Metropolitan Fire Brigades

1910, St Kilda - Victoria, AUSTRALIA

Borella remained working with his father in Thyra until 1910 when then he returned to Victoria for work. On 25 April 1910 Borella accepted a position with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade at a salary of £3 10s a week. Here he would meet the companions with whom he would eventually travel to the Northern Territory – and here he would use his skill working with horses developed on the farm.

Borella was based at the Eastern Hill Fire Station, on the corner of Victoria Parade and Gisborne Street, one of the highest points in the city of Melbourne. The station was built in 1891 and opened in 1893, replacing the original fire station in Little Bourke Street. The complex contained living quarters, stables, workshops, offices and a watchtower which was manned 24 hours a day. Both men and horses lived together, in perpetual readiness to respond to calls. The building still stands although it is now a museum.

In his new role as a driver, Borella soon demonstrated extraordinary physical courage and quick thinking in emergencies. The fire engines of the time were horse drawn “steamers” or “chemical engines”. These designations referred to the system each used to deliver fire retardents. Steamers, used steam-driven water pumps, were usually coal fired and had been in operation in various forms for most of the nineteenth century. The fire would be lit on leaving the fire station and some designs meant that they had to be stoked along the way, although towards the end of the century manufacturers claimed that improvements in technology meant that they did not require further hand labour after the initial stoking.

Chemical engines were fitted to a four wheel horse drawn carriage which contained cylinders of water into which bicarbonate of soda had been dissolved. Sulphuric acid was released from a bottle within the cylinder and the contents mixed. The chemical reaction of the acid on the carbonate solution created carbon dioxide which provided the pressure to force the water out of a hose for about 10 minutes at a time. Initially these could not be stopped once the chemical reaction had started but machines were soon developed with an escape fitted which enabled the water jet to be interrupted or shut down. These horse drawn vehicles carried six fireman and the driver although reports from the time indicate on occasion they may have carried up to a dozen men crowded together.

At the sound of the alarm bell at Eastern Hill, the stable doors automatically opened and the horses were trained to run out of their stalls in pairs moving quickly either side to the front of the engine putting their heads into the collars of the harnesses suspended above. Once the horses were harnessed, the firemen would be seated in the “chem”, as it was called, with the deputy chief standing at the back step and the driver, on whom rested the life and safety of the horses and crew, in position in front. With the bell clanging, they engine took off at great speed in the direction of the fire.

In some ways, the transport was as dangerous as the work of fighting the fires. The horses were well trained and the drivers knew the capacity of the vehicles, but there were also terrible stories of accidents. Late one evening when responding to a call in the city the horse drawn chemical engine was speeding down Spring Street at full gallop but turned too tightly into Collins Street and the driver lost control. The horses’ hooves slipped in the tram lines and the heavy “chem” collided with a telegraph post. The men were thrown from the vehicle and the horse so badly injured that it had to be killed on the spot by a fireman. The driver survived concussion but after the horror of the accident, could never drive again.

By 1910, the year Borella joined the Brigade, it was already the beginning of the end of the era of the fire brigade horse. The horse-drawn chemical engines, ladder carts and other equipment were being replaced by trucks, powered by the internal combustion engine. Borella delivered the first motor truck to the St Kilda Fire Station at Inkerman Road. Borella stayed at the St Kilda Fire Station teaching the firemen there how to use the new technology. Borella became as proficient with the new motorised equipment as he was with horses but he never lost this skill. His family recalled his telling a story of once driving a team of white horses down Swanston Street.