Where fire memorabilia has some room to breathe

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Good as new… the restored 1913 Hotchkiss fire engine. Photo: Belinda Strahorn

BRASS helmets used by Canberra’s first firefighters; a 1913 Hotchkiss vintage fire engine, lovingly restored; an original fire alarm system with bells for all the buildings in Canberra and a hand-drawn fire cart used in Queanbeyan in 1893…

These artifacts are among the thousands of pieces of firefighting memorabilia housed at the Canberra Fire Museum, in the old Forrest fire station.

Retired firefighter and ACT Fire Brigade Historical Society volunteer Ron Hourigan says the collection of fire paraphernalia offers a rare glimpse into the early days of firefighting in the nation’s capital and is definitely “worth a look”.

Fire Museum volunteer Ron Hourigan with a fireman’s brass hat. Photo: Belinda Strahorn

“This is the history of Canberra because the fire brigade was in Canberra right from the very beginning,” says Mr Hourigan. 

“We are a little biased, but we think this is the best collection of fire memorabilia there is.”

For many volunteer organisations, 2020 has been a challenging year and Canberra’s fire museum is no exception.

“Covid and the hail storms have given us a work out this year, luckily nothing in the collection was damaged by the hail but the buildings out the back took a severe beating,” he says.

“We were in the middle of replacing the roof when covid hit so that’s held us back, like everything else in Canberra.”

With covid restrictions eased, the museum has re-opened.

“We’ve been shut for around nine months, so it’s great to welcome visitors back again,” says Mr Hourigan.

The ACT Fire Brigade Historical Society was formed in 1979 to collate and display the history of fire services provided to the ACT community since 1913.

The museum was a working station until 1983, but has been home to a collection of vintage fire trucks, ladders, uniforms, brass helmets, bells and other historic equipment, including breathing apparatus and resuscitation gear, since the early 1990s.

A hand-drawn fire cart used in Queanbeyan in 1893. Photo: Belinda Strahorn

The collection features 10 vehicles, dating between 1913 to 1974, each one painstakingly restored by volunteers, including a horse-drawn cart, the brigade’s first vehicle used in 1913, the year Canberra was named.

Two vehicles are currently under restoration, another 12 are in storage waiting to be brought back to life.

The 1913 Hotchkiss looks as good as new after being restored. It’s important because it was the first type of motorised fire truck to be used in Canberra.

“It’s impressive because it’s got wooden-spoke wheels, the headlights run on gas, it had to be crank-started and the firies stood on the running board when it turned out,” Mr Hourigan says.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know where the original one that was used in Canberra is, this one is from Melbourne, but someone from old Canberra would know where it is and we’d love to find that out.”

Mr Hourigan says visitors are often “surprised” by how much memorabilia is on display here.

“We’d really love people to come and take a look… it’s important we preserve the past,” says Mr Hourigan.

And with the fire season in full swing, Mr Hourigan has a timely reminder for Canberrans. 

“Check your gutters, check your house, now is the time to get prepared and have a plan, discuss it with your kids and make sure they know what to do in an emergency,” says Mr Hourigan.

“Last year there were 350 house fires in Canberra, that’s nearly one a day, so it’s important to be prepared.”


The Canberra Fire Museum, 4 Empire Circuit, Forrest, open every Saturday, 10am-3pm, entry is via a gold-coin donation.


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