Early morning at 2am, Sunday the 21st November 1897, a warehouse fire in Elizabeth Street in Melbourne CBD spread to neighbouring buildings and swiftly devastated one of the city’s most valuable business blocks known as “The Lane”. The lane was bounded on the east side by Swanston Street, on the west by Elizabeth Street, on the North by Flinders Lane and on the South by Flinders Lane. Only few bare walls remained of the block which were later demolished. The total loss from the fire was estimated to be between £2,000,000 and £3,000,000. The fire started in the huge seven story building of Messrs. Craig, Williamson, and Thomas, general warehousemen, in Elizabeth-street.
The Eastern Hill Fire Station which is now a Fire Service Museum was open just four years before that. Within 3 minutes of getting the information, Superintendent Stein of Eastern Hill Fire Station reached the scene with half a dozen steamers and 160 men. It took more than four hours to bring the fire under control. The strong northerly wind fanned the flames to other buildings. Finks building corner of Elizabeth and Flinders Street were the next to catch fire. It was the tallest building in the city on those days.
Fire then reached the building occupied by Mutual Store company, Sargood and many other businesses and the interior of the buildings were destroyed by the fire. Finks building became a mere shell. The Mutual store building had a wonderful escape.
The original Sargood importer warehouse stretched from Flinders Street to Flinders Lane. After it been destroyed in fire, Frederick Sargood (Rippon Leas Mansion Fame) engaged Sydney architects Sulman and Power to redesign the warehouse. The new building is in Romanesque style, with giant brick arcades, metal oriel windows and parapet colonnade. It was a massive six storey structure, but unfortunately just as it was completed, another fire destroyed half the building on the Flinders Street side. So once again building was restored with an addition of automatic sprinkler system and opened in 1899. It was the first building in Melbourne to be fitted with an automatic sprinkler system. The building was renamed as Ross House in 1987.
But fortunately, no life was lost in the fire Great Fire. Some of the firemen sustained injuries while trying to put out the fire. Eight of the buildings in the block were destroyed beyond repair.
Next time when you pass infront of the Mutual store Building at the CBD, keep in mind that it is a big survivor.