SO MANY drunken firefighters arrived at blazes 150 years ago that teetotalers started up their own fire brigade.
Now known for their high standards on fire grounds, Bendigo's first brigades were sometimes found wanting.
And that was assuming volunteers could even get their equipment to the scene of blazes.
Firefighters arrested, colleagues demoralised
In one jaw-dropping moment, a Bendigo city councillor recounted how he and other volunteers had struggled just to get through the door to one engine house, even as a fire raged nearby.
There had been too much rubbish clogging the entrance, the councillor told his colleagues at a meeting a few days later.
The councillor recounted how he and his companions had finally broken in only to find "everything in a state of complete neglect", according to a Bendigo Advertiser article from January, 1871.
Firefighters were already smarting from an embarrassing moment a few days earlier.
A hose had burst as they prepared to fight a Bridge Street fire.
A volunteer dashed back to the engine house for a replacement, but when he returned he discovered he didn't have the right nozzle.
"Some 15 minutes were thus lost and the fire was, of course, making rapid headway, and extending to the adjoining buildings," the Advertiser reported.
The brigade blamed an onlooker for twisting the hose, though it was not entirely clear who might have done such a thing.
So when Bendigo's most disastrous ever fire erupted at the Beehive building in the early hours of August 25, 1871, no-one was surprised that some firefighters were still drunk from their Saturday night benders.
One person who helped battle the flames later recounted how a fellow volunteer kept taking slug after slug of brandy, saying he needed to stay warm in the cold and wet conditions.
"He managed to get wet inside as well, and was shoved in the lock-up to dry - very awkward," the man said in a letter to the paper's editor.
The letter-writer said the whole experience had been demoralising.
Inside Bendigo's drinking problem
Bendigo historian James Lerk says tales of drunken and comically incompetent firefighters did not escape the notice of community activists in the early 1870s.
They were already deeply concerned about the city's reliance on alcohol, he said.
"You could not walk 50 metres without coming across a hotel or a beer shop," Mr Lerk said.
The city had one hotel for every 68 people in 1868, far more than the one for every 500 that colonial authorities thought was appropriate.
And that figure did not count the 270-odd "beer shops" that were so small and informal they were sometimes run out of the front rooms of houses, or all of the "licensed grocers".
"If you added all of those together you had one liquor outlet for every 20 head of population," Mr Lerk said.
It made Bendigo the most saturated hotel market in the region.
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It also made the city a perfect base of operations for anyone ready to crusade against the moral pestilence activists linked to the "demon drink".
This temperance movement was a diverse group that included everyone from Christian reformers worried about moral degeneration through to women's advocates trying to stop husbands from abusing and neglecting their wives and children.
"These groups were keen to see that something be done about the very sordid state of the fire brigades," Mr Lerk said.
Those efforts solidified in November 1872 when a group of campaigners decided to set a new standard for fire brigades across the city.
It wanted to make an ambitious statement, even if its teams were untested on fire grounds.
The campaigners had a few things going for them, not the least of which being that many were movers and shakers who knew how to get things done, Mr Lerk said.
It took them less than four months to move into their first station and another five for them to win their first skills event at a Melbourne-based firefighting championship.
"They wanted to show up the other brigades, where there wasn't the same discipline - the same fire in their bellies, so to speak, as those committed to temperance," Mr Lerk said.
Campaigners temper Bendigo's thirst
It is likely no coincidence that by the 1890s Bendigo's newest fire station was being built next to its View Street headquarters, Mr Lerk said.
The brigade was that successful.
So was the wider temperance movement, which was attracting more than just firefighting enthusiasts.
"Gradually, the temperance movement gained quite a lot of traction within the whole Victorian community and by the 1890s the government was taking action to restrict the number of hotels and licensed premises," he said.
And just like today, many venues struggling with falling demand for alcohol branched out into other areas, including coffee shops.
"I think some people today are starting to realise that alcohol is a drug and it can have a deleterious effect on the community, especially for people who can't leave it alone," Mr Lerk said.
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series entitled WHAT HAPPENED?