Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard (1909) | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

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Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard (1909)

Item details

Name of item: Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard (1909)
Type of item: Movable / Collection
Group/Collection: Postal and Telecommunications
Category: Telecommunications Facility
Location: Lat: -33.74755585 Long: 150.693329
Primary address: 1 Museum Drive, Penrith, NSW 2751
Local govt. area: Penrith
Local Aboriginal Land Council: Deerubbin


The SHR curtilage boundary is limited to the item itself and does not include the land it is located on or the structure it is housed within.
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
1 Museum DrivePenrithPenrith  Primary Address

Statement of significance:

The Edward Smith switchboard demonstrates the continual and progressive process of the improvement and development of Fire Brigade firefighting techniques, equipment, and control, in order to cope with new demands and challenges consequent upon a growing and developing City of Sydney. With the growth of the city, came the need for a better co-ordinated and more efficient means of communication: both in terms of communicating a call of fire to the Brigade through automatic and telephone fire alarm systems, as well as in terms of communication between Fire Stations, by telephone. The Edward Smith switchboard was the Metropolitan Fire Brigade's response to such needs.

The switchboard demonstrates the multi-skills of early twentieth century firemen. Brigade management believed that time spent in the brigade's workshops would not only benefit the brigade, but would also be advantageous to a fireman's career, for he would attain a more comprehensive knowledge of fire appliances, and increase his skills. Thus, he would be more useful to the Brigade and his career would advance accordingly. Edward Smith was one of those firemen who took advantage of the opportunity to increase his skills in the workshops, and his switchboard is a demonstration of his multi-skilled expertise.
The switchboard also demonstrates the late nineteenth and early twentieth century practice of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade to operate under an 'in-house' system, whereby the brigade was largely reliant upon its firemen to supply such needs such as uniforms, motor mechanical work, plumbing, carpentry, farriery, painting and electrical work.

Highly esteemed by fire brigade enthusiasts, the switchboard is representative in terms of the skills of the brigade workshops; but both unique and outstanding in terms of its size, complexity and its being the work of a 'designer/builder'. Other brigade switchboards of the time were of a standard and rudimentary design, and constructed by general workshop staff.
Although some modifications have taken place during its history, those modifications are an important aspect of the switchboard's story and cannot be considered to be intrusive accretions; thus, they do not diminish, but rather they enhance the switchboard's significance.
Date significance updated: 18 Mar 13
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: Edward Smith
Builder/Maker: Edward Smith
Construction years: 1909-1909
Physical description: The Edward Smith Switchboard is constructed from Colonial Rosewood, Ceder and Tasmanian Blackwood. Hand carved by its designer, Edward Smith, the switchboard is aesthetically pleasing. It incorporates switches for the purpose of responding fire engines and their crews to calls, as well as panels of electrical shutters for the reception of automated fire alarms, telephone fire alarms, and telephone calls. Located toward the centre of the switchboard are two lamps, whilst two clocks are located to the far right and left.
Amongst the hand-carved four leaf clovers is one 'five-leaf' clover.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Physical Condition - Excellent
Archaeological Potential - Low
Modifications and dates: Some modification to the alarm panels and circuitry. Dates unknown, but have probably taken place over an extended period of its lifespan.
Current use: exhibition
Former use: Fire Brigade Communications


Historical notes: The Headquarters switchboard was built and designed by Fireman Edward Smith. Smith was born in the Shetland Islands on 16th September 1863. His personnel record indicates that he joined the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on 7th May 1891, his previous occupation having been that of "seaman". After rising through the lower ranks, Smith was promoted to the rank of Station Officer on 26 September 1902, having served at Headquarters (now City of Sydney), George Street North, George Street West and Paddington brigades.

During this era, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade pursued a policy of having its production, maintenance, and repairs, carried out 'in-house' by its firemen. A feature of the Brigade's in-house approach, was the 'encouragement' of firemen to spend some part of their career serving at the brigade workshops: such service was presented as an opportunity to gain an intimate working knowledge of fire appliances and equipment - and consequently, a means of furthering one's career. Superintendent Alfred Webb stated: 'A member of the Brigade, who attends the Workshops, has more facilities for learning the business of a fireman than one who does not attend. He sees a number of engines taken to pieces and helps in the work, or he is capable of performing special work in connection with telephones, which is useful to the Brigade generally' (A. Webb, memorandum, 13 September 1906).

