4 August 2023

Brass helmets, young bands and fiery drinks rocked the Old Fire Station

| John Thistleton
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Heritage buildings

Designed by E.C. Manfred and built for 800 pounds in 1890, the Old Fire Station has endeared itself to generations of Goulburn people. After the fire brigade relocated it became Staggers Wine Bar, TOFS, and The Old Fire Station wine bar. Photo: John Thistleton.

Conceived by a celebrated architect and crowned with a bell tower, the Old Fire Station in Goulburn will be offered for sale later this month.

As a fire station and later a succession of wine bars and eateries, the elegantly slim, two-storey building evokes many happy memories.

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Kevin Betts lived in a small flat above the fire station with his brothers Bazil, Barry, Clarrie, sister Judith and his mother Josephine from about 1957 to 1969 with his uncle and volunteer fireman Ossie Barlow. He remembers gleaming brass helmets, tunics and boots waiting on the ground floor for the wail of a siren and arrival of volunteer firefighters.

Each Christmas Day the two fire engines were moved outside allowing firemen’s wives to set up tables and chairs for a sumptuous sit-down meal. “Us kids used to have our meal during the day and the adults would have their Christmas party and dancing in the old station,” Kevin said.

A paid station officer lived in a home (now demolished) at the rear of the station. One Sunday when he was seven Kevin was outside when the then station officer came to clean the two engines, which had to be driven outside of the station.

Historic building

Historian Ransome Wyatt described the fire station’s bell as the loudest fire alarm in Australia. Kevin Betts, who lived at the station, remembers his mother setting off the electric siren and often waking her children in the dead of night. He heard the bell once as a small child, during a power blackout. Photo: Supplied.

“I was coming down Montague Street on my scooter as little kids do,” Kevin said. “As I got to the doors of the station he brought the engine out and hit me and I went straight underneath the engine.” More concerned for his wrecked scooter, he nonetheless was admitted to hospital for his injured leg.

The station was relocated to Bourke Street in 1974, and the building’s owners in the following years leased it to wine bar operators, restauranteurs and later to a law firm.

About 1981, musician Al Taylor, aged 21, with no experience running a licensed venue, went into partnership with another musician, Tony ‘Skid’ Marks, to run a wine bar they called The Old Fire Station.

Al’s father David Taylor who ran an accountancy firm, Manfred and McCallum, helped his son establish the venture, while his mother Val helped reopen a bistro out the back, from where patrons cooked their steaks on an open grill, accompanied by Val’s chilli con carne and other meals.

“We would close the bar, sleep upstairs, she would arrive the next morning and set up for a lunchtime crowd, for solicitors around that cool kind of precinct,” Al said. “We were young and hopeless, and many times woke to my mother berating me for being asleep and not getting up and cleaning the bistro, ready for opening.”

The unviable bistro soon closed, but Al on the drums, Skid as lead guitarist and Wayne Martin playing bass, continued their live music venue dream with their band, Mace. When not performing they served behind the bar.

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Underlining their inexperience was buying retail-priced liquor from across the road, hurried trips to Canberra to stock up on barrels of cider and no security at the front door. Yet on two unforgettable New Year’s Eves they would pack out the wine bar and take in more money than their takings over the rest of the year.

Al said a point of difference was their fire-themed drinks. “People would come in and their personal challenge was to try and drink through the list.”

Legal firm Johnson and Sendall, who occupied Eldon Chambers next door, expanded into the Old Fire Station, which they leased in 1985 from entrepreneurs Attila and Louis Mokany who were building Goulburn’s Big Merino. The Mokanys sold the substantially-renovated building in June 2001, to partners and practitioners at Johnson and Sendall. Its current owners wish to remain anonymous.

Three men standing.

Returning to the Old Fire Station in 2022, Wayne Martin, Al Taylor and Tony ‘Skid’ Marks. Wayne had just celebrated his 60th birthday when the talented trio who formed Mace reunited. Photo: Michael Humphries.

On the National Trust as an excellent example of a large Victorian public building, the Old Fire Station sits on par with the Goulburn Post Office, Court House and stylish churches and homes from the heritage city’s earlier days.

Listing agent Karl Zable of Dunne Southern Highlands believes the unoccupied building’s unique character and prominent position offers multiple possibilities: distinctive bed and breakfast, or boutique hotel, or captivating art gallery. Perhaps even a vibrant wine bar.

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