All fired up on Eastern Hill
Engines from across the decades.
Between 1972 and 2006, there probably wasn’t a fire engine in Melbourne that Kevin Oates didn’t work on. He served the bulk of his working life at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s Thornbury workshop as an auto electrician. Now retired, he can’t get the big red machines out of his system, and is a volunteer at the Fire Services Museum of Victoria in East Melbourne.
“Eventually, I got tired of working on them,” says Kevin, a walking encyclopaedia on Melbourne fire engines. “But I still love them.”
Located in the 1893 Eastern Hill Fire Station (itself well worth a look), the museum contains a trove of fire-fighting memorabilia and equipment, including a handful of fire engines from across the decades. One is a 1911 Pierce-Arrow with a fascinating history. Originally bought by Nellie Melba, the US-made car was effectively her tour bus as she travelled in North America and Europe around the start of World War 1.
The French government commandeered the Pierce-Arrow to tow canons. “Apparently, Dame Nellie was furious,” says Kevin. So was the Victorian government, which went in to bat for the good dame, and the car was shipped to Australia to be returned to her after the war.
“But the war had taken a huge toll on the old car,” says Kevin. “Dame Nellie took one look at it and decided she didn’t want it. So it was sold as damaged goods and the MFB bought it to turn into a fire engine. In those days, they couldn’t afford new cars, so they were always on the lookout for second-hand vehicles that could be converted. This one served until 1933 and then it disappeared. It turned up again about 1978 on a farm powering a sawmill. We managed to buy it back and restored it.”
Don’t assume that because he was an electrician Kevin didn’t attend fires. “Us workshop blokes attended as support staff,” he says. “We’d shut down the engines every few hours, check their oil and coolant and then start them up again. The dangerous bit was refuelling them in the middle of a big fire. I was at Coode Island when the top blow off one of the tanks. That got my attention.”
And the most common fault with fire engines? “Flat batteries – firemen are hopeless at turning things off.”
The MFB was formed in 1890 but required an Act of Parliament before a board could be appointed. That was because Melbourne at that time had more than 50 private brigades, funded by insurance companies. Buildings would display a plaque bearing the emblem of their insurer so the ‘right’ brigade could be called.
The museum is at 39 Gisborne St, East Melbourne and it’s open on Thursdays and Fridays from 9am to 3pm and Sundays from 10am to 4pm. Call 9662 2907 or go to www.fsmv.net.au.