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On September 15, 1907, at about 8:30 p.m., Murwillumbah was shocked by the sight of a fire at Dainer’s Bakery. Many of the townspeople had been startled by the clanging of bells and shouts of “FIRE!”, and rushed out to see what was happening. It was reported that Vincent Dainer, the 14-year-old son of baker, Edward Dainer, first sounded the alarm, after he and his brother noticed smoke coming into their kitchen, where they were playing cards.

M13-31 Red Sunday

Murwillumbah after the 1907 fire. M13-31


The “Tweed Herald and Brunswick Chronicle” lamented the disaster on
17 September, 1907:

Murwillumbah Devastated By the Fire Fiend
Sixty Business Premises Destroyed
£100,000 Worth Damage Done
The Main Street Wiped Out
Story of the Conflagration

REALITY AT LAST.

The long expected has happened. What 48 hours ago was one of the most thriving cityettes in the Commonwealth is now a heap of blackened ruins. After years of unparalleled prosperity Murwillumbah has, after being asleep for too long, been rudely awakened. Our “Fools Paradise” has been shattered, and our baptism of fire, long prophesied by all who had the welfare of the town at heart, is now more than a dream. The vast majority of the business centre of the town has been totally destroyed, and the town and district have received a blow which it will take some time to recover from.

But Murwillumbah the Queenlet city of the North, will not allow its present garb of sackcloth and ashes to remain a reality very long. Like a Phoenix it will arise and soon blossom forth – better, brighter and more solid in every respect than ever before. The men and women of Murwillumbah are blessed with hearts of gold. They have enjoyed the good and pleasant and prosperous years. Now that disaster, awful and appalling, has overtaken them, they will prove they are TRUE TO THE CORE.

In the “Tweed Times and Brunswick Chronicle” the following day, similar thoughts were vented:

MURWILLUMBAH FLAMES.
Disastrous Conflagration.
Almost the Whole of the Business Portion of the Town Destroyed.
A Scene Never to be Forgotten.
Enormous Damage to Property.

The Tweed has always held the State record for abnormal rainfall, and now it has established another record. But, alas! it is a record which must go down in history as one of the worst disasters that has ever visited any provincial town. The diablerie of the catastrophe is so great that people can scarcely realise what has happened. Murwillumbah the busy, Murwillumbah the prosperous, practically a mass of burning and charred debris – the conformation of the town now a hideous, black nightmare, with all the horrors of a ruinous fire meeting the eye in all parts of the main street.

Disaster, ay! we have read of disasters overtaking other cities and towns, but little did we ken the significance of the word until Sunday night’s awful realistic nightmare impressed itself in our memory with a never-to-be-forgotten realisation. Disaster some say – surely cataclysm in a more befitting word.

Murwillumbah the fair and thrifty enjoying its wonted Sunday evening quietness, with a large proportion of its people attending one or other of the many churches, with not a few people perambulating the streets and roads in quest of the balmy freshness of the moonlit atmosphere – such was Murwillumbah at 8.30 p.m. Sunday night, and four hours later the town was a mass of town at heart, is now more than a dream. The vast majority of the business centre of the town has been totally destroyed, and the town and district have received a blow which it will take some time to recover from.

Yes, Murwillumbah’s oft predicted fate – regarded as inevitable – had at last become responsive to the grim whims of circumstance, and the fire fiend made only too willing an agent in working the destruction of the Tweed cityette. People try hard to believe that it is all a dream – that it has not happened at all – but then those tall, sky-scraping chimneys and those grimy, blackened block supports are only too convincing. And with the realization comes a great regret and a knowledge of what might have been had Murwillumbah’s citizenry not slept in fatuous contentment without possessing such a valuable safety valve as a fire brigade. The inevitable “what might have been.”

The “Times” continued with a summary of events of the evening:

The fire which was responsible for so much disaster is said to have had its origin in Dainer’s bake-house. Certain it is that the fire sprung from the vicinity of that quarter. Mr. Dainer avers that it originated in Mr. Kercher’s gas-house. And that it spread rapidly in the direction of his bakery. But wherever it originated, the fact remains that it had an origin and a terrible sequence.

