BUILT ON GOLD
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.
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.
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.
LIFE GOES ON
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;
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.
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.
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