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The 1950s

The Captain’s board on display in the current fire shed kitchen

From the very beginning bush fire fighting in New South Wales was rooted in community. And that’s still the case today. The Rural Fire Service, a government agency, oversees fire operations. But it has always been groups of unpaid locals who actually douse the flames. What’s more, the RFS was not established until 1997, while volunteer brigades, often woefully ill-equipped, had started to form over a century earlier.

In the case of Scotland Island, its brigade was founded in 1955. Its origins could hardly have been humbler. Initially set up in someone’s living room, the brigade began as an offshoot of the Scotland Island Progress Association, later to become the Scotland Island Residents’ Association. Indeed it was at SIPA’s second meeting that the motion was passed to form a brigade, with SIPA office holders intended to oversee its affairs.

Today’s western foreshore and island brigades have at their disposal a considerable number of boats and land vehicles. Scotland Island began with nothing. In those days it was left to local authorities to supply brigades. And so a SIPA delegation was sent to Warringah Council, who ‘reluctantly’ assented to £490 worth of supplies: basically a pump, some hose and 20 knapsack sprays. £490 approximates to $17,000 in today’s money. The collective value of the fire fighting equipment on the island today runs well into six figures.

The oldest known photo of the fire shed, taken in 1961, five years after its construction

Bear in mind too that in the early years the island brigade was expected to look after Elvina and Lovett Bays: West Pittwater brigade came later. But a request for funding for a pump to be based on the western foreshores was rejected by Warringah on the basis that those areas fell under the domain of Kuring-gai Chase Trust.

Included in the £490 grant from Warringah was £75 for building material. Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than $3,000 today. With this the brigade was expected to build a fire shed using voluntary labour. But the community mustered its forces and within months a shed was erected close to the shore at Tennis Court Wharf, near where the playground swings stand today.

The shed then grew by a number of extensions, finding uses as de facto community centre and playschool. (The present community hall wasn’t finished until 1982 and the kindy building followed in 1989.) Unfortunately the location of the shed, below a steep bank, meant that it was subject to land slippage. Older residents might remember being called upon to attend the shed with bucket and mop to clean up the mess.

Today you will find five fire boxes dotted around the island, each equipped with a pump, hoses and other supplies. Each cost over $10,000 to install and equip. In the 1950s things were a little different. The brigade’s early firefighting strategy was to locate a dozen knapsack sprays (each costing $160 in today’s money) at homes around the island: approximately one spray for every 10 houses. The owners of these homes were expected to ensure that the sprays were easily accessible to their neighbours, should they be absent at the time of need.

We must remember that at the time of the brigade’s foundation the island had less than 100 houses, with very few permanent residents. Obviously today’s RFS is far better equipped because it serves a much larger island population.

But some things never change, most of all the need for strong community support for local brigades. What’s most noticeable from island archives is that back in the 1950s every able-bodied man was expected to play a role in the brigade.

Today women also play an essential part in the RFS: the Service is committed to principles of equality and there is no gender requirement for fire fighting. But in the 1950s women had very specific roles to fulfil. They were, at least, invited to attend early SIPA and brigade meetings. Provided, of course, they feed the men. Interestingly, the ‘ladies’ were expected to ‘bring a plate’, while the ‘gentlemen’ were invited to ‘bring a bottle of their choice’.

The 1960s

Two Blitz wagons belonging to Warringah Shire and displayed at 1962’s Warringah Fire Prevention Week. It’s unclear whether Bertha was among the vehicles on display.

Electricity arrived on Scotland Island in 1962 and with it came more houses, more people, and a bigger fire brigade. The 1960s was also when the brigade began to grow apart from its parent organisation, the Scotland Island Progress Association. At first the two organisations had been barely distinguishable, but during the 1960s they began having separate meetings and membership.

But some things didn’t change. Every able-bodied man was still expected to play a role in the brigade. ‘There can be no back-sliders’, said Captain Grahame Maclean in 1968. Men were organised into three-man rosters, taking turns to be on hand during the fire season. Thus the burden of attending fires was perhaps more evenly spread than it is today.

