Archive for fire

The dangers of breaching a fireground cordon: a lesson from history

Posted in Fires, Newspapers with tags , , on 22/06/2018 by Craig Spence

Glasgow City Council have warned people not to breach to cordon around the recently fire-ravaged Glasgow School of Art. Their concern is that those approaching or entering the site of the fire may be injured either on the site or if the buildings were to collapse. There is often a temptation amongst local residents and the curious to assume that as soon as a building fire is put out all can return to normal, but the experiences of a group of curious Londoner’s who explored the site of a significant London fire in 1730 suggests this might not be such a good idea.

On the morning of Tuesday 31 March 1730 a major conflagration broke out at the property of Mr Clinton, a distiller, near the junction of Fetter Lane and Fleet Street. The head of his still broke-away spraying flammable spirits throughout the building. Within the space of just ninety minutes not only was Mr Clinton’s house alight but so were those of his neighbours: Mr Kingham’s, a potter, Mr Allin’s, a shoemaker, and Mr Sawkins proprietor of the Magpye and Horseshoe. Residents, neighbours and firefighters rushed to fight the blaze and remove property from the endangered buildings. Suddenly two of the buildings collapsed: nine were immediately rescued from the debris, three of whom were killed instantly while the other six were ‘miserably bruised’. In addition a number of firefighters from more than one insurance company brigade were found to be missing and ‘tis feared, have perished in the ruins.’ (The Daily Journal, 1 April 1730) One of these was later named as ‘James Mitchell, a Fire-man’ (The Daily Courant, 3 April 1730). It took the best part of the day to extinguish the flames but the rescue/recovery effort continued until Friday by which time the death-toll had grown to sixteen.

It is likely that seeing the visible flames put out and observing firefighters and others carefully working through the debris as they retrieved bodies tempted some to take a chance to look over the site of the fire. The fate of those who breached what was probably at best an informal cordon was relayed by the Daily Courant on Sunday 5 April. ‘Saturday morning 2 men stood upon the ruins of the late fire at the end of Fetter Lane, which sinking down with them, they were scorched in a deplorable manner, in so much that their skin came off; one of them, whose name was Joseph Millington, was to have been married yesterday, but died on Saturday in St Bartholomew’s hospital.’

The fate of Millington/Billing[ton] and his companion was taken up by The Daily Journal on Monday, 6 April: ‘Last Saturday Morning about 8, Jonathan Billing, a Journeyman Printer, and John Wilkin­son, Servant to Mr. Thompson, a Glazier in Shoe Lane, standing upon one of the Vaults of the late Fire in Fleet-Street, the Rubbish gave Way, and they sunk into the same. They were taken out alive with all possible Haste, by Means of Ropes thrown in to their Assistance, and carried to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. The latter was burnt all over his Body and Face, in such a miserable Manner, that he died in a few Hours after he was dressed. The former, whose Hands and Body, from his Navel down­wards, were all stripped bare, in a most deplorable Manner, remained in the greatest Agonies till Yesterday Morning, when he expired.’

But even that episode was not enough to keep people away from the ruins as the report goes on to note that: ‘The same Day a Youth fell into the same Place, but was taken out without any great Damage.’ The editor of The Daily Journal felt this dangerous activity needed to be challenged and concluded the piece by stating that: ‘It is to be hoped these sad Examples may be a Means to prevent that fruitless and idle Curiosity, which Ieads unwary and rash People into such Hazards, as may be attended with Consequences so Fatal, when, if they escape Dan­ger, they cannot really do any good.’

So Glaswegians, if you want to avoid the fate of John and Jonathan it’s probably best to stay outside the cordon!

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Encounters with the Dead

Posted in Murder, Newspapers, Uncategorized with tags , , on 30/10/2016 by Craig Spence

dancedead

Encounters with the dead were common in pre-modern society. With death rates from disease and illness high most people would come face-to-face with the dead at some time or other. But such events mostly occurred in private or at least domestic settings, environments where the encounter could be managed and socially regulated. In the early modern metropolis however the chance of public viewing of violent or unusual deaths was ever present.

It would seem that Londoners were particularly keen to look into the face of death. They thronged to the fields around Tyburn to witness the last death throes of the condemned, or journeyed to the waterside at Wapping to celebrate the execution of pirates. But London presented other opportunities to connect with the dead. Those recovered from rivers and ponds were often exposed to public view in an attempt to provide an identity. In March 1730 the Daily Courant reported that ‘on Thursday last in the afternoon a man was taken out of the New River Head near Sadler’s Wells, who is supposed to have been murdered and robbed, by his pockets being turned out, and being cut and mangled very much; he was carried to Clerkenwell burying ground, to be seen openly, if that any person should know to whom he belonged.’ That, via word of mouth, crowds would have gathered to view the corpse is not unlikely.

