Tuesday 20 September 2011

Tooley Street Fire

One of the great, now largely forgotten, catastrophes of 19th century London was the Tooley Street fire of 1861, which engulfed the south bank of the river near London Bridge. The area was full of warehouses containing highly flammable contents. The resulting blaze could be seen from miles away, and resulted in the death of the fire bridge's chief, James Braidwood (whose funeral attracted thousands of mourners - he is buried in Abney Park Cemetery). Here is a great account of the aftermath:

Under the fallen floors of the warehouses and in the cellars underground was a vast quantity of combustible material. Casks of tallow yet remained to melt, while numberless bags of saltpetre and casks of oil and turpentine, with hundreds of tons of cheese, butter, sugar and bacon, were yet unconsumed. And still the people came in fresh thousands to view the sight. Dawn of Sunday found London-bridge still thronged with cabs, omnibuses, carts, waggons ,and vehicles of every description. Peripatetic vendors of ginger-beer, fruit and other cheap refreshments abounded, and were sold out half a dozen times over. Public-houses, in defiance of Acts of Parliament, kept open all night long, and did a roaring trade, and so, for that matter, did the pickpockets, who blended business with pleasure, and had a ready hand for anything remunerative in their particular line. But the fire, fortunately, had done its worst, though the flames continued to surge and roar with unabated fury for some time, the intensity of the fire at length visibly slackened. The efforts of the firemen were redoubled, and by four o'clock on Sunday morning all danger of its further extension seemed at an end. During the whole of Sunday thousands upon thousands of people flocked to see the ruins.
The scene of the calamity on Sunday presented all the appearance of an earthquake, rugged masses of brickwork and mounds of rubbish meeting the eye in all directions. In one direction might be seen a huge pile of cayenne pepper bags, sugar, ochineal, and hams; in another, mountains of half-consumed barrels of tallow, emitting a most noxious effluvium, and on turning round you confronted burning and smouldering barricades of jute, hemp, leather, cordage, sacks of potatoes, cheeses, sides of bacon, all intermingled in chaotic confusion. A great number of boats were busily occupied in scooping from off the water the large floating masses of tallow; one of the crews of these boats sold the amount thus obtained for 30l., another 18l. and so on, while that portion of the river-side population commonly called mudlarks were filling old sacks, saucepans, baskets, and other utensils, with the same materials. The value of the tallow shovelled up from the road and pathways in Tooley-street and taken away by the dust contractor is estimated to amount alone to several thousand pounds. The whole of Sunday and Monday was occupied in carting it away.

Reynolds's Newspaper, June 30th, 1861

It was also seen by marvellous diarist, Arthur Munby:

Between Epsom & Cheam, we saw from the train a great fire in the direction of London. A pyramid of red flame on the horizon, sending up a column of smoke that rose high in air & then spread, like that over Vesuvius. At Carshalton, where the villagers were gazing in crowds, as at all the stations, we heard that it was by London Bridge, at Cotton's wharf. At New Cross the reflection of the firelight on houses & walls began to be visible; & as we drove along the arched way into town, the whole of Bermondsey was in a blaze of light. Every head was thrust out of window, and the long black shadows of train and telegraph posts made the bright road look brighter.
   The fire was close to the station: dull brickred fumes & showers of sparks rose high between it and the river. The station yard, which was as light as day, was crammed with people: railings, lamp posts, every high spot, was alive with climbers. Against the dark sky southwards, the fa├žade of S. Thomas's Hospital and the tower of S. Saviour's stood out white and brilliant; and both were fringed atop with lookers on.
   A few of the regular omnibuses had got, hut hardly, into the station: men were struggling for places on them, offering three & four times the fare for standing room on the roofs, to cross London Bridge.
   I achieved a box seat on one, and we moved off towards the Bridge, but with the greatest difficulty. The roadway was blocked up with omnibuses, whose passengers stood on the roofs in crowds; with cabs and hansoms, also loaded outside; with waggons pleasure vans & carts, brought out for the occasion and full of people; and amongst all these, struggling screaming & fighting for a view, was a dense illimitable crowd, which even surged in heaps, as it were, over the parapet of the bridge. From my perch I overlooked the whole scene: and what a scene! For near a quarter of a mile, the south bank of the Thames was on fire: a long line of what had been warehouses, their roofs and fronts all gone; and the tall ghastly sidewalls, white with heat, standing, or rather tottering, side by side in the midst of a mountainous desert of red & black ruin, which smouldered & steamed here, & there, sent up sheets of savage intolerable flame a hundred feet high. At intervals a dull thunder was heard through the roar of fire-an explosion of saltpetre in the vaults, which sent up a pulse of flame higher than before. Burning barges lined the shore; burning oil & tallow poured in cascades from the wharfs, and flowed out blazing on the river. A schooner was being cut from her moorings, just in time, as we came up. And all this glowing hell of destruction was backed by enormous volumes of lurid smoke, that rolled sullenly across the river and shut out all beyond. Just above the highest flames stood the full moon in a clear blue sky: hut except a pale tint in far off windows, not a gleam nor a shadow of hers could be seen. But the north bank, where she should have shone, was one fairylike panorama of agitating beauty. Every building from the Bridge to the Customhouse was in a glow of ruddiest light: every church tower and high roof shone against the dark, clear in outline, golden in colour: the monument was like a pillar of fire: and ever! window and roof and tower top and standing space on ground or above, every vessel that hugged the Middlesex shore for fear of being burnt, & every inch of room on London Bridge, was crowded with thousands upon thousands of excited faces, lit up by the heat. The river too, which shone like molten gold except where the deep black shadows were, was covered with little boats full of spectators, rowing up & down in the overwhelming light.
   So, through the trampling multitude, shouts and cries & roaring flame and ominous thunder, the air full of sparks and the night in a blaze of light, our omnibus moved slowly on, and in half an hour we gained the other end of the Bridge. All along King William St. and Cheapside the people were pouring in to see the fire, and eagerly questioning those who had seen it. And even far away in the dim streets where the houses were all in shade, every church tower that we passed reflected hack the light of the conflagration. Bow Church was ruddy bright: the dome of St. Paul's was a pale rose colour on its eastern side . . .
   No such fire has been known in London since the Fire of 1666: which, by the way, began at a spot exactly opposite this. Two millions, at least, of property destroyed: near eleven acres of ruin: many lives lost, among them the chief of the Fire Brigade. The fire was at his height two or three hours after I saw it: but it is still (Wednesday afternoon) burning furiously . . .
Arthur Munby, Diary, 22 June 1861

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