West Wyalong

West Wyalong circa 1900


Gold was discovered at Wyalong in 1893 and within a few years it was pronounced  the most productive goldfield in the colony of New South Wales.  Three miles away, West Wyalong was unplanned, growing up along a winding  bullock track.  It became the main centre due to its proximity to a dam known as White Tank.  Many of the businesses were hastily constructed, as  enterprising merchants arrived in the wake of the miners.

In  the summer of 1899  as shopkeepers  were planning for Christmas,  a devastating event  virtually obliterated one side of  the  main street.

At about 10.20 on the night of Wednesday, November 29, fire broke out  in the premises of Mr H.J. Woods, the draper.  There was little water readily available and the flames quickly spread. Wooden and corregated iron buildings exploded  like fire crackers, one after the other. 

At the nearby goldfields the alarm was sounded by whistles and foghorns. 

By morning, 22 businesses had been either  consumed by  fire or pulled down in an effort by residents  to stop the flames spreading even further. The list of destroyed buildings included the Gladstone  Hotel, the assay office, the Bank of New South Wales, two refreshments rooms, the jewellers, the stationers, two plumber’s shops, two saddlers shops. a general store, the boot shop, the bicycle shop and the premises of  one of the town’s dentists.

West Wyalong after the fire of 1899

Shocked locals surveying the devastation. (Trove)


West Wyalong Fire 1899

Chimneys stand as bleak sentinels. (Trove)

There were many lucky escapes, as occupants of some premises were in bed asleep.  Sadly, there was also one casualty. James Stewart, a young groom at Bannan’s  Gladstone Hotel died several days later, from severe burns received while trying to save property.

On the following morning Basha’s large general store on the opposite side  of the road  caught alight.   It was totally destroyed and  again adjoining properties were pulled down to isolate the new outbreak.  Could an ember from the earlier fires have been smoldering overnight?

As residents began the  awful business of cleaning up and taking stock,  there was  further drama.  Gregson’s Exchange Hotel caught fire. The hotel was situated  about a quarter of a mile west of the major fires and there  were three separate outbreaks, one in the morning, one in the afternoon of November 30 and another  in the stable loft on December 1.  The loft fire was difficult to extinguish in high winds, creating a new and serious  threat to the town.

Not surprisingly, arson was strongly suspected in this instance.  Many people feared there was a lunatic at large, bent on destroying the whole of  West Wyalong. Twenty special constables were sworn in, to protect the vast quantities of salvaged goods lying in the street.

Gregson's Hotel, West Wyalong

Almost another casualty. Photographed 1924

It wasn’t long before Agnes Kennedy, a young domestic servant, was arrested over the Gregson outbreaks. She had been boarding at the hotel for about  a month, while waiting for a new situation. Alice was accused of  setting the  fires with matches and kerosene. It turned out there had been grudges, romantic jealousies and ill-feeling between various people associated with the hotel.  An inquiry was held, and a full report published, concluding;

Twenty-five witnesses were examined, and  portion of the evidence was very conflicting. After being locked up for 10 hours the jury arrived at the following verdict:- “We find that the premises were wilfully and  maliciously set on fire, but are not unanimous as to who caused the fire.” A rider was added thanking Sergeant Peterswald for his untiring efforts in bringing forward all available evidence. On behalf of the jury the foreman exonerated the girl Agnes Kennedy from any participation in the fire.

A £25 reward for information  offered by Mr Gregson was matched by the government, but the crime was never solved.

A separate coronial inquest was held into the main fire which began at Woods drapery store. From the Wyalong Star;

The Coroner, having summed up, the jury, without retiring, returned a verdict to the effect, “That the premises were destroyed by fire on November 29, but there was no evidence to show whether the fire originated accidentally or otherwise.”

The final inquiry concerned the destruction of  Basha’s store on November 30 and was very interesting. Mr Basha had recently opened a new business at neighbouring Wyalong, and had transferred a lot of stock there. However, the West Wyalong  premises and stock remained heavily insured. Basha had spoken to Senior-constable Quail  before his store caught alight, remarking that cinders had blown across the road overnight and how lucky he was that he hadn’t lost his property. The evidence, published in the Wyalong Star  continued;

Mr Nagy, tinsmith, deposed that he saw Senior-constable Quail at  the door of the store talking to Mr Basha; that when Quail left, Basha shut the door; that within a few minutes the latter re-opened the door, looked up and down the street, and closed the door again. Within five minutes the fire broke out, and the place was speedily enveloped in flames.

James Sharp, builder, deposed to seeing Basha watching the outbreak of the fire in what he considered an unconcerned manner……The jury, after a short consultation, decided that the place was destroyed by fire, but accidentally or otherwise there was not sufficient evidence to show. They added a rider that the conduct of Mr Basha on the occasion was very suspicious.  

Psychological damage caused by the  fires  must have been enormous, not just to those personally involved, but to the entire town.  People looked askance at property owners whose destroyed businesses  had been well insured (such as Mr Basha) and stood to gain from the disaster. With the  open findings of the inquiries, suspicion and ill feeling lingered.


One merchant in particular was rather  insensitive with his advertisements in the lead-up to Christmas;

Others who had suffered losses held salvage  sales.

Meagher’s store lost its prized display windows and urged customers to venture inside to view their festive goods;

Meagher's store West Wyalong 1909

Meagher’s store 1909

People have always been resilient out  in the Central West  and rebuilding  of destroyed buildings began almost straight away, often using more substantial brick and stone. Moves began for the establishment of a fire brigade.

This evocative image of a reconstructed West Wyalong was painted by Russell Drysdale in 1949. The scene shows a  quiet,  empty town, just on  dusk.

West Wyalong painted by Ru

West Wyalong painted by Russell Drysdale in 1949

2019 is a very special year for Wyalong and West Wyalong. If you visit, there a great history walk you can take.  CLICK HERE FOR THE LINK.


West Wyalong Main Street

West Wyalong (Wikipedia)









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