At an early hour on the morning of the 6th October, 1854, there occurred one of the most appalling catastrophes that ever visited the towns of Newcastle and Gateshead. A little after midnight on that day (Thursday), fire broke out in the premises of a worsted factory, on the Gateshead side of the river, belonging to Messrs. J. Wilson and Sons. Like most buildings in which extensive machinery is planted upon wooden floors, this factory might be said to have been steeped in oil; and it was therefore entirely gutted from roof to cellar in less than an hour. A large stone-built building, known as Bertram’s Warehouse, adjoined the worsted factory on the east and the flames very soon spread to it. This building, “double fire-proof,” and seven storeys high, had been originally built for storing goods by Messrs. Bertram and Spencer, but had for some time been used by the merchants of Newcastle and Gateshead as a free warehouse for all sorts of merchandise; and at the time of the fire it was stated to contain 200 tons of iron, 800 tons of lead, 170 tons of manganese, 130 tons of nitrate of soda, 3,000 tons of brimstone, 4,000 tons of guano, 10 tons of alum, 5 tons of arsenic, 30 tons of copperas, 1½ tons of naphtha, and 240 tons of salt. It being well-known that a quantity of combustible matter was collected in Bertram’s Warehouse, the excitement always provoked by a fire of any kind mounted to intense anxiety. A detachment of the military, fifty strong, hastened over from Newcastle with their barrack engine to the aid of the firemen. Streams of vivid blue flame, proceeding from the sulphur, soon began to pour from the windows of the various flats, affording a most extraordinary spectacle; and by three o’clock the whole range was one immense sheet of fire. The alarm had by this time spread in every direction, and had attracted to the scene a large number of the inhabitants on both sides of the river. The Quayside, Newcastle, affording a full view of the burning property, which immediately fronted the Tyne, was crowded with spectators, not one of whom felt the slightest apprehension that he could stand in any danger there.
About ten minutes past three, a slight report, like that of a rifle, was heard, but it occasioned no movement in the crowd. Some three minutes afterwards, however, the unheeded warning received a terrible fulfilment. The air was rent as by the voice of many thunders, and filled as with the spume of a volcano. The rocky basis of Tyneside trembled, and the vessels lying in the river, chiefly keels, were nearly blown oat of the water by the concussion. Old Tyne Bridge shook as if its firmly compacted stones would part from each other, and the iron-bound High Level quivered on its lofty piers as if in a mighty struggle for a prolonged existence. No description can give the slightest idea of the destruction that had taken place, literally in the clap of a hand. Burning piles of brimstone, with bricks, stones, metal, and articles of every description, were thrown up with the force of a volcanic eruption, only to fall with corresponding momentum upon the dense masses of the people assembled, and upon all the surrounding houses. The crowd upon the Quayside and Sandhill was mowed down as by a charge of artillery, many being rendered insensible from the shock, others temporarily suffocated by the vapour, and many more wounded by the flying debris.
An awful calm succeeded for a few seconds, and then, as most of the sufferers regained consciousness, an appalling wail of distress arose in all directions; but many were far removed from all earthly suffering, and their voices were never heard again. The fearful extent of the calamity was now perceptible. The ignited missiles had penetrated into three houses upon the Quayside, standing exactly opposite the fire, to such a prodigious extent that they were in flames in every storey in less than five minutes. The shop fronts and windows on the Quayside, the Sandhill, the Side, and all the neighbouring streets, were almost universally demolished; and the gaslights, for a square mile around the spot, were extinguished in a moment, adding a weird and horrible confusion to the scene. The vibration was distinctly felt at Shields and Sunderland. The workmen at Monkwearmouth Colliery, then the deepest in the kingdom, and at least eleven miles away, heard the explosion, and, it is said, came to bank in alarm. Westward as far as Hexham, twenty miles away; in the north, at Alnwick, thirty-five miles; and south as far as Hartlepool, near forty miles distant, the report was likewise heard, as well as for, at least, twenty miles out at sea. And the flames were distinctly seen during the conflagration at Smeaton, near Northallerton, as well as from Beacon Hill, in the same neighbourhood, about fifty miles to the south.
