Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The great fire at London Bridge

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It would seem as if every now and then the elements had a field-day, by way of proving how weak are all the appliances of science to combat with them. Fire, especially, has been testing our cunning of late, and the ground it has chosen for the match against us has been in the neighbourhood of London Bridge. Within a very few years we have had Alderman Humphery’s Wharf and Fenning’s Wharf burnt down, and now the great fire of June 22nd, in which about two millions of property has been destroyed. After the two former buildings were destroyed, they were rebuilt, declared to be fire-proof. One of them has been tested again by the devouring element, and swept away as speedily as though it had been a card-house. In short, this last catastrophe has demonstrated that fire-proof buildings, as at present constructed, are neither fire-proof against themselves when of large area and filled with combustible materials, nor against neighbouring fires of great magnitude. Poor Braidwood, who has gone to his account, predicted long ago that our system of fire-proofing buildings was a delusion and a snare, and he also, with prophetic eye, foretold the time when fires would, through man’s cupidity and carelessness, grow beyond the powers of man to extinguish them. It would seem as though we deliberately planned these costly warehouses, in which the riches of the world are stored, to burn, as we lay the fuel in the grate for the same purpose. Oil and tallow will rarely, if ever, be found stored alone; if they were, the difficulty of firing them would be great indeed, but with these materials we heap immense stores of hemp and jute, which are well known to be very liable to spontaneous combustion.

The materials for the future blaze thus being carefully provided, we pile upon the whole in the upper floors precious silks, teas, and wines. The hemp fires, as it has just done at Cotton’s Wharf, and the body of flame becomes so great that fire-engines sink in their presence into ridiculous squirts. Mr. Braidwood has shown that in such fires as that which we have just witnessed, the heat inside these vast buildings becomes that of a crucible, so fierce as to melt the iron pillars and girders with which the different floors are supported, like so much glass. Indeed, this iron, to which we trust so much in our fire-proof buildings, has been proved to be a positive source of danger. Iron heated beyond 600° loses its cohesive power, and becomes utterly untrustworthy. The girders which support the floors are sure to expand, and their action must then be to destroy the strongest walls. For all we know to the contrary, poor Braidwood met his death in consequence of the thrusting out of the walls from this very cause. In order to insure the safety of our so-called fire-proof buildings, the only reliable method is to build with solid bricks, all vaultings being made of the same material. The interior of each warehouse should be so subdivided by these fire-proof walls, that the body of flame and heat in each should not affect its neighbour. If this were done, we predict that we should see no more great fires in London. At one time it was the normal condition of Liverpool to have several of her largest cotton warehouses destroyed in the course of the year, and so great was the danger from fire that insurances ran up from eight shillings to thirty-five shillings per cent. In 1841 it was determined to cope with the evil not with fire-engines only but with an act of parliament, which forbad the use of continuous roofs, wooden doors, and penthouses, and enjoined the running up of party walls four feet between each building. But the most essential enactment of the new bill was a clause which restricted the cubical contents of the buildings themselves. The result of this measure was a fall in the rate of insurance to its normal level. We have, it is true, the Building Act of the 7th & 8th of Victoria, which limits the cubical contents of warehouses in the metropolis to 200,000 feet—that is, the warehouses may be larger, but the interior walls with which they are divided must never enclose a larger space than we have mentioned. But access must be easy between one part of a warehouse and another, and this is usually given by means of fire-proof doors, which are supposed to be always closed when not actually in use: and as fire-proof warehouses, even of the best construction, are no stronger than their weakest part, we have this source of danger always to apprehend. When a fire occurs it is generally too late to shut the door from the inside at least; but we think some plan may be devised by which either these doors may be closed from the outside, or they may shut themselves on the approach of fire. As long as we have these weak places still remaining in our fire armour, we are no stronger than the vigilance of the warehousemen whose duty it is to shut these ponderous doors.

But independent of the question of fire-proof buildings, it is imperatively necessary that the legislature should interfere with the reckless manner in which all kinds of combustibles are stored within the heart of the metropolis. Is it absolutely essential that hemp and tallow should be stored together, and is turpentine a safe neighbour to such materials? We are told that enormous quantities of turpentine were stored in the cellars of the warehouses next to Alderman Humphery’s, the last of the series destroyed. If these had caught, there is no knowing where the destruction would have ended. As it was, it was only the mercy of a total cessation of wind, which prevented half the Borough from being destroyed. It is also very questionable if such matters as oil and tallow should be permitted to be stored near London Bridge, at the very entrance to the pool, which is, at certain seasons of the year, crowded with shipping. Had this fire happened in the winter, the most probable thing that could have happened, would have been the burning of the whole fleet of colliers that usually lie contiguous to the wharves on the Surrey side of London Bridge. The quantities of oil and tallow floating upon the water and drifting down the stream, made it look like a sea of fire, in which, indeed, several boats, a barge, and one ship were consumed. Imagine, good reader, the wild consternation that would have seized the shipping on the river attempting to escape the destruction of fire-ships floating down towards them! Imagine the fearful loss of life, and the further land-fires that would have happened by these fire-ships striking against the water-side wharves; and further reflect that every condition but one was present—and that one, which is sure to present itself at any other time in the year—the presence of the collier fleet—to ensure the fatal combination of calamities we have pictured. Is it right, then, we ask, that a combustible that can live on the water should be stored in such a situation that it might be poured in flame upon the great “highway” of the world?

But it is not our purpose to paint possible disasters, and to frighten our readers with suppositious calamities; we have quite enough to do to awaken the attention of the public to the dangers that are imminent, but which we have yet time to avoid by judicious enactments. We have seen how the flank of the Building Act may be turned by the simple carelessness of a porter in leaving open an iron door; but we do not think the public are prepared to hear that every provision of this useful Act is set at nought by the great Manchester warehousemen of the city,—or rather they have chosen to view the law through their own special spectacles. In consequence of their breaking bulk, these places of business are, they say, exempt from the category of mere warehouses. Acting on this plan, the Manchester warehouses have grown into enormous storehouses, full of the most combustible materials, without having any partition walls at all. Cook’s warehouse, in St. Paul’s churchyard, is perhaps the most striking example of this evasion of the letter of the law. It contains no less than 1,100,000 cubic feet of space, filled with cotton goods, or nine hundred thousand feet more than the space contemplated by the law. And Cook’s warehouse is only a sample of these kind of buildings that are growing in every direction in the heart of the city. Mr. Braidwood was never tired of raising his warning voice against these centres of dire conflagrations. These warehouses, he was often heard to say, are inaugurating an era of gigantic fires, against which the efforts of the Brigade will be powerless. The buildings, too, are so constructed as to render the firemen afraid to enter them. Iron girders, supported by iron columns, hold up the floors of these enormous buildings, and when these become red hot, in consequence of the fierce blast to which they are subjected, the fireman plays upon them at his peril, as the water suddenly contracts them on one side, and they snap and shiver in an instant, bringing the whole building down with a run.

Whilst our wholesale warehousemen are thus storing in the most densely populated portions of the city the elements of fearful conflagrations, the water-companies deny us the water to battle with them. At the late fire it was at least an hour before the engines could be supplied; during this precious hour the fire had time to fortify its position, and the water—when it did come—was too late to be of service. The public should demand a constant supply at high pressure, in which case the one element would always be ready to combat the other at whatever ordinary elevation it may show itself. If the magnitude of the disaster which has just befallen the insurance companies, leads them to call the earnest attention of the legislature to the points which we have pointed out to our readers, even the three acres of ruins, now to be seen from London Bridge, will not tell their tale in vain.

A. Wynter.