Centenary Bulletin 17 – The Fire, 6th June 1979 & Aftermath

February 13, 2019

At 10.00 am on Wednesday 6th June 1979, sixty years after Norman G Clark founded his business, a fire broke out in its two-story premises at 278 Barkly Street, Brunswick.

The fire started in an electrical exhaust fan located in a spray paint booth, and the resulting sparks quickly ignited cleaning solvent stored nearby. It then spread to stored plastics and then into an area of packing materials which included wood, cardboard and paper.

As the flames neared a goods elevator lift shaft, they quickly funnelled up the shaft and set the roof space of the two-story building on fire.
After the initial explosive blast, the building was cleared of all staff within a matter of minutes. We were lucky. Right on 10 o’clock the store and factory staff had just gone to morning tea, and were not near the fire area. The office staff, at their desks, saw acrid black smoke (from the burning plastic) fill the office. Evacuation was swift and safe. We were very lucky that no injuries of any sort occurred.

The fire brigade arrived quite quickly, but the building was well alight, and the thick black smoke was billowing out the doors, roof and windows.
Firemen seemed to enjoy the fire fight and dumped thousands of gallons of water into the building. After an hour, the fire was out, but not safe. Due to the expansion of the metal supports for the walls and remaining roof, all had been pushed outwards. It was not until late afternoon that we were allowed back in to view the damage.

Apart from obvious fire damage in the store area, there was a thin film of oily soot over every surface from the smoke mainly caused by the burning plastic in the store. The firemen had managed to douse the new and essential accounting machine with water. Ledger Cards with magnetic stripes were our only financial records, and they looked damaged beyond repair.

The factory area contained machine tools, which had received the same water treatment, and they were in immediate danger of rusting.
What was left of the store was a disaster. Stocks of Scholten Solvitose had gelled with the water, and deposited an ankle-deep layer of gluey starch through the whole building.

Electrical power had of course been disconnected.

Through the flames and thick smoke coming from the loading bay door, we could intermittently see the two back wheels of our Clark forklift.

Amazingly this started first time once we were back in the building, but was the only thing that did still work in the whole building.

The fire disaster was a real watershed in the company’s history, and its effect can never be underestimated. The staff were magnificent, and their response to the aftermath should never be forgotten.

The morning after the fire we were confronted by a building which only had a partial roof, no electricity or telephone lines, no heating – and the mess that you would expect. There was smoke and water damage throughout the whole building. Also, the building could not be locked due to damage to roller shutter doors.

Many things, however, worked in our favour after that. Probably the most telling influence on our recovery was the insurance situation. Just prior to the fire we had appointed an insurance broker, MCN, to look after all company insurances. David Thomas, the Melbourne principal of MCN, and the insurance assessors McDonald, Benjamin Smythe, were most realistic. The insurance company, Commercial Union Australia, immediately handed us money to start the recovery process. Our creditors were paid on time, staff were paid in full. Aside from a very poor sales month in June, we had an outstanding sales year in 1979/1980. In no small part this was due to the very hard work of the staff.

Gum boots were the required footwear for weeks, and dirt and soot stuck to your clothing. A tarpaulin over the roof gave some rain ‘protection’. Electric power from a small “Honda” genset ran the temporary switchboard and a few lights. We had no heating through one of Melbourne’s coldest winters.
The magnetic strip cards from our accounting machine were individually dried and ironed flat, and amazingly, worked once we got enough power to turn the replacement accounting machine on. We were back in business.
The workshop was in trouble, so we quickly arranged to lease a building half a kilometre away at 15-17 Weston Street, Brunswick, and relocated manufacturing operations there. Incredibly, we were back in production within a month, and delivering products to our customers without any serious delays.

We continued to operate from the Barkly Street and the Weston Street locations from 1979 until 1983.

In 1983, we moved the Barkly Street, Brunswick operations to leased premises at 477 Hoddle Street, Clifton Hill – and kept workshop operations at 15-17 Weston Street, Brunswick.

In early 1988, a property was purchased at 44-48 Kylta Road, Heidelberg West. After a lengthy legal battle, vacant possession was finally given by the vendor, and a program of extensive renovations and additions was able to commence.

Due to a dispute with our Clifton Hill landlord, we moved out of his premises on 10th March 1989. As the Kylta Road premises were only partially complete, temporary offices and warehouse facilities were assembled in the cavernous ground floor area.

Despite some challenges eg. Heating, lighting and noise issues, business was conducted safely, efficiently and profitably in these makeshift premises. Again, the staff rose to the occasion and performed magnificently.
Eventually, the brand new upstairs office facilities we enjoy today were completed and occupied within six months – enabling manufacturing operations in Weston Street, Brunswick to be also re-located to the new West Heidelberg premises, by the end of 1989.

After 10 long years, all business operations of Norman G Clark had finally been re-united under the one roof.