Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey


Playgrounds : The Fires

These days with modern detection systems, it is rare in the extreme to read of major fires in built-up areas, but remarkably, five of the venues earmarked for hosting at various levels Olympic events went up in flames, four before the Games and one several years later.

Ballarat City Rowing Club, 28 October, 1950

The first to go was the Ballarat City Rowing Club's rooms and boathouse in the early hours of 28 October, 1950, one of three clubhouses designated to host rowing and canoeing. The boat shed was constructed over the waters of the eastern foreshore of Lake Wendouree, the club losing three eight-oared boats, four four-oared boats, two racing pairs, four practice pairs, two practice sculls and other craft of a total estimated value of £5,000, as well a large and popular dance hall with kitchen and dining room upstairs, the total loss put at £20,000. Efforts to quell the blaze were severely hampered by the location of the building over the lake itself, meaning firemen could only fight the blaze from a relatively small section of the foreshore.

The President of the club said they would ask the Government for permission to rebuild in time for the Olympic rowing and a public appeal was launched; a second-hand eight-oared boat was purchased from the Newman College (Melbourne University) club early in 1951 and the Ballarat City club shared facilities with the Wendouree and St. Patrick's College boathouses.

In October, 1953, Ballarat City announced a credit balance of over £14,000 despite having just 40 members after the loss of the boathouse; it was suggested that it was probably the most financial rowing club in Victoria with plans afoot to construct a new £25,000 concrete building.

Rebuilding however does not appear to have commenced until the autumn of 1956. the O.O.C. refusing to make up a balance of £15,000 of the new estimate of £32,000, instead suggesting it would erect temporary accommodation costing between £4,000 and £6,000.

Whether the O.O.C. relented is unknown - the post-Games report suggests it was necessary to provide some temporary shed accommodation, particularly for canoes, but does not make it clear whether the new boat shed was used; it was later noted that the A.N.Z. Bank in Ballarat would finance the balance.

West Melbourne Stadium  24 January, 1955.

The fire is believed to have started about 12.20 a.m. and accounts of the blaze suggest the intensity was such that the building was destroyed within minutes. Every available fire wagon in the metropolitan area was rushed to the fire to try to cordon it off before it could spread to surrounding factories and the railway line which ran at the back of the Stadium (servicing lines to north-western suburbs and many to northern Victoria destinations).

Extra police had to be called to control more than 8,000 people and to untangle a huge traffic jam. The fire, which could be seen for miles around Melbourne, was at first mistaken by some as a explosion at the Altona oil refinery.

Remarkably, Dick Lean, manager of Stadiums Limited, knew nothing of the fire until a newspaper rang him at 1.10 a.m., less than an hour after the fire started

Fights already scheduled for the venue were switched to the Sydney Stadium while Lean attempted to arrange temporary premises to maintain promotion of the sport in Melbourne.  There were two open-air venues, but Stadiums Limited refused to use them, copping some criticism over their virtual monopoly of the sport in Melbourne.

On the two nights following the fire, the Stadium had been booked out for concerts from American crooner Frank Sinatra, who had completed engagements in Sydney and awaiting a flight to Melbourne where he had already performed at West Melbourne on 12 and 22 January.

The concerts were hastily re-arranged at Melbourne Town Hall and in a bizarre incident, fire carts with bells clanging screeched to a halt outside the Town Hall just before Sinatra's second show - they had been called to fight a supposed back-stage fire, but it was a hoax and prankster's sequel to the morning's Stadium fire.  Only a few minutes before, comedian Frank d'Amore had brought the house down when he wandered on to the stage wearing a fireman's hat carrying an axe and quipped,  "I thought I'd better come prepared!"

Olympic Park Grandstand, 16 March, 1951

Although reportedly not in the best of condition, athletics lost a valuable asset when the old grandstand at Olympic Park stadium burnt to the ground on Friday night, 16 March, 1951 during the Victorian amateur athletics championships.  The loss of the grandstand must have been particularly disappointing for the Victorian Amateur Athletics Association as they had that summer installed Australia’s first permanent cinder tracks at Olympic Park.

The cost was estimated at £12,000, the insurance coverage only £3,500. The stand was said to seat 1,500 and its loss was thought to be a potential threat to the Olympics as with the chronic shortage of housing, it would be impossible to gain the necessary permits to re-build, even if finance was available.  It was suggested that if anything fortunate came from the blaze, it was the fact that it occurred during the championships and much of the sporting material including a full set of Olympic-standard hurdles had been placed on the arena itself in preparation for what would have been the final day of competition.

Exhibition Aquarium, 28 January, 1953

The 60-year-old Aquarium and thousands of priceless exhibits were destroyed by fire during peak hour traffic between 6 and 7 o'clock on Wednesday, 28 January, 1953. Fortunately, among those undamaged was Ned Kelly's armour which had been moved to just outside the entrance to the Aquarium some days beforehand.

An estimated 20,000 workers heading home watched the firemen's tense fight to save the entire Exhibition complex with flames being held in a kitchen of the Royale Ballroom just 15 feet from displays in a £1.25 million Engineering Equipment Trade Show.  Despite the blaze, the trade show continued after an emergency clean-up the following morning.

Both the kitchen and the adjoining Royale Ballroom were slightly damaged; an unnamed hero was an off-duty fireman from the Carlton Brigade who pedalled to the Exhibition and dressed only in trousers and singlet placed himself in the ceiling of the servery of the kitchen and single-handedly prevented the flames from reaching the Ballroom, drenching himself regularly as protection against the flames.

Sadly. thousands of fish perished when red-hot sheets of galvanised iron from the roof crashed into the tanks, but three seals, a 60-year-old Japanese salamander (the only one in Australia) and many of the birds survived, the latter freed by volunteers who kicked in fibro-cement walls and carried the cages containing cockatoos, peacocks and macaws out of the danger area.  One seal died in the inferno and the three blackened and terrified survivors were still swimming around their special pool hours after the flames were brought under control. They were transported to the Melbourne Zoo the following morning.

Although virtually irreplaceable, the collection was said to be nominally worth £30,000. Earlier thought lost in the blaze, the salamander lizard was ironically for centuries supposed to have the power to live through intense fire.

Fears were held for the migrant hostel immediately to the north of the Exhibition when overhanging tree branches burst in flames at the peak of the fire.  Fortunately the last six occupants had moved from the camp that morning, although it was noted that the caretaker of the camp and three Yugoslav migrants were the first to fight the blaze.

Total damage including the collection was put at around £150,000.

The fire was believed to have started in a paint shop behind the main building. Two brawls broke out among spectators who surrounded the northern end of the building and eight charges were later laid against six persons at the City Watch House.

The Glaciarium, 12 April, 1963

The proprietors of the Glaciarium in all probability shot themselves in the foot with the excessive  demand for rental of venue for the Games.  It appears that patronage had almost disappeared and the operations ceased in 1957 (date unknown), and when the building was destroyed on the night of 12 April, 1963, it was revealed that the building had not been used since its closure and up for sale for most of the intervening period - given its limited functionality, it probably would only been of interest to developers for demolition with a multi-story building erected in its place.  

The fire was described as one of Melbourne's most spectacular for many years with the glow of the flames visible for some miles and a thick cloud of smoke drifting across the eastern suburbs.

Reports suggest the building was well alight when firemen arrived and much of their effort was put into protecting the five-story office next door, by then known as the Mobil Building.   The Glaciarium in directories was shown as 16-36 City Road, midway between Aikman and Brown streets, now Southbank Avenue and Southbank Boulevard (some histories suggest incorrectly it was closer to St, Kilda Road and part of today’s Arts Centre.