The fire was first discovered by young Roy Dainer [The coronial inquiry names him as Vincent Dainer], who rushed into the street and gave the alarm. Messrs Kercher, Dainer, Ashley and others who were at hand rushed to the source of the fire, but finding all blinding, suffocating smoke they could do nothing. Mr. Ashley made an effort to save some of his stock, whilst Mr. Kercher devoted attention to his wife, who only a few hours previously had given birth to a child.

The time-worn wooden buildings made an easy prey to the flames and in no time a raging fire was in progress. Townspeople were made aware of the danger by the vigorous ringing of two church bells and a great rush to the scene of the conflagration ensured. Business people gave first attention to getting their books and valuables away. Scurrying figures and faces whitened with terror and alarm were seen in all directions.

Many people, under the spell of quick thought and action, made efforts at rescuing stock from various business houses. Chapman’s shop, Francis’ boot store, Proudfoot’s store were entered and goods were conveyed across the street and piled up in heaps in the police paddock. As the flames progressed down the street, fanned by a south-westerly breeze they licked and consumed each consecutive building in town. No mercy was shown any.

The crackling of burning timber, the explosions of gasometers, the falling in of buildings and the huge tongues of flame that shot heavenward in a halo of smoke made a scene grand but terrible. The crowd had increased to about 2000 people and dismay was on almost every face, for it was recognized that the biggest portion of town was doomed. The inevitable had happened at last. But there were occasional faces which betrayed another feeling – a despicable one – the hunt for plunder, of which more anon.

A gang of good workers rushed the “Times” business office. At a glance they saw a possible check to the on-rush of the flames. It must come down. Willing arms wielded keen-edged axes and the building was soon on the ground. Indeed, so keenly was this work carried out that the proprietor had difficulty in saving his books and important documents. The iron safe was bundled across the street into safety, but the axes were swinging dangerously – in fact, one young man got a slash across the shoulder – and many prized books and materials had to be abandoned to the flames. Next door, Mr. Halliday managed to get most of his materials away, especially important legal papers. But his big safe had to remain in the flames.

The break at the “Times” office failed to check the progress of the fire, owing chiefly to the fact that insufficient men were there to use water on the demolished building. Gumbleton’s tailor shop caught alight, then Sutcliff’s restaurant and then it became patent that the other two-storeyed buildings must go.

In the meantime a band of good workers made grand and successful efforts to prevent the “Times” printing room – where a large quantity of valuable machinery and plant exists – from catching alight. For this work we are indebted to Messrs A. Boormann, E. R. Isaacs Morley, Ben Patterson, L. Burkhardt, Ellis, the majority of the members of our staff, and one or two others whose names have escaped us.

Prior to this huge tongues of flames leapt half way across the street, and the heat and sparks therefrom contrived to set alight Rice’s restaurant, and adjacent buildings. Thus both sides of the main street were in flames. In the meantime people half mad with fear and a desire to save something foolishly packed inflammable goods under other buildings. The sparks set these alight, and then pandemonium and fire reigned supreme.
When Skinner’s Courthouse Hotel and Jay’s store were burning the sight was an awing one. The huge flames shot high in the air and falling timbers dispersed sparks in all directions, albeit the wind carried most of them across the street. These set alight the Courthouse, Lands Office and police quarters, and soon these fine brick buildings and the School of Arts were in flames. Yea, surely and quickly the whole of the main portion of the town was being encompassed. Ewing’s office, Kelly’s Arcade, Keppie’s hair-dressing saloon, Holmes’ chemist shop, Withford and Joseph’s Arcade, W. Mitchell’s jewellery shop followed in the fiery wake of the other buildings further up the street.

