There are few residents in Brisbane today who can recall a time when Queen Street Mall was a humble dirt road and the preferred mode of transport was horseback. During the 1870s, in the space that we now know as MacArthur Central, the street was lined with a variety of specialty stores to provision the burgeoning city centre. It was here that a local entrepreneur Mr Hughes ran a grocery and liquor store. It was early one morning, in late March 1877, that Mr Hughes shifted several leaking casks of rum from his stock. Later that evening an employee of Mr Hughes ran into strife when one of the leaking barrels he was attempting to mend spurted its contents over the employee, igniting the candle he was holding aloft.
The deadly combination of spilled rum and open flames became a blaze that threatened to consume Mr Hughes’ store entirely. The volunteer fire brigade was called to the scene. Salt was thrown on the flames to extinguish them as the water mains were switched off that night. A young volunteer firefighter by the name of James Mooney was assisting his friend in removing the remaining barrels of rum from the inferno. Casks in hand, the duo were walking ahead of another pair of firefighters who were similarly occupied when the bottom of the other firefighters’ casks burst open. A shower of rum soaked James Mooney from head to toe, turning James into a human torch as the flames licked at his flammable clothes.
To save his colleagues, James ran out of the shop and was thrown to the footpath and covered with wet sacks to put out the flames. Sadly, he died two days later from his devastating injuries.
At the age of 22, James Mooney was the first firefighter to die in the line of duty in Queensland.
On the day of his funeral flags were at half mast, shops were shut, and the head of the procession was turning into George Street while the back end had only just left the G.P.O. in Queen Street.
In the mid-1870s the corner of Queen and Eagle Streets needed to be beautified so a drinking fountain and landscaping were suggested. Friends of James Mooney donated money to the already planned fountain on the proviso that there be a plaque commemorating James and his brave efforts. The total cost of the fountain was 627 pounds and James’ friends donated 40 pounds. Bizarrely, the fountain was completed in 1880 with no plaque to Mooney but instead a plaque to the Municipal Council of 1879. It wasn’t until 1988 that a plaque was added to commemorate James Mooney, 111 years after his brave act. This fountain still stands today at 118 Eagle Street.