A detail from John Parker’s 1991 painting of Scotland Island’s old fire shed, which stood down by Tennis Court Wharf. The picture appears to show the brigade’s ‘Blitz’ wagon, even though it had been replaced some 15 years earlier.

Even in the 1960s women remain conspicuously absent from accounts of firefighting activity, save as caterers. But by 1967 the St John Ambulance Association was training first-aid officers on the island, and 10 of the 15 certificates awarded to permanent residents went to women. Attendance at medical emergencies remains a core function of today’s brigade.

The 1960s is when the brigade acquired its first vehicle, donated by an island resident. Following extensive fires in Elvina Bay during the summer of 1964/5, the then owner of Quarterdeck (on the island’s north-western point) offered an ‘old but reliable’ Commer truck, fitted with water tank, pump and hoses. As a backup, the truck’s tank could be filled from a hydrant located at the back of Quarterdeck, which was in turn fed by sea water pumped from the property’s jetty.

A ‘Blitz’ in service to the Duffys Forest Brigade in 1973. Note the white overalls worn by firefighters at the time.

Fortunately brigade transport wasn’t reliant on resident largesse for long. Sometime around 1968 the island acquired ‘Bertha’. Few today remember Bertha, but the significance of this vehicle in island folklore must have been such that when, more than 20 years later, brigade captain John Parker immortalised the old shed in his watercolour painting it was Bertha that he depicted as parked outside, even though by 1991 Bertha had long since gone.

Known to Australians as a ‘Blitz wagon’, Bertha was more properly described as a Canadian Military Pattern (CMP) truck. Canadian factories produced 850,000 of these vehicles in World War II: more trucks than were produced by the three main Axis nations combined. Indeed the CMP truck has been described as Canada’s biggest contribution to the war effort.

Another Blitz, this one used by Lismore City Council RFS as a water tanker

With a windscreen that was angled downwards to reduce reflected glare observable by enemy aircraft, and with a distinctive pug-nosed profile intended to make them more compact and easier to ship, Blitz wagons were deployed in just about every theatre of war. Even the Russians used them to counter the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

After the war pretty much the entire British Commonwealth was awash with CMP trucks. In the case of Australia, where the Blitz had been manufactured under licence, some of these surplus trucks were adapted for bush fire fighting. They were acquired by numerous local authorities, including Warringah Council.

Acquisition of a truck necessitated a 30-foot extension to the fire shed. Just like the original structure, this addition had to be built by volunteers. The 1968 party, held to celebrate the expanded shed, was described as ‘the Island’s biggest blowout since the coming of electricity’.

The 1970s

Islander Bob Green (right) alongside the Land Rover that replaced Bertha in 1976.

Bertha survived with the brigade into the 1970s, even though one has to question her utility. It cannot have been easy manoeuvring a 30-year-old wartime truck around island roads, and it was said that Bertha was a vehicle that only Jim Duff, captain between 1971 and 1978, ‘was game to drive’.

In September 1973 a ‘torrid’ brigade meeting, attended by a ‘record crowd’ of 51 residents, heard how Bertha’s pump was inoperative, causing SI News to quip that the truck was less a fire tender and more a fire tinder. At the same meeting ‘tempers flared’ when it was alleged that the truck had been used for private purposes.

In 1976 this vestige of wartime Australia was finally retired, replaced by a Land Rover and trailer unit, vehicles perhaps better suited to island roads.

The old fire shed as it stood in 1976

As for a fire boat, all that existed in the early days was a float which ‘languished unused’ in Lovett and Towlers Bays. Due to this vessel’s ‘unspectacular career’, islanders, observed SI News, were ‘not easy to impress with the potentialities of fireboats’.

Other brigades were more lucky. For instance, Berowra Waters’ brigade, which fell under Hornsby Shire, had by 1964 acquired an 18-foot twin-hulled unit. Allegedly unsinkable, the vessel’s pumps were capable of lifting water 150 metres up a hillside.

No such vessel was forthcoming from Warringah Shire. Indeed relations between the authority and Scotland Island brigade appear at times to have been distinctly rocky.

Berowra Waters Brigade’s fire float, photographed in 1964. Powered by two 88 hp engines, the vessel was capable of 35 knots.