Of the fifty soldiers of the 26th Regiment who were advancing with their engine to play on the burning warehouse and factory, thirty were struck down – two of them dead, and one with an iron rail driven into his body. Firemen and helping citizens were crushed where they stood, in the narrow roadway of Hillgate, Grateshead, within a dozen yards of the doomed buildings, when the rubbish fell upon them in tons together, causing instantaneous death. Others, looking on in helpless excitement, were in a moment stricken beyond consciousness by the suffocating fumes, which continued, we may mention, to be so pungent during the whole of the next day as to render it painful to inhale them anywhere near, or even to draw a full breath when passing over Tyne Bridge. Amongst those who were buried several feet deep among the ruins in Hillgate, were Mr. Robt. Pattinson, tanner, a member of the Newcastle Council, whose hobby was the fire-engine, and who made it a point of duty to help the firemen everywhere pending their better organization; Mr. Charles Bertram, a magistrate of Gateshead; Mr. Henry Harrison, basket maker; Mr. William Davidson, son of Mr. Davidson, miller (whose extensive premises were within a few feet of the fire, and were afterwards consumed); Mr. Alexander Dobson, son of Mr. John Dobson, architect; Mr. Thomas Sharp a gentleman of independent means; and Ensign Paynter, of the 26th Regiment.
Of course the explosion greatly increased the extent of the fire in Gateshead. Besides Davidson’s flour mill, Wilson’s worsted manufactory, and Bertram’s warehouse, already mentioned, the following premises of different kinds were totally destroyed :-Mr. Bulcraig’s engineering works, Messrs. J. T. Carr and Co’s timber yard, Mr. Singers’s vinegar manufactory, Mr. Martin Dunn’s timber yard, Mr. Wilson’s fellmongery, and a number of tenemented houses and small shops in Hillgate. Church Walk was almost entirely demolished, with many houses in Bridge Street, the Bottle Bank, Oakwellgate, &c., which it is impossible to enumerate; and St. Mary’s Church was saved from destruction only by the courage and energy of Mr. James Mather, of South Shields, who got into the sacred building at the risk of his life, and by means of an engine-pipe which was handed to him, and an axe for which he called, rescued it from the power of the insatiable element.
On the Newcastle side of the river the destruction was more awful and alarming still. It has already been said that the fire broke out in three houses on the Quayside, opposite the warehouse in Gateshead, where the explosion took place. The shops of these premises were occupied by Messrs. Smith and Ca, drapers; Messrs. Ormston and Smith, stationers; and Mr. Harbottle, draper. Besides these premises, the shop of Messrs. Spencer and Son, drapers, and the offices above (one of which was occupied by Mr. Bertram, whose death we have recorded, were almost entirely reduced to ruins by stones projected from the site of the explosion. The property immediately behind Messrs. Ormston and Smith’s was the Dun Cow, in the occupation of Mr. Teasdale, and the spirits which it contained immediately gave increased energies to the flames, which consumed the whole fabric in less than half-an-hour. The fire then gradually progressed both north and east, making its way in the first direction up Grinding Chare, principally through old warehouses, toward the Butcher Bank, and, in the second, along the range of buildings on the Quayside. The shops of Mr. Atkin, bookseller, and Mr. Tumboll, watchmaker, as well as the Grey Horse Inn, succeeded Messrs. Smith and Co’s; and the flames ran thence to the northward, up Blue Anchor Chare and Pallister Chare towards the Butcher Bank. By six o’clock the fire had spread along the Quayside for nearly one hundred and twenty yards, while the extent of it towards the Butcher Bank was rather greater, the fire having traveled up the whole length of Blue Anchor Chare, Peppercorn Chare, Pallister Chare, and Homsby’s Chare, and made a breach into the Butcher Bank by three separate houses, all of which were entirely consumed. A blazing beam of timber, thrown by the explosion high over the Butcher Bank, fell into the workshops of Mr. J. Edgar, situate behind his premises in Pilgrim Street Here the flames worked their way uncontrolled, destroying a front shop occupied by Mrs. Ann Shield, grocer, on one side, and a large number of tenemented dwellings and workshops adjoining George’s Stairs on the other.
