018,

1930 'CHARLESTOWN', Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954), 22 March, p. 4. , viewed 11 Sep 2018,

1936 'FIRE BRIGADES ACT, 1909-1927.', Government Gazette of the State of New South Wales (Sydney, NSW : 1901 - 2001), 6 November, p. 4668. , viewed 30 Aug 2018,