For instance, in the early 1970s there was a threat by Warringah to disband the brigade. The main point of contention was the use of the fire shed, then located on the waterfront near Tennis Court wharf. Islanders were using it as a playschool and general community centre. When the fire authority objected, residents were appalled: they had built the shed and felt entitled to use it as they pleased.

It seems that the row quickly dissipated. But even in the 1970s the island’s brigade continued to look to residents for the funding of basic firefighting equipment. In fact, as late as 1980 members were expected to pay for their own protective boots and overalls, albeit at cost price.

By 1973 Western Shores Fire Brigade had acquired a fire boat. Costing $2,500 ($24,000 in today’s money), the boat was bought by public subscription. This prompted the island to launch its own fire boat appeal, canvassing donations from residents. Within a few years it had raised over $2,000 (around $13,000 today), and by 1976 a vessel had been acquired, named the Bill Nunns, after the brigade secretary who was instrumental in raising the funds.

The original shed next to Tennis Court Wharf, photographed in 1979

Fundraising has always been an important brigade function. But back in the 1970s things were a little different to today. In August 1977 the brigade held a party which, according to SI News, attracted ‘the largest gathering in island history’, a bigger roll-up than that which celebrated the building of the old fire shed or the coming of electricity in 1962.

What precisely triggered the event isn’t known. But attendance exceeded 100: pretty impressive given that at the time the island’s permanent adult population barely exceeded 200.

Early brigade socials generally included a request that ‘ladies bring a plate’. This 1977 extravaganza was professionally catered. Even so, the SI News write-up refers to ‘white-clad Bob Blackwood’ passing out steaks ‘with all the dignity of a Hilton chef’. Apparently the old white uniform was something of a status symbol among some firies, indicating longevity of service.

Jim Duff, captain, 1971-78, photographed in 1975, alongside some of the dance group that used the old fire shed for practice.

Bob, along with other brigade members, including June Lahm, helped raise a staggering $700 profit ($4,000 in today’s money) generated by the night. That’s an impressive result, one the brigade would be proud to achieve today, despite having more than double the population to draw on.

One doesn’t like to give today’s brigade ideas, but it looks as though much of the success of the 1977 fundraiser came from gambling. Gaming tables were set up in the fire shed, with games including Crown and Anchor, Overs and Unders and Swy (Two-Up). Apparently the fire shed resembled a veritable casino for the night.

The 1980s

The start of the 1980s was something of a turning point for Scotland Island. Around that time the island experienced a massive building boom. During the 1970s it had taken six years for the number of island houses to grow by forty. But ninety houses were built in 1980 alone. And, of course, the permanent population grew commensurably.

The Land Rover and tanker trailer that served the brigade from about 1976 until 1982.
The old fire shed (by Tennis Wharf) is in the background. Photo: June Lahm

This growth in the island community was to alter the brigade inexorably. But change wasn’t immediate. As late as 1983, training sessions were still held just twice a year, as opposed to the current monthly meetings. What’s more, there remained, well into the 1980s, the interminable need for fundraising to buy even basic equipment, a hallmark of the brigade’s earlier history.

For instance, in September 1983 the shed was once again turned into a casino for a night. According to the promotion in SI News, ‘wheels will spin, cards will shuffle and, quite possibly, pennies will spin’. The fund-raiser was organised by Geoff Leeson, who was at it again in 1984, this time running a ‘firies’ ball’ in Mona Vale Memorial Hall.

Bob Blackwood in his trademark white firies uniform, photographed talking to Darcy Nicholson (captain, 1990-91) sometime around 1987.

Despite the increase in population, the island still lacked a reliable water supply. In 1967 island residents had voted 22 to six against mains water. The absence of city water on the island meant that a dry period could leave islanders’ tanks perilously low, giving the brigade little or no firefighting capacity. Even today it is essential to the island’s fire defences that householders keep their tanks well topped up.

As late as 1973 Warringah’s failure to provide the island with an emergency water supply was an additional source of rancour for residents. But then, sometime during the late 1970s, a water tank was installed just above Bells wharf. Fed by a pipe from the mainland, the tank was intended for the sole use of the brigade. But it rapidly became apparent that locals were helping themselves.

