Picture of the Month

‘Fire is a good friend, but a bad enemy’


Fire at 285 Lennox Street, Richmond : four men in the burnt out printery of A. Asher & Co., 2 January 1914
[RHSV Collection : PH-020573]

Journalists nationwide wrote earnest and concerned reports about the ruinous fire that engulfed the printing works of A. Asher & Co. at 285 Lennox Street, Richmond on Friday 2nd January 1914. Asher produced the weeklies, Richmond Guardian and Table Talk (a social periodical).

An exception was Perth’s The Daily News whose less sympathetic journalists attempted to entertain their readers with humorous and ecclesiastical satire in their coverage – reproduced there.

Cause and Consequence

Having just returned from the (New Year) holiday ‘. . .one of the employees was boiling his usual billy on a lighted gas jet to make tea for lunch when by some means a piece of paper came in contact with the flame, and in a few seconds a sheet of fire was the result’. An inadequate hose was ineffective against the flames forcing the twenty or so staff to ‘beat a hasty retreat’.

A gas engine was supplying power to the presses which were running at the time. It is thought that the blaze was compounded by the melting of the lead gas pipes. Further ‘[letterpress] type was converted to molten metal, reams of paper vanishing into smoke.’

Fortunately, ‘motor steamers, [a] chemical engine, fire escapes, hose carts and all the paraphernalia to cope with a big conflagration’, were able to confine the blaze to the main building.

The Business

A. Asher & Co., was founded in the mid-1880s by Alexander Asher. A compositor, Asher became a founder member of the Victorian Master Printers Association. As well as the weeklies mentioned previously, the company specialised in printing literary supplements for provincial newspapers. ‘Table Talk’ described as one of Australia’s oldest journals, was later sold to the Herald. (It ceased publication in 1939.) The company was shown to be trading in Lennox Street up to the 1960s – in what form is uncertain. During the recovery program after the 1914 fire, various printers assisted Asher in printing production. The founder’s son Harold A. Asher was the managing editor at the time of the fire. In 1945 Alexander Asher had reached the age of 90 having just relinquished his interest in the business, when his son Harold died.

The Building

Erected around 1889 Asher’s printery was initially used by the Salvation Army and known as the Richmond Tabernacle. Described as a fine one storey brick structure of ‘a peculiar octagonal’ shape, it had a slate roof and, as evidenced in the image above, high and large windows.

Odd Spots

Rather cleverly the sub-editor responsible for the Perth Daily News’ headline has linked the fire to the role of ‘Printer’s Devil’ – an apprentice in a printing establishment .  who performed a number of errands, such as mixing tubs of ink, fetching type, taking the printed sheets off the press.  The term has a long history back to the earliest days of letter-press printing.

A name which came to light in the accounts of the tabernacle / printery was Matthew Henry Davies, 1850–1912 (banker, speculator, politician). Davies was credited with laying the foundation stone of the building in late 1880s. His biography exposes his involvement in business chicanery, being committed for trial and being arrested by a detective who had followed him by ship to Colombo.

References and further information

Newspaper reports of Richmond fire (January 1914)

Richmond Australian : http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/119686419
Weekly Times : http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/129942346
The Daily News [Perth] : http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/80097407

Matthew Henry Davies (1850–1912)

Printer’s Devil

[This is a link to an on-line version of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1898) which comprises over 18,000 entries that reveal the etymologies, trace the origins and otherwise catalogue ‘words with a tale to tell’.]