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From the Archives, 1953: Fire in Royal Exhibition Buildings destroys aquarium

The main Exhibition hall narrowly escaped destruction as flames raced through a kitchen only 15 feet from exhibits in the £1.25m engineering exhibition.

The Royal ballroom was saved after a fight lasting an hour. The adjoining State Immigration Reception Centre was also menaced.

Five persons, including three firemen, were treated at St Vincent’s Hospital for minor injuries.

A crowd estimated at 20,000 watched the fire.

Last night the Chief of the Fire Brigade (Mr. L. P. Whitehead) said: “The Exhibition Building is Melbourne’s No.1 fire trap. It is amazing the damage was not much greater.”

Police and civilian volunteers were kept busy controlling thousands of watchers who crowded the Exhibition gardens.

Several times police had to force people back from the danger area.

Other spectators lined Nicholson-street for several yards. Many came from the city in tramway buses.

All traffic was diverted from Nicholson-street, between Gertrude and Johnston streets.

Naval Rating Give Help

Fifty naval rating from H.M.A.S. Lonsdale arrived at the fire within a quarter of an hour of the alarm, and helped for more than an hour.

They were summoned by the committee of the White Ensign Club which was holding a meeting in the club rooms in the north-eastern annexe of the Exhibition.

A view of the flames from the Royal Ballroom shows the fire engulfing the aquarium.

A view of the flames from the Royal Ballroom shows the fire engulfing the aquarium.Credit:Museums Victoria

Scores of civilian volunteers helped firemen to control the fire. Even children helped, carrying extinguishers up ladders to fire fighters on the walls of the Aquarium.

Early in their fight firemen were hampered by poor water pressure.

Hoses had to be run nearly 300 yards to water mains. By then the fire had a strong grip.

“Booster” pumps were used to step up the pressure. One man on an extension ladder stood helplessly for nearly 10 minutes waiting for water to come through a hose.

The fire is believed to have started in a paint shop behind the main building.

The roof of the Aquarium collapsed within half an hour of the start of the fire. Firemen worked in frequent danger from falling debris.

Fire killed fish and many birds

Most of the fish and many of the birds perished in the fire.

The director (Mr. A. C. Jones) said damage would be at least £100,000. He could not state the insurance cover on the aquarium, but said it could not be replaced.

Mr. Jones said he had left his office only a few seconds before the fire started.

“I was on my way home with some friends when one of them remarked that he could smell something burning.

“I ran back into the building, but the interior was a mass of flames.

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“Most of the fish have been boiled alive, but fortunately some of the birds were released.”

Seals survive

About the only exhibits saved were those of the seals. The fire raged above and around them.

After the fire the seals were still swimming about the pool.

Flames leaped within feet of Ned Kelly’s suit of armor near the Aquarium entrance, but it was not damaged.

Camp danger

Mr. Arthur Watson, caretaker of the State Immigration Reception Centre which adjoins the Aquarium said he and three Yugoslav migrants were the first to start fighting the fire.

They used fire-fighting equipment which had been installed in the camp only last week.

“At one stage I thought the fire would go through the whole migrant centre,” Mr. Watson said.

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“Trees overhanging the huts caught alight when the fire was at its peak.”

Mr. Watson said no migrants were living in the 30-hut camp last night. The last six migrants had left the camp during the morning.

People tore holes in the camp fences and streamed through in hundreds to watch the fire.

Mr. W. Torrance and his father Mr. D. Torrance who live opposite the Aquarium, thought immediately of the caged birds when they saw the smoke rising.

They kicked in a fibro-cement wall, releasing cockatoos, peacocks and macaws. They were joined by several other men who had also thought of the birds.

Mr. Torrance, junior, who was among those who went into the Aquarium with handkerchiefs over their faces, said the water was hot and there was little chance of any fish surviving.

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