Things came to a head around the time of the 1980/81 fire season. At the time Sydney was experiencing the worst drought in living memory, and the summer saw an abnormally high number of Total Fire Ban (TOBAN) days. In the absence of a viable alternative, islanders were tapping the brigade storage tank. And, complained SI News, they were doing so ‘to a critical degree’. ‘Water raiders can threaten fire-fighting’, ran the headline. Yet the brigade appears to have been quite magnanimous, tolerating the taking of some water for household purposes, provided the reserve was never left more than half empty.

Bruce Lane, the brigade’s longest-serving captain (1978-88).This photo was taken towards the end of his stint.

Even so, the brigade was evidently worried. ‘Someday the whole bloody island could burn down’, opined one member. Indeed, the previous season had seen numerous illegal burns on the island, including one at the top of the island which consumed around half an acre. Fortunately the brigade was at the scene within eight minutes.

Adding to its problems, the brigade was having to make do with a 1960s Land Rover, towing a 900-litre tanker trailer which took 15 minutes to fill from the Bells tank. By 1982 the Land Rover was experiencing more and more mechanical problems and the time had come for a new truck.

Scotland Island’s original fire shed, which stood at Tennis Court Wharf. This photo was probably taken during the 1980s. By then the shed had been considerably extended.

But how to fund it? The brigade’s answer was to enter a competition, run by Channel 7, which was offering two Land Rovers to the brigades making the most persuasive submission for assistance. Unfortunately the island lost out to Lake Munmorah and Brooklyn brigades who, it transpired, didn’t have any mobile equipment at all.

Fortunately help was to hand. In 1982 SI News announced the imminent arrival of a new Toyota Land Cruiser. What’s more, in March 1985 long-serving fire captain Bruce Lane announced the arrival of a 2,300-litre tanker.

But it seems that this didn’t last long, because in November of the same year SI News reported that it had been exchanged for an ‘upgraded AB160 tanker with a crew cabin’.

The AB160 was a truck manufactured by International Harvester and which had gone into production in Australia in 1961. The age of the model supplied to Scotland Island is unknown but, according to John Travers, equipment officer at the time, it wasn’t the best of trucks.

Sandy Walker demonstrates a water pump to Beth Jessup.

‘I’m not sure it had any brakes’, he recalls. What’s more, according to John, it had problems starting. Apparently the brigade’s answer was to always park the Toyota Land Cruiser behind it, so that the Toyota could give the larger truck a good shove, should it be needed. By 1988 the International tanker had been updated to a Mazda fire truck. What’s more, in 1985 the brigade acquired a new punt-style aluminium fire boat, for which a pen was constructed at Tennis Court Wharf.

The 1980s saw changes in brigade membership. In 1987 brigade secretary Clive Power reported 18 new members, plus 55 more completing their basic training. That’s a massive growth. In its early days the brigade was very much a men’s club, but the 1980s was when women started to play a greater role, including June Lahm and Sandy Walker, who rose to the rank of senior deputy captain.

But even while the brigade celebrated this growth in membership, there were concerns that the southern side of the island was ‘very poorly represented’. Indeed, there are signs that the island’s rapid population growth in the early 1980s had strained community cohesion.

Bruce Lane with the Harvester International AB160 truck that arrived around 1985. Photo: June Lahm
The Toyota Land Cruiser, alongside the AB160

For instance, in 1986 there was talk of a new residents’ association; a breakaway from SIRA. Up until then SIRA had been the domain of the north of the island. Every president had come from the north, and apparently southerners barely attended meetings. The breakaway group wanted something that better represented the south.

SIRA had to act fast. In 1987, in an attempt to maintain island unity, the association held its very first general meeting on the south side, in the house next to Carol’s Wharf. This apparently worked, and the breakaway association never materialised.

A community event outside the old fire shed, Tennis Court Wharf, around 1985. Note the phone box in the distance, which still stands.
A busy sausage sizzle, held outside the old fire shed, around 1985. The island had seen a population boom in the early 1980s

By the 1980s the island’s burgeoning population had thoroughly outgrown the old fire shed, which was located down by the water’s edge at Tennis Court Wharf. Until the opening of the community hall in 1982, that humble structure had served as the island’s sole communal space, hosting not only the brigade but also public meetings, a play school, dance classes and more.