On another occasion when the drowned body of a woman was discovered on the Thames shoreline in 1754 it drew an audience. In particular James Gould a bargeman set aside the possible protestations of his wife and child as he diverted their Sunday walk to get a closer look. As he later recounted at the Old Bailey; ‘Upon Sunday the 18th of November, as I, my wife, and child, were coming from Chiswick to Hammersmith we heard of a drowned woman; I was determined to walk down to see her, and walked as far as the mud would let me go; she lay in the mud and water, but over-hawling her very strictly I lifted up her head’ and by doing so he gazed directly into the face of death. Others waited their turn until several men had recovered the body of Elizabeth Webb and carried it to drier land before taking a closer look. Henry Smith and Robert Boyle helped to ‘threw her upon a piece of board and carry her up to the Black-Lion and laid her there; there were five or six of us carried her up’. Boyle also observed that ‘I believe there were a hundred people on the bank side at that time.’

In what was perhaps an even more macabre engagement with the dead, a house fire in 1687 drew a certain type of audience. A pamphlet published in recognition of the catastrophic event (A True Account of that Dreadful Fire which happened in the House of Mr Samuel Seaton) noted that ‘The bodies … were carried to a neighbour’s house; and there lay as affrightening spectacles to people, who flocked to see them’. One can readily imagine the press of men, women and children at the doors and windows of the house as they jostled to catch a glimpse, or a smell, of the charred corpses of the seven recently deceased inhabitants including Mr Seaton, his wife and their new-born child.

April 1730 and London newspapers report the deaths of firemen, porters and servants killed by collapsing buildings at a ‘great fire’ on Fleet Street

Posted in Newspapers with tags , , , , on 01/04/2016 by Craig Spence

Mr Clinton was a distiller; his shop conveniently located in Fleet Street was to be found close to the corner of Fetter Lane. On the morning of 31 March 1730 he began his day by firing up his still to produce another batch of alcoholic intoxicants. During this process, and for some unexplained reason, the still-head became detached from the apparatus. Hot alcohol spewed across the room and coming into contact with the naked flames below the distilling vat it burst explosively into flame.

The ensuing fire was intense and quickly spread throughout Clinton’s building. Unfortunately for his neighbours within an hour-and-a-half the fire had also spread to theirs. The properties of Mr Kingham (a potter), Mr Allin (a shoemaker) and Mr Sawkins (innholder at the ‘Magpye and Horseshoe’) were all affected.

Firemen of the London insurance offices were quickly on the scene and together with a crowd of porters, servants and passers-by attempted to both fight the fire and remove goods and belongings from the affected and adjacent houses. Well into their task there was a sudden rumbling and without warning two of the houses collapsed.

The London newspapers tell the story of that day, and the following four, in some detail. Reports of the total number of casualties vary but certainly six died and maybe as many as sixteen. Many others were injured and rushed to the London hospitals for treatment.

Among the dead was James Mitchell an insurance company fireman. Mitchell was a resident of Westminster and had begun his working life as a waterman’s apprentice in 1718. Keen to take advantage of the higher status and regular income offered by the role of fireman he had abandoned the waters of the river and turned instead to the fires of the city to provide his ‘trade’. Others who died included a footman and a porter.

On the third day after the fire and collapse the efforts of those toiling to rescue anyone still trapped in the debris were rewarded when a servant maid was pulled alive from the ruins. Incredibly she had survived the fire trapped in the partially fallen vault underneath the ‘Horseshoe alehouse’. She did not survive long however tragically dying within minutes of being freed. It is likely that she was a victim of ‘crush syndrome’, a form of traumatic fatal injury not formally identified until studies of victims of the London Blitz were undertaken some 210 years later.

The London Newspapers made concerted efforts to report this event; the Daily Courant, The Weekly Journal or British Gazette, The Weekly Journal, the Daily Journal and the Daily Post all covered the story. The printer of The Weekly Journal, Mr Read Sen. resident of Whitefriars Street, secured a closer insight into the events than he might have wished. Having taken his own [fire] engine to the scene of the conflagration he was close at hand when the buildings collapsed.  By which means he not only secured a first-hand account of the incident but also a broken leg!

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