Many people who live in Glebe are familiar with the Old Fire Station at 113 Mitchell St. Its late Victorian architecture makes it a distinctive and well known addition to the heritage streetscapes that characterise Glebe, our 19th century suburb. However, its appearance is only one important aspect of this building and its situation; perhaps more important is its function as a de facto community centre. Unlike other community centres it was not built by, nor is it funded through, the local government purse, as many are, although as part of the St Phillips Estate the site is owned by the NSW Government. For the past 40 years the Old Fire Station has provided a neighbourhood venue for social activities, mostly initiated and maintained by local people, faith-based groups and other services.
In addition to its role as a social hub, the building itself, which includes the adjoining house and annexe, has a history that reveals many layers of use that were once characteristic of Glebe but are no longer found in our suburb. As well as its obvious history as a Fire Station, the site has served residential, commercial and manufacturing roles. The Old Fire Station, though modest in scale, has great heritage value because of its connections to Glebe’s non-residential past as well as its major role as a social centre since the mid-1970s.
The site in the early nineteenth century
The site was part of the original grant made by Governor Phillip to the Church of England. This part of the glebe lands is called St Phillip’s Estate as it was handed, in 1828, to the Trustees of St Phillip’s church in York St, Sydney, the first parish church in the colony, to provide income for the parish. The Trustees offered lots in St Phillip’s for lease in 1842, and three separate structures were built on the site in the mid 1840s. By 1875 these structures, two cottages and a butcher’s shop, were derelict, two of them unoccupied. This was typical of the first buildings in the area, described by Max Solling in Grandeur and Grit: ‘Many of the cheap, insanitary timber cottages built from 1842 were the products of speculative builders interested only in profit.’ (p96)
Redevelopment from 1876
To encourage redevelopment of the St Phillip’s Estate, the Estate’s Trustees began to issue new, longer, leases mainly of 45 or 50 years. George Wigram Allen, landowner of the Toxteth Estate, took out leases for most of the estate in the mid-1870s. The redevelopment of the site which is now the Old Fire Station seems to have been directly financed by Allen, with a long-term local tenant and small businessman, Edward Fortescue, as manager.
The two-storey house which is now part of the whole site was the first building to be constructed, in 1876. In about 1879 a workshop was built on the corner of Campbell Lane and the Cawley family were its long-term tenants, from 1881 until 1921. Over that time, it was used as a blacksmith’s forge and farrier’s shop (a smith who shoes horses). The land in between was let at various times as a yard in conjunction with either the house or the workshop.
The volunteer fire service finds a home
The Glebe Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed in 1875, and was based at the Council premises, next to Derby Place, until 1880 when it moved to vacant land in Mitchell St, immediately behind the building on the corner of Glebe Point Rd (Fascination House).
The Brigade’s location had compensations, not least of which is likely to have been the goodwill of Allen, or of his agent Fortescue, ensuring either free or heavily subsidised rent on otherwise unoccupied land. G. W. Allen had also showed support for the Brigade by hosting a major event for it at Toxteth Park in 1880. The location also had other benefits once Adam Newton became Superintendent of the Brigade in 1879. Newton was licensee of the Great Britain Hotel on the corner of Campbell and Mitchell Streets. The Brigade’s proximity to Newton’s hotel gave Brigade volunteers a meeting space, and it was of course good for the licensee’s business.
During the 1880s the Brigade operated with minimal equipment. By the late 1880s it still relied on a hand pulled hose reel and a manually operated pump. It had no facilities to keep a horse or to store larger equipment or a long ladder, until its new station was built towards the end of 1892, between the residence and workshop in Mitchell St. The Glebe Volunteer Fire Brigade occupied the new station until 1906. From 1894, the Brigade also used the two-storey house as the engine keepers’ accommodation.
From 1884, firefighting gradually became more professional under the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board. Registered Volunteer brigades were subject to the Board’s supervision and the equipment levels expected of all brigades was increasing. The Glebe Brigade, like some other volunteer companies, was falling behind by the late 1890s.
In 1906 the Brigade moved to a new, much larger station in St John’s Rd, one of a number funded and built by the NSW government through the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board in the same period. By this time firemen were partly-paid. While the Glebe Brigade’s supporters were still holding firm to a volunteer brigade, it would not be long before it became a fully professional unit.
Hiatus after the Fire Brigade
The Old Fire Station building had sporadic use as a warehouse and storeroom from 1906 to 1920, then was largely vacant until the mid 1930s. At the same time the farrier’s workshop on the corner of Campbell Lane became vacant. Similarly the two-storey house, like other buildings in the area, was becoming run down as the new lease approached its expiry date, and had no recorded tenant after 1926.