When the sun rose, never had his rays exhibited Newcastle in so awful a state as on that October morning. The fire was still extending widely amongst the property near the Quayside, whilst the flames in Gateshead were quite unsubdued, there being, indeed, no means of checking them there, owing to the fire-engines having been almost entirely buried in the ruins.
Soon as the tremendous shock ceased, however, were seen the workings of those faculties in the use of which man looks godlike. No moment of precious time was lost in timid flight or useless wailing. Sorrow was put off in the agony of present strife. The engine of the North Eastern Railway Company was fortunately uninjured, and proved of great service on the Quayside. Communications were sent by telegraph to all the neighbouring towns for assistance. The floating engines at Shields and Sunderland, three land engines from the latter town, and one each from Hexham, Durham, Morpeth, and Berwick were despatched by the authorities of these places. Fresh soldiers replaced their disabled comrades. The vessels that were in danger were moved out of the way, and in those that had been touched by the lighted brands the fire was extinguished. Happily, there was no wind. Thus encouraged, as many as could get near enough to help worked as one man. No danger — not the hot embers nor the shaking walls — deterred the firemen from carrying their hose, or the excavators from moving on with their picks; while every leaping jet of water and courageous venture on to some coign of ‘vantage was cheered by the impatient lookers-on.
As the uninjured regained their presence of mind, every endeavour was made to render relief to the wounded, numbers of whom were carried off on boards and shutters to the Gateshead Dispensary; while upwards of a hundred, from both sides of the river, were taken to the Newcastle Infirmary. Never were the resources of that great charity so severely tried. Fifty-eight persons, seriously injured, were at once admitted into the house, fifteen of whom died; while sixty-three others were relieved as out-patients.
On the 7th, the fire was got under on both sides of the river, and immediate steps were taken to disinter the remains of those who were known to be killed in Gateshead. The bodies of Mr. Pattinson, Mr. Hamilton (hairdresser), Ensign Paynter, Corporal Stephenson, Mr. Willis (skinner), Mr. Duke (bricklayer) and his son, a child named Conway, and a labourer named McKenny, were thus recovered. On the 8th the body of Mr. Mosely, a smith, was found much disfigured, and about noon there was discovered a charred and crumbling mass, without the least resemblance to humanity. A piece of the coat and a bunch of keys, lying close by, led to its identification as Mr. Alexander Dobson. The next fragments found were those of Mr. Thomas Sharp, shockingly mangled, and only identified by his gold watch and two dog whistles. Several other bodies were discovered in a similar condition. Mr. Davidson was identified by a signet ring, Mr. Harrison by a cigar case, one of the firemen by the nozzle of the engine pipe, and many others by similar articles known to have belonged to them. In Church Walk were found the family of a man named Hart, consisting of himself, his wife, his son, and his niece. No portion of Mr. Bertram’s body could be found, but a key, which was known to belong to him, and his snuff box, were discovered among the ruins.
A great amount of evidence was tendered at the inquests as to the cause of the explosion, the general opinion being, that nothing but a vast store of gunpowder could have been the cause of the catastrophe. Mr. Hugh Lee Pattinson, the celebrated chemist, offered an explanation of the disaster, which he attributed to the action of water on the chemicals, whilst Dr. Taylor, Professor of Chemistry at King’s College, London, ascribed its origin to gas. Mr. Pattinson believed that the heat of the building had inflamed the sulphur, and that gradually the whole mass of nitrate of soda and sulphur in the lower vaults had melted together, producing intense combustion, and a heat such as could not well be conceived. His assumption was, that a body of water, while the contents of the warehouse were in this state, had found its way to the burning mass, and, by the immense expansive power of steam at such a heat, had caused the explosion. In his opinion, 328 gallons of water, acting in this way, would have as powerful an effect as eight tons of gunpowder. Professor Taylor supposed that the sulphur, having taken fire, had inflamed the nitrate of soda which, he said, would set free half a million cubic feet of gas; and the inability of the gas to escape fast enough through the door of the vault had, be believed, caused the explosion. Both chemists, from various analyses of the ruins, were equally confident that no gunpowder had been present. The juries, after very lengthened sittings, finally came to open verdicts, expressing, however, their belief that the explosion had not arisen from gunpowder.