Edward Smith was one such fireman who took the opportunity that the workshops afforded and on 1 January 1905, he was appointed to the newly created position of 'Principle Electrician'. The creation of this new position was in line with the Board's in-house approach (they also created the position of Principal Mechanic at the same time). Smith's new duties were to be as follows:
- Have charge of the electrical department of the Brigade
- Be responsible for the proper working of the telephones, electric motors, electric light, and electric appliances and material
- Keep an account of the time occupied by the men under him
- Be responsible that the material supplied to him be used economically for the purpose for which it was issued
- Furnish requisitions for materials, stating for what purpose they are required
- Instruct men attending the Workshops for electrical work, in the care and management of telephones, fire alarms, batteries and other electrical appliances
- At fires, as far as possible, attend to the safety of the firemen from electric trolley wires, and electric light cables or wires, or any other electrical installation
- Require the electric current to be shut off from any source, or to cut any wires if necessary without waiting orders
It was during his tenure as Principle Electrician that Edward Smith received a gratuity of (Pounds)25 from the Fire Brigades Board, on 8 February 1909, for his outstanding work 'in connection with the designing and erection, and electrical connections, of [a] new telephone switchboard' (In Orders, 8 September 1909). It was then the practice of the Brigade to offer a gratuity to every member of the Brigade who 'may invent an appliance, or improvement to an existing appliance, which may be adopted in the service' (In Orders, 31 January 1905). Not only might they receive a gratuity, but also 'if approved', then their invention would 'be tested without cost to the inventor' (Ibid.).

Replacing an earlier rudimentary switchboard, the Edward Smith switchboard was installed at Headquarters Fire Station (now City of Sydney) in 1909, and remained in service for the next sixty years. Constructed of Colonial Rosewood, Ceder and Tasmanian Blackwood, it served not only as a telephone switchboard, but also as a Relay Cabinet for Grinnell, May-Oatway and Kirkby Thermostatic fire alarms, as well as Telephone Fire Alarms. Sydney was the first city in the world to install telephone fire alarms: first installed in 1890, the alarms 'were operable by keys given to the police, public bodies and nearby residents, or by breaking a small glass panel'. (Adrian, p. 59). The switchboard was also the means of responding fire engines and crews to emergency calls, by means of illuminating signs within the station, as well as operation of the electrical station bells. It still incorporates a turnout switch for a historically significant fire engine - the 1929 Ahrens Fox, which has been listed on the State Heritage Register.

The switchboard is largely the handiwork of one man: his carpentry and electrical wizardry was commended by the Fire Brigades Board, through the Chief Officer:
I am directed, by the Fire Brigades Board, to request you to convey to the Principal Electrician, Mr Edward Smith, a message of the Board's high commendation of the services which he has rendered in connection with the designing, erection, and the electrical connections of the admirable new telephone switchboard: - an installation which redounds to the credit not only of the Principal Electrician, but also to that of the Brigade' (In orders, 2 February 1909).
Smith was assisted in his work by another fireman of significance: William McNiven, who was awarded a gratuity of (Pounds)5 for his 'valuable assistance in bringing the work to successful completion' (In orders 6 February 1909). At the time, McNiven was a first class fireman and carpenter; however, he would progress to the position of NSWFB Clerk of Works, in 1916; and then, to Officer in Charge of Construction, in 1918. He became the Brigade's first in-house Architect in 1923, going on to design several Fire Stations for the NSWFB before his retirement in 1931. From 1923 - 1928, new stations and quarters were predominantly McNiven's designs.

The ornate woodcarving is the work of Smith's own hand - many believe that a five-leaf clover, carved amongst the other four-leaf clovers adorning the switchboard, was a mistake. Others, however, maintain that Smith intentionally included the clover - it was used for many years as a test of the 'observational powers' of new recruits.
Although withdrawn from service in 1969, the Edward Smith Switchboard remained at Headquarters as a standby facility until 1979, when it was presented to the Museum of Fire. It is now on permanent display at the museum, where it is interpreted in a simulated fire station/watchroom setting.

Smith received the King's Police Medal in 1925. He retired on 16th November 1928, and died two years later, having returned to his homeland (Adrian, p. 63; Personnel Record Books, Vol A, 1884-1900:79)