A new lease on life for the Old Fire Station
After the leases on the St Phillip’s Estate expired, the Trustees appointed Harry Hibble as managing agent. The vacancies at the Old Fire Station site were ultimately Hibble’s responsibility but these properties would have been difficult to let. Even the two-storey house had been used as much as a place of business as a residence for most of the time since it had been built. The old farrier’s shop and the old fire station had an even narrower range of possible uses. However, they proved well-suited to Hibble’s son Miles’ new venture.
Miles Hibble founded Automatic Screw Company, establishing a factory on the site in 1936. It remained on the site until 1952 and must be the reason for the annexe re-build, including the construction of the rear saw-tooth section which extends across the back of the old fire station and seems to have been built in 1939. Automatic Screw was a precision engineering firm – part of an industry group that developed to supply components to the emerging electrical goods and motor vehicle industries in the 1920s and more particularly from the mid-1930s. Automatic Screw produced components for the electrical goods firm, AWA, among others. The precision engineering capabilities Australia built up through small firms like Automatic Screw, and some much larger concerns, were critical to the manufacture of a wide range of new products which had to be locally produced under wartime conditions. During the war Automatic Screw produced firing pins, rifle sights and other essential material. The company had outgrown its site by the 1950s and moved to a new location in 1952.
Thus the Old Fire Station had a long life as a factory from 1936 to 1952 and the annexe had a much longer industrial history. Although Glebe contained a significant amount of industry until the 1950s, it has very few reminders of Australia’s industrial development. Even Glebe’s once proud maritime and timber industry has left only a few relics along the shoreline, the crane from Strides Yard and the nearby dry-dock winch being the most notable. The Old Fire Station is one of the very few buildings which remain from our industrial past.
When the Old Fire Station occupant moved to larger premises in 1952, the building was adapted again, this time for use as an office and store, and then as a warehouse. A Heritage report on tenants who applied to re-purpose the building includes one in 1955, by the Component Parts / Belmont Trading Company for the storage of screws, nuts and bolts, and another in 1970 by the Australian Chicago Products for the storage of motor parts. It may have continued in this mode until the early 1970s, however some anecdotal reports suggest it may have also been a jam factory before being left vacant.
Urban Renewal – the Glebe Project
In April 1974 the whole of the Glebe Estate was sold by the Church of England to the Federal Government for $17.5 million and a major program of urban renewal began. A new role for the Old Fire Station arose from this when, after some upgrading, it became the Project Office for the estate’s redevelopment by the Department of Urban and Regional Development.
It fulfilled this purpose from 1975 to March 1976 after which the Project Office was transferred to Fascination House (115 Glebe Point Rd). The Old Fire Station then began to be used as a community centre, primarily for residents’ meetings and display of project proposals, but also for more general community development activities. Typical activities were ‘housie’ and afternoon tea for older people, and child minding/playgroups, generally arranged by the Glebe Estate Women’s Group.
In 1985 the Glebe Estate was transferred from the Commonwealth to the NSW Department of Housing. During the 1990s the rooms were gradually upgraded, including the installation of a small kitchen and indoor toilet. Following the death of the tenant in the adjoining house, an internal door with the Old Fire Station was opened, and the three areas – house, fire station room and annexe – have functioned as a single site, although with different activities in each area.
A community centre for 40 years
A wide variety of community groups have used the building as a community centre. They include: Concerned Older Women’s Group, Glebe Area Tenants group, the Neighbourhood Advisory Board (NAB), the Glebe Society, the Forest Lodge and Glebe Coordination Group (FLAG), as well as housie/bingo activities, mothers’ groups and men’s groups, art classes, drama classes and more.
One of the major users of the Old Fire Station has been Hope Street and its main community building activity, Have a Chat café. Like the other users of the premises, the Hope Street service, being a community facility, was not charged rental by Housing NSW. The majority of other users are similarly classified. Hope Street itself began in 1984 as an outreach project of the Baptist Inner City Ministries. Initially Hope Street operated out of the Uniting Church premises in St John’s Rd. The Uniting Church had commenced its Café Church some years earlier as an alternative to traditional church service models, to adapt to the changing social mix in Glebe. Have a café followed this model, and operated for 10 years from 2004, most of that time from the Old Fire Station.
In 2004 the Glebe Community Development Project was established as a partnership between the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney and Housing NSW. It aimed to build community capacity and social cohesion in the social housing community, and it supported tenant driven initiatives such as the Glebe Bytes Computer Project which began in 2004, with the aim of building computer skills with local residents. The annexe of the Old Fire Station was the main location for the computer project. The Glebe Community Development Project produces a regular newsletter which amongst other things, informs residents of the activities taking place at the Old Fire Station.
The Old Fire Station remains a vital facility at the heart of the Glebe Estate and its community. However, it is once again in urgent need of renovation so that this unique heritage item and community centre can continue its role into the future.