Calamity on High Street

The Ovens and Murray Advertiser described it as Yackandandah’s ‘first warning’ and that its residents had enjoyed an immunity ‘not accorded to less favoured towns’ until the early hours of Saturday the 10th of February 1866 – when screams of ‘fire’ echoed down High Street.

Fire had broken out in the cellar of a two story brick store owned by Mr Walter Roper – he was roused from his sleep by Lorenz Unmack, who resided in the stable at the back of Roper’s property. They rushed downstairs to the store in order to save valuable business documents, but when greeted by dense smoke they abandoned their efforts, instead running up stairs to save the children.  After ensuring his family children were out of harm’s way, Roper returned to the building and opened the doors leading to the right-of-way between his store and the Star Hotel. He was greeted by several residents of the town rushing in with buckets of water, passing them down into the cellar to extinguish the flames. Within ten minutes the fire was out, the Advertiser giving special mention to local resident, Louis Stephens, who acted with ‘as much unconcern as the fabled salamander’ in his efforts to douse the flames.

Legislation passed in 1858 (the Act for Preventing the Careless Use of Fire ) meant that a fire, such as the one in Walter Roper’s store, could be investigated by the coroner in order to determine its cause. These investigations were conducted in the same manner as those concerned with determine the cause of death of an individual.

An inquest held by Dr Mueller on the 15th of February 1866 with witness testimony from Roper, Unmack, Frederick Allan (of the Star Hotel) and James Darton submitted as evidence. The inquest found that Roper, Unmack and Darton had been in the cellar at various times in the hours preceding the fire –  but none could recall the smell of smouldering material or anything awakening their suspicions. The only telling evidence was Ropers account of lighting a candle for use in the back parlour between 1am and 2am, though he could not recall the exact spot where he struck the match used to light it.

Dr Mueller was not able to determine the cause of the fire – though Mueller did report to the coroner that Roper had suspected Unmack of having a hand in the incident. Unmack was given notice by Roper the day before (for reasons unknown). Mueller had doubted Roper’s suspicions, describing Unmack as bearing a ‘very good character’.

With merchandise consisting of kerosene, spirits and other inflammable material it was lucky that the fire did not do more damage, not only to Roper’s store but the eight or nine other wooden buildings adjoining.

The fire in Mr Ropers store sparked a conversation about the creation of a Hook & Ladder Company (fire brigade) and even the construction of a reservoir on Commissioner’s Creek for use in battling future fires.