Australia's Worst Film Fire: The Park Street Explosion

Sunday Times, 20 November 1921

It remains of the most spectacular fires ever seen in Sydney’s CBD, but it is largely overshadowed by the Pastoral Finance Association Woolstore fire of December 1921, which gutted a seven story building at Kirribilli and racked up a bill of an estimated £600,000. 

Unlike the Pastoral Building, explosions tore through buildings meters away from the Town Hall and rained down a mixture of burning iron, film and molten tar, but, incredibly, the only fatalities were two cats. The damage bill went into the tens of thousands of pounds, but, more importantly, it remains the biggest loss of silent film ever seen in Australia, if not the entire southern hemisphere. It became known as the Overseas Film Service fire and it happened 98 years ago.

Walter Brown was the brainchild behind the Overseas Film Service. Brown was bornin New Jersey in 1873 and served with the New York police department where, according to his later memories, he was known for his incredible physical presence and strength, once claiming that he the strongest man on the entire force. After emigrating to Australia in the early part of the 20th century he entered the film distribution business, and soon set himself up as an entrepreneur with vision. He realised that while there was money to be made both in manufacturing and distributing film, there was less risk and more reward in being a theatre owner. To this end he formed a company called American Picture Palace Ltd in 1911 and took over the lease of the Queen’s Theatre, on Pitt Street. He promptly rebranded the Queen’s Theatre to the American Picture Palace and began to build his empire.

His next idea was to issue shares in his business and float it on the stock exchange, which he duly did. He formed a new company, the American Picture Co Ltd, also in 1911, and, after raising a staggering £10000[i] in capitol, bought his original partner out.

The returns to investors weren’t that good, a mere six shillings per quarter and, in 1919, the company was wound up. By then Brown had more than established himself. He rebranded the American Picture Palace into The Shell Theatre and, partnering with Paramount and Artcraft Pictures, continued. But Brown wasn’t satisfied.

Walter Brown, 1921
One thing Brown had noted was that when a film company went out of business, the exhibitors were generally left holding the physical films. Most of these films weren’t of high value, they had been screened all over the country many times, and there was nowhere to store them. Films belonging to bust companies and producers were mouldering in storage, rarely would anything be sent back from Australia to America. Realising that there was a potential gold mine of film waiting to be snapped up, he gathered his resources and began to buy up all the film that he could.

He bought two buildings, numbers 13 and 15 Park Street, across from his Shell Theatre on Pitt Street and formed a new company, called the Overseas Film Service. The business plan was simple, buy as much film as possible from defunct companies and distributors and then begin to send them out. Brown would no longer be an exhibitor, nor would he be a distributor, he would, in effect, become a source of affordable film. By July 1921, the American Film Company was formally wound up. A month later Brown was advertising his new concern, claiming to have over 3,000,000 feet of film ready to go, with more arriving each day.  Brown boasted of having all subjects, “Drama – Comedy – Scenic And other most interesting subjects. All high class.”

The storeroom on Pitt Street was now packed to the roof with can after can of film. There was only one problem. The film was silver nitrate. Brown might as well have been stockpiling a bomb.

Film was introduced to Australia on 17 August 1896, and it made its way to Sydney shortly after. As early film stock was highly inflammable, it came as no surprise that it posed a danger. Early film consisted of nitrate, a highly unstable substance which deteriorates when exposed to air over the years. Stories abound of film canisters being opened only to reveal either dust or heavily decayed film which cannot be restored. Nitrate film had another, more sinister flaw. The camphorated cellulose nitrate base used in film was highly unstable and could, and often did, catch fire, resulting in serious injuries, property loss and, in some cases, loss of life. The dangers of nitrate film in Australia were identified almost at the same time as film was imported, due to extensive newspaper coverage of fires and explosions.  Even worse, nitrate, being unstable, could, and often did, explode.

Australia wasn’t immune to cinema fires. The first fire that can attributed to film stock came on 26 May 1898, when a projector jammed and caused the film to begin to burn in The Windsor Theatre, Sydney. “During a cinematograph performance at The Windsor on Tuesday night,” wrote The Age, “the ether used to work the Instrument caught fire, and a panic was caused. The Instrument was destroyed, but the flames did not do much other damage. There Is a striking similarity between this accident and the terrible disaster that happened at a charity bazaar in Paris a year or two ago, when many people including many, of high social standing, were burnt to death.”

Fortunately, no lives were lost in the Windsor fire. Minor injuries were caused by people stampeding to the exit, and early reports almost always indicate the projectionist suffering burns as they tried to put out the fires.

Some of the early fires bordered on farce, as men were often punched out for trying to escape before women and children, and firemen would find themselves injured when the horse drawn trolleys would roll over. The amusement value of cinema fires would cease in 1905 when a man lost his arm after an explosion in a West Maitland cinema, resulting in several injuries. The film had caught fire, but was quickly put out, but nobody thought to check on the gasometer. It had a slight leak and when exposed to the flames from the film, exploded, blowing out a wall and parts of the roof.