The newly cleared site for the awaited shed, approx 1985

The opening of the current community hall in 1982 gave the brigade sole occupancy of the old shed. Even so, with its newly acquired equipment and growing membership, space must have been tight.

Plans for a new fire station had begun taking shape in the early 1980s. But where to build it? Some members favoured retaining the site down on the shoreline. For instance, Peter Mulholland, who went on to serve as captain, felt that by fronting directly onto the park the shed, and therefore the brigade, would better retain its integral place in everyday island life.

But others favoured relocating the brigade’s HQ further up the hill. A proponent of this new site was Bob Blackwood, who served as president for many years. Bob made a persuasive case for a new site: if the brigade stayed where it was then it would take far longer to get a new shed.

A community event inside the old fire shed, sometime around 1980. Photo: June Lahm

In the end, Bob and his supporters won the day, and the brigade’s current site was selected. One story, perhaps apocryphal, is that the position of the shed was due to the substandard vehicles operated by the brigade at the time: it was felt that they needed to be kept at the top of a hill so that they could be clutch started in the event of a flat battery.

Whatever the real reason, by 1985 the present site had been cleared. But the new shed still needed a design. Apparently the original honorary architect was Richard Williamson, known to many on the island as Richard the Brick. This, the story goes, was due to his penchant for building in brick, and to distinguish him from Richard the Log, who preferred wooden constructions.

In 1985 long-serving captain Bruce Lane announced that construction would start soon. But three years later the site still lay empty; the delay partly related to the need to rezone the site, which formed part of Catherine Park.

By then Richard Williamson had seemingly been replaced as architect by islander Geoff Breen. According to some brigade members around at the time, Geoff came up with an interesting concept for the shed, but in the end the council selected a more ‘prosaic’ design by another islander, John Parker.

Construction began sometime around 1989, by which time Darcy Nicholson had taken over from Peter Mulholland as captain. Unlike the first shed and the community centre, both of which were built with volunteer labour, Greg Stidwill (Ryan’s father) was contracted to complete the construction, with John Travers working on the framework.

The 1990s

The new shed formally opened on 15 June 1991. Warringah Shire was represented by its president, John Caputo, with three other councillors attending. This prompted Bob Blackwood to wryly note in his ‘vastly amusing’ speech the ‘remarkable coincidence’ of so many councillors appearing offshore. At the time Pittwater was voting on whether to secede from Warringah to form its own council.

Bruce Healey inside the radio room of the current shed

The shed was to outlast both Warringah and Pittwater Councils. But not without changes, all of which are testament to the brigade’s continuing growth. First, the entire structure has now been taken over by the brigade. The original plan was for the firies to occupy only the front of the station. One rear room was to be used by council workers, while the other was intended for Sydney County Council, then responsible for providing electricity to offshore Pittwater. This explains why, until recently, there were no connecting doors between the building’s two rear rooms and the rest of the station. To this day Ausgrid has a store cupboard in one back room.

Internal and external changes have also been implemented by brigade members. These include construction of the radio room, mezzanine, bar and the outside paved patio. Much of this work was done by present-day islanders, including Bob Blackwood, John Travers, Steve Yorke, Geoff Leeson and John Christie, among others. The late Bruce Healey also played an important role in the shed’s improvement and upkeep.

The other major alteration was when the entire front wall was pushed out by several metres, thus allowing more space for vehicles and construction of a workshop. The extension was opened in 2002 by Steve Yorke, by then a superintendent in the RFS.

Bob Blackwood, Bruce Healey and Graeme Richmond in front of the current fire shed, sometime after 2004

Even though the building now belongs to Northern Beaches Council and basic firefighting equipment is supplied by the RFS, much of its maintenance and running costs are met by the brigade. For instance, the brigade paid for the recent redecoration of the shed, as well as its phone and internet connections and kitchen equipment. That’s why the brigade relies on the support of you, the residents, if the shed is to remain an integral part of island social and community life.

This history of the brigade draws principally on Scotland Island News archives. Thanks to June Lahm for providing many of the accompanying photographs