Tooley Street 1861

One of the most awe-inspiring spectacles of the 19th century was undoubtedly the great Tooley Street fire which broke out on Saturday the 22nd June 1861. It was estimated that property to the value of £2000,000 was consumed, a considerable sum in those days. It was this fire which led to the passing of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act 1865 which merged the London Fire Engine Establishment and the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire into one body. It also led to the establishment of the London Salvage Corps. James Braidwood, first Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment, lost his life at this fire and a tablet on the rebuilt warehouse preserves his memory.

Premises Involved

The fire started in a jute warehouse at Cotton's Wharf which was eventually completely destroyed by the fire. The flames spread to Hay's and other wharves and warehouses to Tooley Street shops, dwellings and offices and to an American steamer, four sailing boats and many barges. Most of this varied property was completely destroyed.

Fire Fighting

The alarm was given shortly after 4pm when smoke was seen coming from the third floor of Cotton's warehouse. Word was sent to the headquarters of the London Fire Engine Establishment in Warling Street and in a very short space of time Braidwood and the greater part of the fire engine establishment arrived to deal with the blaze. Braidwood realised that it was of a magnitude impossible to cope with and all that he could do was to attempt to limit its spread as much as possible.

The jute warehouse was ablaze from basement to roof. It soon collapsed and fell onto a nearby building which contained highly flammable products such as tallow, tar and resin. An explosion occurred which projected flaming materials far and wide, setting fire to other warehouses and buildings.

Burning oil and tallow floated down the river and along Tooley Street. The "floating fire engines" of that time were brought into use. Braidwood and his men were indefatigable in their efforts. It was during the operations that a collapsing wall fell upon him.

The fire burned fiercely through the night and attracted crowds of sightseers. People traveled for many miles to get a closer view. The streets were bathed in a ruddy glow, the fire being visible fifty miles away in the country districts. Sightseers crowded into river boats to view the tremendous spectacle - a sight that London had not seen since the conflagration of 1666.

Casualties included a Mr Peter Scott who was killed at the same time as Braidwood and four men who were collecting tallow in their boat when this was inundated by a downpouring of burning oil which swamped the boat and led to the deaths of all of them.

By the second day, the fire was under control, but the ruins are reported to have smouldered for more than six months.


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