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Communication-Activities relating to the creation and conveyance of information (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The Edward Smith Switchboard demonstrates the progressive process of improving the Brigade's firefighting techniques, equipment, and control in order to cope with the new demands and challenges of a growing and developing City of Sydney. The development of firefighting support technology is an ongoing process that continues today, and this switchboard, which served the city of Sydney for sixty years, has been an important part of that process. Its capacity to perform a multi-functional purpose was a significant advancement in Fire Brigade communications.
The switchboard also demonstrates a now defunct phase: the Fire Brigade's comprehensive 'in-house' approach to manufacture, maintenance and supply. It demonstrates the multi-skilled nature of nineteenth century, and early twentieth century, firefighting personnel, through their utilisation in the Brigade's workshops, where they carried out such duties as: manufacture of uniforms; motor mechanical work; plumbing; carpentry; farriery; and electrical work.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The Edward Smith switchboard has an association with William McNiven during the early part of his career. McNiven was a first class fireman and carpenter at the time; however, he progressed to become the Brigade's first in-house Architect. From 1923 -1928, almost all new fire stations and quarters were his designs.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The switchboard demonstrates the technical innovation of Brigade Principal Electrician, Edward Smith, as designer, carpenter and electrician. He designed and constructed the switchboard according to the specific needs of the Metropolitan Brigade, in 1909. The switchboard was not limited to the reception of telephone calls; but rather, it was also a terminal for monitoring automatic fire alarms, and telephone fire alarms. Moreover, it was used to electrically respond the Headquarters fire crews to emergency calls. With this capacity to perform such a multi-functional purpose, it was a significant departure from the rudimentary switchboards, which preceded it.
Constructed from Colonial Rosewood, Ceder and Tasmanian Blackwood, and ornately hand carved, it is, in appearance, aesthetically pleasing and impressive.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
Fire Brigade enthusiasts hold this item in high esteem. This is evidenced by, the maintenance carried out by retired firefighters and volunteers, as well as its preservation, display, and interpretation in a simulated watchroom setting at the Museum of Fire, Penrith.
SHR Criteria f)
The switchboard is a unique item. It was the only switchboard of its size and complexity to be constructed. It was designed and erected according to the brigade's specific requirements at the time, by Edward Smith: Principle Electrician of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade from 1905 till 1928. Other contemporary switchboards, built by the Brigade workshops, were of a much more rudimentary nature.
SHR Criteria g)
The switchboard is representative of the skill and work of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade firemen in the Brigade workshops, during an era when the brigade was operating under the 'in-house' system.
Integrity/Intactness: It is evident from early photographs of the switchboard that, throughout its sixty years of service, there has been some modification to the alarm panels and circuitry. However, this introduced fabric is a relatively minor addition to the original, and is an important part of the switchboard's story within the context of the historical process of equipment development. As such, this introduced fabric should not be considered to be an intrusive accretion; rather, it enhances the significance of the switchboard.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions SCHEDULE OF STANDARD EXEMPTIONS
Notice of Order Under Section 57 (2) of the Heritage Act 1977

I, the Minister for Planning, pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, do by this Order:

1. revoke the Schedule of Exemptions to subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act made under subsection 57(2) and published in the Government Gazette on 22 February 2008; and

2. grant standard exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977, described in the Schedule attached.

Minister for Planning
Sydney, 11 July 2008

To view the schedule click on the Standard Exemptions for Works Requiring Heritage Council Approval link below.
Feb 25 2013
57(2)Exemption to allow workHeritage Act - Site Specific Exemptions


Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard

SHR No. 1901

I, the Minister for Heritage, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, in pursuance of section 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, do, by this my order, grant an exemption from section 57(1) of that Act in respect of the engaging in or carrying out of any activities described in Schedule "C" by the Fire and Rescue NSW or the Museum of Fire described in Schedule "B" on the item described in Schedule "A".

The Hon Robyn Parker, MP.
Minister for Heritage

Sydney, 24th Day of October 2012


The item known as the Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard, situated on the land described in Schedule "B".


Moveable heritage item currently stored at 1 Museum Drive, Penrith, Parish of Castlereagh, County of Cumberland.


1. All Standard Exemptions
- Reason/ comments:These cover a full range of activities that do not require Heritage Council approval, including Standard Exemption 7 which allows consideration of additional unspecified types of minor works for exemption.

2. Replacement of parts as required to keep the Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard in good repair and order where the existing parts cannot be repaired and retained. Parts are to be a replica of the original parts except where this can no longer be achieved and will not impact on the significance of the item.
Reason/ comments:To ensure the maintenance, repair and conservation of Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard
3. The disassembly and reassembly of the Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard for the purposes of maintenance and repair to keep the item in good repair and order.
Reason/ comments:To ensure the maintenance, repair and conservation of the Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard.

4. The removal of the Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard for storage outside the Museum of Fire Penrith for the purposes of maintenance and/or repair/ where an agreement is made to return the locomotive to the Museum within a specified time period.
Reason/ comments: To ensure the maintenance, repair and conservation of the Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard.

5.The removal (on loan) of the Edward Smith Headquarters Switchboard from the Museum of Fire, Penrith for the purposes of exhibition in other exhibition institutions or as part of a travelling exhibition where an agreement is made to return the items to the Museum of Fire, Penrith within a specified time period and where moving will not damage items.
Reason/ comments:To enable the public exhibition of the item.

6. The deaccessioning of the item where the item will be disposed of in NSW.
Reason/ comments:To ensure that the SHR item remains located in NSW (notwithstanding temporary periods on exhibition outside NSW)
Feb 25 2013

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0190125 Feb 13 30491 & 495

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenAdrian, Colin1984Firefighting - A Century of Service
WrittenFire Brigades Board of NSW1909Board Minutes
WrittenFire Brigades Board of NSW-6Personnel Record Books Vol. A
WrittenMFB Superintendent-6Fire Brigade 'In Orders'

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage Office
Database number: 5056132
File number: 12/06395

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