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Local Profile: Peter Hancock

Peter’s Hancock’s life is the most local of stories. You could walk from his birthplace at the maternity home on Alice Street to the home he shares with wife Adrienne on Cherry Street, with a short detour to the butchery on Queen Street where he grew up in the residence, and later worked. Your walk would not even be a mile long. But within this small area Peter has lived a large life rich in experience and connection, as well as service to his community.

Peter and his sister Sue were raised in the residence behind the Hancock’s Butcher shop by their father, Cyril Hancock, and their Aunt, Amy Simmons, with what Peter calls, “the help of my cousins and a heap of other people around town.” The help was sorely needed because Peter and Sue’s mother Nita (Simmons) died from septicaemia following a miscarriage when he was just five and his sister three.

A student at Barraba Central School, Peter was making sausages from 12 years of age at the family butchery. He started work full-time at 15. He says, “One day my father said, ‘Get down there and start in the shop’. So I did.”

“My first job was gut runner down the slaughter yard. After killing the sheep I’d load the guts on the wheelbarrow and go down the paddock and empty the offal out of them. Put in ‘em the copper and boil ‘em up so you could feed the pigs the next day.”

Nita was Cyril Hancock’s second wife, his first having died of cancer. Joyce was the eldest child of the “first family”, and 28 years old when Peter was born. After Joyce were Norm and Stan and Bob.

Bob and Stan were particularly big influences in Peter’s life. Bob was 16 years, and Stan 22 years older than Peter. Stan and his wife Ruth, and Bob and wife Valerie, did a lot of caring for young Peter and Sue in their young years. “We often had our feet under their tables having a feed,” says Peter.

Later Peter was to follow his brothers into the Barraba branch of the NSW Fire Brigade. Joining at 19 years of age on 15 June 1967, Peter began what was to be a 54 year career in the NSW Fire Brigade. Bob, Stan and Peter all worked in the butcher’s shop together as well as in the brigade.

Not long after joining the Fire BrigadePeter met his wife Adrienne in 1970. Adrienne was a Tamworth girl who worked at the PCCC in Barraba. “I was in the Apex Club those days,” says Peter. “And two or three of the fellas of the County Council were in the Apex Club and they started bringing her to social functions and say no more! I married her in ‘72 on a Butcher’s holiday long weekend.”Peter and Adrienne went on to have four children: Cecily. Cameron, James and Timmy.

Peter has a remarkable memory and clearly remembers the early fires he attended over his career in the local brigade. “My first fire was a fire in Warren Lynch’s shop which is now the shop opposite the pharmacy. It was a general shop. There was a ceiling fire actually towards the front of the shop. Yeah, fixed it up real quick.”

Peter’s second fire was worse. “The second fire I went to was a fatal fire. A Mrs Taylor perished in a house in Fitzroy street next to the shire offices, right alongside there. It was in June ‘67. My brother was the Captain. He come out and he said, ‘Righto Peter you go down there to the standpipe. Make sure the traffic don’t run over it.’ Then he announced to all the hanger-on-ers, ‘Go home and have a cup of tea and come back in half an hour.’” They were then able to remove the body with some privacy. In this matter of fact way, Stan was able to manage a nasty situation with grace.

A significant fire in Peter’s career was at the historic Commercial Hotel. “We had the Commercial Hotel fire back in ‘78. Fire was on the upper storeys. Straight above the bar was the main fire. It was in a sort of a lounge area,” says Peter. 

“It was goin’. It was just a ball of flame when we got there. The Captain of the time got me on a length of hose. This is before breathing apparatus in those days. He got me up the stairwell out onto the front verandah. All I could see was a great big ball of fire. It went right through the ceiling area from the southern side to the northern side. It all had to be replaced.”

Later in the 90s the fire at the big home at Plumthorpesticks out. “It was back in January ‘91,” says Peter. “It razed the northern wing and the western wing. It was going pretty well. We got water for that, to put that out, from the swimming pool up there. The pumper was carrying 1800 litres of water by then, which we could start with.”

Peter says both the Commercial Hotel and Plumthorpe fires were well established by the time they got there but damage was still able to be limited. He says Barraba’s Fire Brigade was formed after another large fire where the whole building was lost. The brigade had to come from Manilla.

The Royal Hotel caught fire back in ‘34 or 35. “There was no fire brigade in the town prior to that,” Peter explains. “After that all the gear turned up on the train including a Garford fire engine.”

Not long ago Peter enjoyed the good fortune of seeing a Garford fire engine on the South Coast when he was visiting his daughter Cecily.

Peter saw a lot of changes in his time, even though he says the number of call outs stayed steady at about 28 a year. The exception was 2005 when there were 68 call outs as the new hospital’s alarm system worked out a few kinks.

“The way things are manufactured these days there’s less fires but they are more toxic,” Peter explains. “I can remember going to fires before we had breathing apparatus. One fire that sticks out was a lounge that was on fire. I was in there putting it out with a hose with no breathing apparatus with no trouble at all. Now the fellas were keeping an eye on me, making sure I was still on me feet. But you did that these days you’d be dead in ten minutes.”

“There’s six air sets on every vehicle now. Prior to ‘84 or so we had two air sets. I was incidentally the first one to wear an air set at an incident. That was when the White House caught on fire. That was the mine manager’s house on Bullied Street (pronounced Bull-ee-ed).

“Turn up there and there was an open fire caught, got away sort of thing, on the ground floor. I was a bit slow getting there with the rest of the fellas because I was putting an airset on. Bill Saunders turned around and said, ‘What have you got that bloody thing on for?’ These days if you went in without one it would be a different story.”

The half century of friendships from the Fire Brigade is what is most prominent in Peter’s memory.

“That’s part of being a country brigade. I can remember when you were allowed to have a few beers in the afternoon and then go to a fire. Most of the blokes would be drinking at the old Central Hotel right alongside the firestation. You’d get a call and be fighting to see who could get through the door first.”

By Jane Harris

Barraba Fire Brigade 1968. Back row: Frank Perry, Bruce Butler, Reg Bell, Bob Hancock, Stan Hancock (Captain). Front row: Mervyn Lavender, Peter Hancock, Mac Hughes, Billy Saunders.