Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nicholas George Sparks (1857–1930)

by Colin J. Adrian

This article was published:

Nicholas George Sparks (1857-1930), fire brigade officer, was born on 27 March 1857 at Portsea, Southampton, England, son of Robert Sparks, naval boatswain, and his wife Ann Maria, née Smith. 'Nico' served in the navy before joining the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1881. At the parish church of St Giles-in-the-Field, Middlesex, he married Emma Thorn on 4 May 1886. Attaining the rank of assistant officer, in 1897 he was recommended to Sydney's Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board.

In June Sparks arrived in Sydney with his wife and two daughters and, as third officer, took up residence in the Castlereagh Street headquarters fire station. On 1 November 1898 he was promoted deputy chief officer at £300 a year. Between 1898 and 1914 he and his chief officer, Alfred Webb, transformed the Sydney fire brigades into a disciplined and professional force equipped with the latest in motorized appliances. Sparks served on a government sub-committee to investigate theatre fire safety in 1904-05.

Committed to improving fire-fighting techniques, he published a Firemen's Manual (1907), covering all facets of fire brigade operations, and later Smoke and Fire (1911). Rigorous drilling was introduced: trainees and officers aspiring for promotion were henceforward required to pass formal examinations in writing, spelling, composition and drill based on his manual.

On Webb's death in 1913, Sparks became chief officer of the Board of Fire Commissioners which had evolved from the Fire Brigades Board in 1910 and embraced some eighty districts throughout the State. In 1914 he had to put the fire brigades on a 'war footing' and in 1917 'had a strenuous and anxious time when incendiarists started fires in many city buildings'. Sparks and his wife were prominent organizers of art unions and other patriotic fund-raising activities. On 13 December 1921 he directed the unsuccessful fight to save the Pastoral Finance Association Ltd's Kirribilli warehouse—city fire engines had to cross the harbour by punt—but the blaze was contained with the help of the navy. On 31 December he retired to Cronulla on an annual pension of £500.

Described as 'heavy-set, quiet, withdrawn and a strong disciplinarian with a wry sense of humour', Sparks liked the theatre, was a prominent Freemason and kept a close circle of friends; his daughter Gertrude married Arthur Wickham, a district fire officer.

Survived by his wife and two daughters, Sparks died at Cronulla on 4 September 1930. Accorded a full brigade funeral procession, he was buried in the Congregational section of Coogee cemetery. He had been awarded the King's Police medal in 1919 and was dedicated to hard work and to serving the community.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Adrian, Fighting Fire (Syd, 1984)
  • Fire, Oct-Dec 1961, p 6
  • Town and Country Journal, 5 Feb 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Jan 1922, 6 Sept 1930.

Citation details

Colin J. Adrian, 'Sparks, Nicholas George (1857–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 March, 1857
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


4 September, 1930 (aged 73)
Cronulla, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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