For a long time it was thought that the Commercial Bank premises would be saved – heroic efforts were spent in that direction. But eventually hope was abandoned, and then by authoritative orders the building was fired from the other side, so that it would burn from that direction and thus help to save Solomon’s and Coy.’s big stores. Sheet iron, wet blankets, etc., were packed against the walls of the stores, and they had the desirable effect. The greatest anxiety was evinced concerning this building, as had it caught the whole of the street frontage as far as Dunn’s cafe would have gone, and possibly the Club House Hotel on the opposite side and the buildings appanageous to it. People breathed more freely when it was seen that the Big Stores had escaped the terrible conflagration.

On the other side the School of Arts, Linabury’s and Wardrop’s store, Wardrop’s buildings (including the Bank of Australasia) and the Courthouse made a fire never to be forgotten. The same applied to the Wardrop and Higgins’ buildings at the other end of the town, which embraced Wardrop’s three unfinished buildings, the E.S. and A. Bank, Drummond’s Store, Yates Cycle Works, Samio and Andronico’s No. 1 restaurant, P. Smith’s auction rooms, Finney, Isles and Co.’s big establishment and the Imperial Hotel – the largest building in town. By the time the flames had a hold on this building, they were leaping hundreds of feet in the air, making a sight appalling in its grandness.

Were ever desolation and devastation more completely exemplified? “It’s another Talawera,” remarked one onlooker, who had witnessed the destruction of that New Zealand town by earthquake.

It was whilst the Imperial Hotel was burning that the post-office was threatened. Time and again the verandah and balcony caught alight, and at times the fire burned with a persistency that almost drove the defenders to despair. The lining boards of the balcony were burnt clean through, and the lining of the verandah was burnt and scorched. Still the noble defenders worked unceasingly. Dom Burke worked from the roof, and Messrs. A. Boormann, Ashley, F. Bruce, Burton, Morrissey, the staff, and others, from the balcony and from below, and they eventually conquered the flames. Their work was really heroic, and was accomplished in a withering heat. Truly, Murwillumbah is lucky to possess a Post-office to-day. The Morse instruments and other paraphernalia had been removed for safety, also the postmaster’s furniture. Saving the Post-office meant saving Davis’ livery stables and other buildings farther up. Had these buildings gone the whole residential row as far as the Church of England would have succumbed, and possibly the R.C. Church, Presbytery, and Convent on the opposite side.

Another remarkable save effected was the residence of Mr. W. Everest, adjacent to the Bank of Australasia. Here men worked like demons to check the flames, and they were successful after a long and anxious time of it – we say “long” because anxiety and doubt makes time drag painfully. Saving this building saved Mrs. Collier’s Australian Hotel. In the meantime the Lands, C.P.S. and police officials, aided by many willing workers, experienced a busy time in saving Lands Office and C.P.S. records. The Police Court records were destroyed and much paraphernalia. Sergeant Kane had a great quantity of furniture and goods saved by willing helpers.

Mr. McGuinness’ boarding house and residence, at the rear of Mr. Halliday’s office was consumed by the flames, although the householders contrived to save a lot of goods and furniture, Mr. Williams’ residence – in a line with “Times” printery, was only saved after much effort on the part of a number of workers. This place was considerably scorched by the flames and heat.

Half-an-hour after midnight the fire had run its course – a terrible one – and in the four hours in which it raged it accomplished terrible destruction. The whole street, from the Bank of N.S.W. to the Commercial Bank on the southern side, and from Mr. H. Sabine’s work shop to the Bank of Australasia on the northern aide, was razed to the ground by what has proven the most destructive fire that has occurred in any country town in Australia.

The buildings destroyed in rotation from the Bank of N.S.W. to the Commercial Bank were:— Bank of N.S.W. and residence, Proudfoot’s store, Higgins’ bakery, Hayes’ saddlery shop, Berger’s stores, Ashley’s jeweller’s shop, Freeburn’s dental surgery and residence, Kercher’s tailoring business and residence, Dainer’s bakery and residence, Chapman’s store, Francis’ boot shop, Mrs. Wilcox’s millinery establishment, Chapman’s boot store, Halliday’s office, McGuiness’ boarding home and residence, “Times” business and editorial office, Gumbleton’s tailor shop, Sutcliffe’s restaurant, Newell’s saddlery and Aked’s boot-repairing shop, Samio and Andronico’s No. 2 restaurant, Jay’s store, Skinner’s Court-house hotel, Skinner’s billiard room, Ewing’s auction rooms, Kelly’s Arcade, Mrs. Holmes’ chemist’s shop, Dr. Guthridge’s surgery, W. Mitchell’s jeweller’s shop, and Commercial Bank and residence.