Other, smaller, fires would have happened in the formative years of cinema but were not reported due to them being extinguished very rapidly. It took a fire to cause damage to property, or film, cause serious injuries or to merely happen on a slow news day to be reported.

 Fatalities had happened, such as when a lad was killed in a stampede during a film fire in Surry Hills in 1917, and at least one projectionist had died of wounds obtained during a fire, also in 1917. However, compared to the hundred who had died in other parts of the world, two death meant Australians could count themselves fortunate.


Saturday, 19 November 1921, was just another, perfectly normal Saturday. The film Bars of Iron (Stoll Pictures, 1920, dir. Floyd Martin) was being showed at The Shell Theatre and business was good. Frank Osbourne, the manager of the Overseas Film Service, dismissed his staff and knocked off at 1pm. He locked the doors and headed to a nearby pub. Walter Brown was away for the weekend, finally taking a much-deserved break in Woy Woy. Others on Park Street went about their business as usual.

Osborne returned to the building at 2pm, entered, collected two lamps that he’d arranged to sell, took a quick look around and, seeing that nothing was amiss, locked up again and went back to the nearby Criterion Hotel.

Shortly before 4 o'clock when people in Park street noticed tiny clouds of smoke working their way through the windows and under the front door of number 15. At this point there was no real concern as no flames could be seen. Concerned pedestrians quickly popped into the neighbouring stores and raised the alarm. The fire brigade was also called for and, as is the way for these kinds of events, a crowd quickly formed to watch.

One of the stores, the Golden Shell Confectionery, also doubled as a house. The owner, Alex Spiers, quickly roused his family and told them to get out. Spiers daughter, Barbara, said she was going to quickly go upstairs to the living quarters and get some clothes, Alex said he’d wait downstairs. Other shops were also emptying of owners, employees and customers. There was still nothing to be overly concerned about. There was no sense of urgency in the evacuations, and most people watching the fire were casually milling about. This all changed in a heartbeat. People were still gathering when a rumbling was felt. Seconds later all hell broke loose.

An unnamed eyewitness, quoted in Smith’s Weekly, recalled what happened next. “A dense cloud of smoke, then a tongue of flame shot right across the street.[ii]” A thunderous noise was heard. The shock waves knocked people to their feet as the building exploded, flames flew from the roof and doors, windows erupted into shards of glass and smoke quickly fell over everyone and everything. The 3,000,000 feet of film, still stored in their metal canisters, had not only caught fire, but, due to the pressure of the cans themselves, exploded with enough force to devastate not only number 15 Park street, but six buildings and offices adjoining it. One witness compared it to the explosions that he’d witnessed in France during the Great War.

In the minutes that followed, people were numb, feeling their way through the debris and smoke. Smaller explosions were happening, and people began to panic. A nearby tailor, Leiberman, had just left his store, four doors away, when the first explosion happened. “I did not know which way to run,” he told reporters. “I remember ducking into the shop and telling the others, ‘Go! Go for your lives!’ I thought the whole of Sydney was on fire”.

Adding to the panic were sheets of iron, now coming back to earth on fire, and which began to set the tar of Park street ablaze. Responding the noise, people began to evacuate nearby premises, including Brown’s own Shell Theatre and the Criterion Hotel, where Frank Osbourne was drinking. Burning shards of film were raining down and, combined with the thick smoke and smaller explosions, the confusion was great. Nobody knew what to do, which direction to run.

Barbara Spiers was still in her bedroom when the explosion hit. The impact removed the roof completely, blew out down three walls and set fire to the entire room, but, amazingly, she was uninjured, but shocked. When she felt the vibrations from the coming explosion, she’d moved to the front window to see what was happening. This most definitely saved her life. She jumped out of the window and onto the veranda and began to run. On the street her mother, fearing the worst, attempted to run back into the burning building only to be held back by Alex Spiers.

Barbara Speirs was hysterical, screaming and crying. People on the street were shouting at her to jump and run, but fear had taken hold. Alex Spiers grabbed his wife and took her across the street. Just as he did James Walsh, a former policeman, arrived on the scene. He had been working in the nearby Commonwealth Government Shipping Department when the explosion happened and had run over to see if he could assist. A powerfully built man, he quickly took charge and yelled at Barbara to look at him. She did. He told her to walk to the edge of the awning that she was on, two stories up. She did. Then he held his arms out and promised that he’d catch her.

She refused to jump. Her father quickly ran across the road, this seemed to calm her down somewhat. Walsh told her to sit down, take a breath and leap, he would catch her. She did this and, with remarkable courage, jumped. Even though Alex Spiers was there, Walsh took the full force of the impact of Barbara and he stumbled. He had done enough to blunt the impact, Barbara, as she hit the ground, fractured her right leg. Walsh and Spiers carried her into the Criterion Hotel and attended to her, later she was taken to the hospital and fully recovered.

Sunday Times, 20 November 1921. The only remaining image of the fire that can be found, and the image of ex-policeman James Walsh who caught Barbara Spiers
Meanwhile people were still screaming and there was no way of knowing how many, if any, people were either trapped in the flaming rubble. There were cries for help and, when the smoke began to clear, bodies could be seen on the sidewalk. Thankfully there were no serious injuries, virtually everyone lying on the ground had been knocked unconscious from the first explosion or had fainted from fright and shock. Nobody had died. The bodies were soon removed.

