Fire in Goldsbrough Mort Wool Store

Wool store fires were especially troublesome. Lanolin in the wool seeped into the wooden floors of the wool stores, making them perpetually risky. Arson was a constant anxiety and an occasional reality: for example, two attempts were made on the Country Produce Selling Company in 1922 (Cairns Post, 31 March 1922; Wyalong Advocate, 31 March 1922). And after a fire, should insurance be paid to the brokers, or to the graziers? These events had consequences far beyond Pyrmont, and were reported in virtually every newspaper in Australia.

Of the many fires that destroyed wool stores in Pyrmont and Ultimo, perhaps the biggest and most revealing destroyed the Goldsbrough Mort building in September 1935. A coroner found it amazing that “within half an hour a building eight stories high and 300ft. by 100ft. should be just a mass of flame.” The building itself was destroyed, and the wool smouldered for days. The best that the fire brigade could do – and it was an achievement – was to prevent the fire from spreading. That limited the loss to £750.000, and saved millions. No cause was identified, but a specialist in these fires thought the likeliest explanation was a cigarette butt igniting a bag, which then ignited the lanolin-saturated floor. (Glen Innes Examiner, 26 October 1935).

The fire lasted for days, rebuilding took months, but litigation lasted for years before the competing claims for insurance were settled, first in the New South Wales Supreme Court, then on appeal in the High Court of Australia (Maitland Mercury, 14 December 1937; The Age, 10 March 1937). Finally T. T. Maurice, grazier, of Wellington, NSW, was successful in his appeal to the Privy Council. Maurice had appealed against the decision of the Full Court of the High Court, which reversed the judgment by the Supreme Court [of NSW] that Goldsbrough, Mort and Co. Ltd. were not entitled to retain out of insurances paid on wool destroyed by fire … amounts representing commission that would have been earned on the sale of the wool if the fire had not occurred. The Privy Council restored the Supreme Court judgment in favour of the grazier (The Land, 12 May 1939).

Adding injury to insult, Goldsbrough Mort had to pay the costs of the appeal.

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