On the other side of the street the fire demolished H. Sabine’s work room, Erickson’s photographic studios, Miss Conley’s boarding house and dressmaking establishment, Chow Kum’s fruitery, J. Burke’s tailoring business, Heslop’s depot, Higgin’s Imperial Hotel, billiards rooms and stables, Finney, Isles and Coy’s. stores, P. Smith and Son’s auction rooms, Samio and Andronico’s No 1 restaurant, Yate’s cycle depot, Drummond’s stores, E.S. and A. Bank, Rice’s restaurant and new additions, Wardrop’s new buildings, Hosking’s hairdressing saloon, Walsh’s tailoring business, Connor’s butcher’s shop, Land’s Office, Courthouse, gaol and Sergt. Kane’s residence, School of Arts and billiard room, Easton’s boot shop, Chamber’s agency office, G. W. Brook’s accountancy office, Linabury’s and Wardrop’s stores, Trevitt’s dental surgery, P. Street’s offices, W. J. Kelly’s residence, and Bank of Australia – a terrible list and every one a victim to Sunday night’s holocaust.

The massive fire had been observed in the country areas around Murwillumbah:

“Many people in the country thought the flare was the result of a big bush fire. … The flare from the conflagration was seen for miles and was observed by Mr. C. Snow, of Mooball … Mr. R. Mills, of Rowland’s Creek, saw the big flare at night, and concluded that Mt Nullum was on fire .”

“The roar of the flames was heard at Burringbar, whilst the flare was visible at Mullumbimby … The roar of the flames could be heard at Knight Bros. farm, on the North Arm, and people came from all parts of the district to view the destruction of the town.” 2

George Brooks and his companions, who were working at the top of Nobby’s Creek, saw the flames and knew it was serious. They came into town the next morning to see what had happened. Jack Lange, a pioneer of Uki, recalled:

“I came over to the Tweed by coach and train, coach to Bangalow and the train to Murwillumbah with the Dad. I was about 18. We hired horses at the livery stable and rode out to Phil O’Neil’s on Rowland’s Creek, stayed the night there. The next day we went out and looked at the block. I didn’t know what land was much at the time, whether it was good, bad or indifferent. Anyway, we came in and put in an application for it. The following week I got notice to be in Murwillumbah on the 16th September. We got to Murwillumbah and whole town was burned down. All this side of Brisbane St. was gone and the other side, from the big store, Wilkinson’s, from there to where the Council Chambers was, was gone. Nothing left. We stayed that night in town.” 5

A similar experience happened to the Kerr family. Robert Kerr had selected at Pumpenbil in 1906 and had returned to Sydney to move his family to their new home on the Tweed:

“Murwillumbah was a sight not to be forgotten when the family disembarked from the boat at Wharf Street. The main business area of the town was still smouldering from the great fire which destroyed sixty six shops the day before. “ 6

R. H. Eady, of Fernvale, had ridden out to Terranora to gather a gang to cut his sugar cane. On his arrival at Murwillumbah, he found the town had been burnt down the day before. 7

Little was spared. Most of the main business district had been razed to the ground. Was this to be the end of the growing and popular town?



Excerpt from 'Red Sunday'

‘Tweed Herald & Brunswick Chronicle’, 17 September, 1907
‘Tweed times & Brunswick Advocate’, 18 September, 1907
‘Tweed times & Brunswick Advocate’, 21 September, 1907
Brooks Len, pers. comm.
‘The Way It Was’, ed. Connery,M.L., p16
‘Tales of Our Times’, vol.7, p12, 1998, Johansen, Ron
‘Fernvale Past & Present’, Johansen, Ron & Smith, Norm 1995
Last Updated: 14 May 2015