By now the block of six shops was firmly aflame. On the other side of the road, windows had been blown out and window frames were now also burning. Glass, melting tar, burning iron and film were still causing to be major hazards. One shop even had molten tar smeared across its front, looking like waves from an ocean had crashed onto it.

Amid it all, there could be heard a plaintive wailing. Two cats, one belonging to the Overseas Film Service and the other to the Spiers, were trapped in the fire and were screaming in pain. Finally, they made their way out of the buildings, but were badly burnt and suffocating. Once free they simply lay down and died. They were the only known fatalities. Injuries were another matter. Henry Howard, a well-known bootblack, ran back to his shoeshine stand in order to save it. He reached it and was about to grab it when a beam fell onto, burning his head and hands. He escaped; his stand was destroyed. Other incidents were equally as dramatic. A horse drawn lorry was parked near the building as they exploded. The driver lept onto the seat and whipped the horses into a full gallop and tore up the street, leading his horses to safety. Others were being burnt as they escaped.

Fire crews from Darlinghurst and Circular Quay arrived and they instantly called for reinforcements. Sprinklers had gone off in some stores and were helping to keep the fire under control, but the burning, and exploding, film stock meant that the blaze was showing no sign of stopping. The crews put their hoses onto the fires, from the streets, but they had no effect. The fire chief ordered men onto a parapet with ladders, to fight from there. It was then it was noticed that, amazingly, the roof of some of the buildings was still intact. Quickly the decision was made to hack holes into the iron and remove as much as possible. Finally, the fire fighters could direct their hoses onto the blaze proper. In just under an hour, the fire was out and the most dramatic day in Sydney’s history, to date, was over.

The final human cost was nil, just three injuries and two feline fatalities. It could have been far worse. In time everyone made a full recovery from their wounds. All was not lost though as a chemist from Australian Films Ltd, Mr C.T. Counsell, sifted through an estimated ton of ashes and, after sifting through it, managed to recover approximately 28 kilograms of silver, which was valued at £162/10

Walter Brown returned to Sydney and surveyed the damage. Six shops had been destroyed and the buildings would have to be demolished. Across the road was yet more damage, but that was fixable.  “The loss is a very severe one to me,” said Mr. Brown to the film industry magazine, Everyone’s, “and the insurance will not cover a quarter of the sum needed to replenish the stock and fittings. The Overseas Film Service was, for its size, the most compact exchange in Australia. It was loaded to capacity with films, printing and accessories that can never be re placed. In addition to the complete stock recently purchased from picture people who have gone out of the hiring business, I had paid cash for several feature films se cured from America and elsewhere and had just completed arrangements for a big exploitation campaign when the tragedy happened.

 “For it certainly is a most serious matter to me, and will resemble, in round figures, a loss of at least £15,000 to £20,000 so far. Film that was irreplaceable all went up in smoke, and the printing matter was of such a high quality that to replace it alone would mean the expenditure of several thousands of pounds. Add to this the only available copies of several masterpieces, and you will gain some idea of the very big loss, financially and otherwise. A few weeks prior to the unfortunate happening, I had stocked every available bit of space with film accessories and was about to decide for their full covering by insurance. Everything in the place had already been paid cash for, so you can guess that my outlay was a very big one.[iii]

Brown’s losses were estimated be as low as £15,000 and as high as £100,000[iv]. Insurance covered most of it, but he was still out of pocket.

All that remained from 3,000,000+ feet of film. 22 kilograms of silver
Brown picked himself up and went back into exhibiting. He continued until he retired in the late 1920s.

The City Coroner of Sydney investigated the explosion and returned an open verdict. After studying the layout of the building, and examining everyone involved, the best conclusion that could be reached was that the sun, reflecting through the windows, had heated a film canister causing it to ignite. Once one canister was ablaze, unchecked, there was no stopping what happened next. Handing down his findings, The Coroner considered that steps should be taken to compel the owners of films to store them in such places and under such conditions as would not conflict with the safety of the public and property.

The loss of film cannot be quantified. As no list was made at the time of the films that were destroyed, it is hard to put any value on it. As the bulk of the film had been obtained from defunct companies and producers, and dated back to the ‘teens, it is a safe bet to assume that many films that were burnt are now considered lost, worldwide. Thus, the most damaging film fire in Australia took place, not in a cinema, but in an innocuous office. Film storage would never be the same, nor would Sydney see another explosion of its kind.




SOURCES
This article was prepared using contemporary sources, including The Sydney Sun, Smiths Weekly, The Sydney Morning Herald, Everyone’s, NSW Government Gazette, Duns Gazette for New South Wales, The Age and The Daily Mail.
[i] Worth approximately $1,359,653.11 in 2018
[ii] Smith's Weekly (Sydney, NSW: 1919 - 1950), Saturday 14 January 1922,
[iii] Walter Brown, Everyone’s 30 November 1921
[iv] Worth approximately $1,181,666 to $7,877,777 in 2018

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