The loss by this terrible fire was never accurately ascertained, but it was pretty generally estimated at not much short of a million pounds sterling. Whether the loss of life was accurately ascertained at the time is yet a matter of opinion, but the total number known to have perished was no less than fifty-three.
Perhaps no circumstance can better convey the idea of the immense power of the explosion than the fact that it burrowed into the solid earth and undermined the huge granite blocks which formed the tramway for carts in Hillgate, casting these solid stones to an immense perpendicular altitude, so as to soar above St. Mary’s Church, and to project them over it two or three hundred yards into the neighbouring streets. One stone fell through the roof of the Grey Horse, in the High Street of Gateshead, a distance of four hundred yards. Another, nearly four feet long, a foot broad, and eight inches deep, weighing nearly four hundredweight, fell in Oakwellgate, and forced its way into the ground a considerable depth. A third stone, upwards of twenty stone weight, fell through a house in the same street and smashed everything before it. A stone weighing about two hundredweight was blown through one of the high windows of St. Mary’s Church, while another, almost equally ponderous, penetrated the roof, and both were found lying in the pews. Large blocks of wood and stone were also projected considerable distances across the river. One stone was embedded in a house left standing at the west end of the Quay. Another was dashed with such violence as actually to penetrate like a bullet through the wall of the engine house of the Courant office in Pilgrim Street. A stone weighing 18½ pounds fell through the roof of the premises of Mr. Hewitson, optician, in Grey Street; and this stone, when the workmen came in the morning, was found too hot to be handled. A huge beam of timber about six feet long was hurled upon the roof of All Saints’ Church; another piece, about ten feet long, eight inches square, and weighing three hundredweight, was thrown upon the Ridley Arms Inn, in Pilgrim Street; another went vertically through the roof of the Blue Posts Inn in the same street; and yet another alighted upon the roof of a house in Mosley Street These latter locations were distant about three-quarters of a mile from the point of projection.
Many strange escapes were recorded at the time of the disaster. Not the least remarkable of these circumstances was the discovery the day after the fire of two children in a house in Hillgate, one in a cradle and the other in a closet both alive and uninjured, but desperately hungry.
The intense interest in the fire caused the streets in the neighbourhood to be thronged like a fair the whole of Friday, the day after the disaster; on the Saturday, the numbers were considerably augmented by the market people from the country; and on the Sunday the numbers were almost beyond estimate. Not less than twenty thousand strangers came by rail that day; special trains ran every hour; and such was the anxiety of the people that many had to wait for hours at the stations before they could get forward. Some came to sympathise with the injured, others to mourn with the bereaved, while the greater number, having breathed the noxious and polluted atmosphere which pervaded the town during the whole of the day, returned in the evening with the deep conviction that they would “never look upon the like again.” The public sympathy for the poor people who were rendered destitute by this terrible catastrophe was displayed in the most marked manner throughout the kingdom. Upwards of £11,000 were subscribed for their relief. No fewer than eight hundred families applied for assistance from the fund, and altogether £4,640 was paid for the loss of furniture. In February, 1857, the committee which had charge of the subscriptions stated that £6,533 had been expended, that £3,844 had been reserved for widows and orphans, and that the remainder of the fund was distributed as follows : Newcastle Infirmary, £1,190; Gateshead Dispensary, £314; Bagged Schools, £195; other charities, &c., £50.
Our sketch of the fire, showing the view from the High Level Bridge, with Tyne Bridge in the foreground, is taken from a drawing by Thomas Hardy, kindly lent us by Mr. Thomas Bell, Pilgrim Street, Newcastle.