At about 3.00am on Sunday January 9, 1921 fire broke out behind a shop in Reibey Street, Ulverstone. A barman at nearby Furner’s Hotel raised the alarm at 3.05am.The hotel is pictured behind the telegraph pole in the following photo.

Reiby Street Ulverstone
Reibey Street Circa 1920

The fire brigade arrived very promptly, but when the hoses were turned on it was discovered there was barely any pressure. A bucket brigade was organized from a water tank at the back of Furner’s Hotel and from the Leven River, at the bottom of the street. Sadly, this was virtually futile against the spreading flames. However on one side, Mr Pearl’s business, The Leven Saddlery, was saved and on the other the large premises of G. & A. Ellis, a general store.

Of course the biggest loss for the community was the Town Hall, even though there had been a push to build a new one for many years.


The four private businesses lost were those of Jimmy Due Lee the fruiterer, W. Coogan and Company’s furniture warehouse, G. W. Fox, the plumber and the shared building of Parsons and Trebilco, who were respectively tailers and mercers.

The plumber, Mr Fox, was also the Superintendent of the fire brigade and to be unable to save his own building must have been terrible. To make matters worse, there were rumours that he, as chief of the brigade, was somehow responsible for the lack of water pressure.

Residents gathered in Reibey Street early next morning, shocked at the damage to their town.

Fortunately, some stock (from Parsons) was rescued, and also furniture and a piano from the Town Hall. It was piled on the footpath outside G. & A. Ellis.

Day after the fire at Ulverstone.

Coincidently, The Weekly Courier had published a feature on Ulverstone’s business houses18 months earlier. The following photos of two of the destroyed shops show the proud owners and their employees.

Collins butcher’s shop also suffered damage. Its plate glass window cracked in the extreme heat. Clearly Mr Collins hoped it would hold, but at 12.30pm on the following Thursday the glass fell with an almighty crash onto the footpath. Miraculously, no-one was passing at the time. (Information from The Examiner, Jan. 14 1921)

Collins'  butchers shop, Ulverstone.

No blame was attributed to anyone regarding the start of the fire, which broke out somewhere between Due Lee’s fruit shop and Coogan’s store. There had been a small rubbish fire at the rear of Coogan’s in the afternoon, but it not considered to be connected When an inquiry began, the main question was why the water pressure failed. Mr Fox testified that if the supply had been normal his men could have extinguished the flames within ten minutes. He said damage could have been limited to under one hundred pounds instead of many thousands.

I was reminded of the fires when I was re-reading a book by the late Bruce Ellis, published in 1988. I must thank my sister for giving me a copy when it was first published.

Boon on the history of Ulverstone.

Writing about the fire, Bruce explained why it had been so destructive.

The fire appears to have been started in the hall, and every effort was made to subdue it, even to the extent of turning off the water supply to the rest of the town and leaving only the Reibey Street area with water. Unfortunately a mistake was made and the water supply to Reibey Street was turned off, leaving the rest of the town with normal supplies.’ (page 56)

As noted in the book’s forward, little archival material on Ulverstone was available in the 1980s and there was no way of accessing the files of old newspapers. Fortunately we now have TROVE, the digitised archive of over 1.000 Australian newspapers.

When I read reports of the inquiry into the fire, I discovered that the water supply problem was not something that occurred on the night of the fire at all, but a couple of days earlier. Disasters are often caused by unfortunate co-incidences, and so it was at Ulverstone.

The council overseer, Mr John Shelton, gave evidence that a break had occurred in the pipes on the previous Friday. When the work was completed he instructed employee John Munting to turn all the valves back on. Regrettably, Munting failed to re-open the connection for Reibey Street.

Mr Shelton lived across the Leven River in West Ulverstone. By the time he attended the fire it had almost exhausted itself. He was informed of the lack of water pressure and realized it was connected to the earlier repair job;

J. Shelton said he heard the firebell about 3 a.m., looked out, and saw there was a fire at East Ulverstone. He went to look at the water gauge, and saw that it was well over 100 pressure and, this being so, went back to bed, considering that there was plenty of water. In consequence of a report brought to him he came to East Ulverstone about 5 a.m., and found that four shops and the Town Hall had been burnt, and there was no water in the main. He was not in the habit of going to fires. (Examiner, Friday 28 January 1921)

Meanwhile, Mr Munting was suspended for ‘neglect of duty’. Well, anyone can make a mistake, but a few days later he denied having failed to open the valve. saying he could ‘say a lot, but didn’t want to hurt anyone‘. This attempt to shift blame thoroughly annoyed the town councillors, and the suspension changed to dismissal.

It’s worth noting that one councillor was not about to let overseer John Shelton escape criticism either;

Cr. A. Tongs – Has Shelton been reprimanded?

The Warden – No.

Cr. A. Tongs – Then he should have been….he certainly showed a lack of interest in the matter. (Advocate, Feb. 14 1921)

The Warden defended John Shelton, who had been overseer for twenty years. However, the council issued an instruction that in future Mr Shelton was to attend all fires, and would be held responsible for the condition of the valves.

In those days, especially in small towns, buildings could be constructed without all the red tape involved today. Work on a new Town Hall began almost immediately and it was officially opened on Monday, December 26 that same year.

New town tall under construction at Ulverstone.
UNDER CONSTRUCTION 1921 (Photo Credit Craig Broadfield)

In the 1970s it was ‘progress’ that spelled the end for the new Town Hall (it is marked with an arrow in the photo below.) Along with G. & A. Ellis it made way for a supermarket.

My sincere thanks to Craig Broadfield and his Facebook group Ulverstone & District – a Pictorial History for information and some of the photos used in this story.

  1. Thankyou Pauline, I love ready your stories. I’m a born & bred Ulverstone girl & although I no longer live ther I just love reading anything about my home town. It was the best place to grow up. I just live along the coast further & still have family in ULVIE.
    Keep those stories coming please.
    Regards Pam

    • Pauline

      I’m so glad you enjoy them Pam. I do love history, especially of Tasmania…and Ulverstone. 😊

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