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A Spectacular Blaze

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Oil painting of a crowd jamming a city street, as they watch a huge fire engulf one of the buildings.

DURATION: 4mins 6secs

Anthony Hordern’s fire, c 1901
by Cecelia Maclellan
oil on canvas
presented by the Misses Maclellan, 1954
ML 348

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Curator

One of the most striking things about this painting is its size. It’s a tiny little almost jewel-like snapshot of a scene. You can imagine the smell, the panic, you can see that the streets are crowded, and it’s this compression of detail into a tiny little canvas of something which, at the time, was one of the biggest conflagrations that Australia had ever seen.

The scene before you is the fire that took place early in the morning of 10th July 1901, between eight and nine o’clock in the morning. Anthony Hordern’s department store, which stood on George Street where World Square is now – a fire began in the manchester department. Luckily it was before most of the staff had arrived but the fire took hold very quickly and went right through the store. Very soon the streets were jammed with commuters trying to get into and out of the city. The whole of the electric tram service along George Street was blocked and the cars extended the full length of the thoroughfare. So thousands of people are mustered in George Street and they’re watching a magnificent and awful spectacle, with the flames leaping into the air. Apparently they could be seen from as far away as Parramatta.

There was a rumour that the Australian Gas Company’s gasometer nearby was close to bursting and thousands made a frantic rush towards the railway station. Startled and terror-stricken faces were on all sides. There are very few photographs documenting this event because it happened so quickly. Luckily the fire engines did manage to get to the fire very quickly but there was a loss of life and people looked on with terrified faces as one of the employees leapt to his death.

The fire was put out but this little painting is the only on-the-spot artwork to document the scene. Now, whether or not the artist was there at the time, we don’t know for sure, that’s not documented. Her name was Cecelia Maclelland and what’s interesting about her is that she was actually a miniature painter, she painted portrait miniatures. And so she’s chosen that medium, that very small scale, to capture what, at the time, was the biggest fire that had ever been seen in Australia.

The Anthony Hordern’s department store was one of the largest retailers from the late 19th century through to the mid-20th century and it had very early beginnings, extending back to the drapery business of Mrs Ann Hordern, which was in King Street, Sydney, and was established in 1823. Ann and her husband Anthony eventually moved to Melbourne but their sons, Anthony Jnr and his brother, set up their own drapery business in George Street. In 1856 the business moved to the larger premises, the three-storey department store in Haymarket, which became known as the Palace Emporium. By this time, Anthony Hordern & Sons, as they called themselves, branded themselves as the universal provider because they sold such a huge range of goods which were organised into distinct departments. So this is the beginning of what we know as the department store.

Even though the fire totally destroyed the store - within hours, millions of pounds’ worth of stock had been destroyed - the company began business almost immediately. The next day they re-opened in the Exhibition Buildings which stood down in Prince Alfred Park, just behind Central - there’s a swimming pool there now but that used to house an exhibition building. So they immediately had a strategy for re-opening but the devastating fire led the owner of the business, Samuel Hordern by this time, to construct an entirely new building on the same site in 1905 and deliberately used a lot of cast iron, polished marble and embossed steel so that it could be fire-retardant.

It eventually stretched across half a city block, with three street frontages, on George, Pitt and Goulburn streets. So even though the fire destroyed the original Palace Emporium, the business rose from the ashes very swiftly and dominated Sydney’s retail scene for at least another 50 years to come.