In these days of high powered journalism we are apt to consider "sensationalism" in the press as a comparatively recent innovation, or as a symptom of "these hurrying times". It therefore comes as something of a surprise to find that this type of literature was being produced as early as 1841, as can be seen from the "Latest Particulars of the Awful Fire and Total Destruction of the Tower of London on the Night of Saturday 30th October 1841, " by J T Wood, printer and publisher of Fore Street, Cripplegate, London.
In Mr Wood's view, this was "the most alarming and destructive fire that has occurred within the memory of the present age". This was hardly true for within the previous seven years had occurred the fires as the Royal Exchange and at the House of Parliament, London and also the great fire of new York.
"Sublimity" of Fire
"In the midst of the general confusion", say Wood, "we could but remark on the absolute sublimity of an element let loose, roaming at discretion, from building to building the fire seemed to rejoice to madness, emitting light and heat which astonished..." If by any chance Mr Wood was still alive in 1897, he would have had the opportunity of seeing the "absolute sublimity" of the great Cripplegate fire of that year come perilously close to his own premises.
The Fire Breaks Out
Turning from Wood's lurid account of the more restrained chronicles of the period, we find that the fire was first noticed at about half past ten on the evening of the 30th October, 1841, by a sentinel on duty near the Jewel Office. He is stated to have caught sight of a light in the Round Tower, which was situated near the Armoury on the north side facing the Trinity House. Upon firing his musket, the entire battalion of the Scots Fusilier Guards turned out. Soon flames began to burst forth with some violence from the windows of the Round Tower, and Colonel Auckland Eden, the Officer Commanding, directed the troops to turn out the nine Tower engines, which were soon supplemented by fire brigade engines arriving from every quarter. In spite of these efforts, the Round Tower was rapidly consumed, and the fire spread to the Armoury roof.
By this time Colonel Eden was considerably alarmed about the safety of the arms and other valuables stored in the Armoury, some of which were of great antiquity, so he ordered a rapid attempt to be made by the troops to move out of danger everything that was easily portable. At the same time, firemen carried the branches of two of the brigade engines into the Armoury and trained them on the ceiling and walls, but they had been there only a short time when the ceiling began to give way and they had to leave hurriedly.
The Armoury was 345 feet in length, and one of the largest in Europe. It contained a great variety of trophies, many of which had seen service in the important battles of English history. Much material was lost, including a series of cannon dating back from 1422 to 1769, showing progressive improvements in manufacture; some carbines taken from the Scottish Highlanders in 1715; the arms taken from those involved in the attempted assassination of William III in 1696; and a brass mortar, capable of throwing nine shells at once, from which the balloons were fired at the celebrated display of fireworks in 1749 which commemorated the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle.
Spread of the Fire
By 11.30pm flames were seen issuing from all parts of the Armoury, and the fire had reached the Clock Tower. Great crowds had now assembled and were kept at a distance by several hundred policemen. (Wood says that "No pen can convey an idea of the consternation depicted in the countenances of the multitude who were present. It is untellable.") Within an hours, the fire had reached tremendous magnitude, and had extended through the flooring of the Small Armoury into the lower compartment, occupied by the artillery. The heat was so intense that it was impossible to stand on the broad walk between the Armoury and the White Tower and Wood says the light was so bright that the Minories had the appearance of broad daylight, and that it was possible to read the smallest print in Cheapside. At one o'clock in the morning the Clock Tower fell in with a tremendous crash and the flames then blew in the direction of the White Tower and the Church of St Peter. With great difficulty, both these places were preserved.
Efforts to put out the fire were hampered by the fact that the tanks under the Tower contained very little water. Also, the tide was out, so that when eventually the floating engines arrived and moored off the Traitor's Gate, the men had over 700 feet of hose to lay down and could do little but supply water to the engines nearer the fire.
The Crown Jewels
Then it was the turn of the Jewel Tower to be threatened and there was great anxiety for the safety of the Crown Jewels. After much running about for keys, warders brought out all the jewels and sceptres and carried them to the Governor's residence at the further end of the green. Fortunately their efforts were unnecessary, for the Jewel Tower was saved.
At about two o'clock, a rumour spread about that a large magazine was attached to the Armoury and some of the crowd dispersed hurriedly, fearing an explosion. This was apparently occasioned by the loud roaring of the flames, which went on until about 2.45am on the 31st October, when the fire began to abate and the fighters were able to get nearer to the ruins. The last place to be threatened was the Map Office, containing valuable maps and records but after a struggle the fire here was extinguished and the property placed in safety.
Casualties and Losses
By about four o'clock in the morning of the 31st October, the fire was out in most places although the ruins smouldered for days. There was one fatal casualty, a fireman who was killed by falling masonry and several minor casualties, including one of the officers of the Tower, who severely injured his hands by dashing them through a plate glass frame in his efforts to save the sword and sash of the Duke of York. Almost everything was destroyed except numerous small arms and the brass cannon taken from Malta by the French in 1798 and later recaptured by the British.
Cause of the Fire
Immediate steps were taken by the Government to find the cause of the fire and to examine the conduct of officers and troops but there is no reason to think that the fire was other than accidental. Probably it was caused by the armourer's forge in the Round Tower, of the flues of the stoves there.
A week afterwards the Tower was opened to the public on payment of an admission fee of sixpence. Crowds came from all over the country, and various specimens saved from the ruins were exhibited. Some of them, such as calcined gunflints and percussion caps, were sold.
Tradition has it that the Tower was originally built by Julius Caesar. The keep, or White Tower, was begun by William the Conqueror in 1078 and completed by William Rufus in 1098, who also began the St Thomas' Tower and the Traitors' Gate. Additions were made at various periods, in particular by Henry VIII, who used it as a residence. In the White Tower is St John's Chapel, which is one of the finest and most complete specimens of Norman architecture in England. Many important political prisoners have been confined in the Tower or on Tower Hill, including Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, the Earl of Essex and Archbishop Laud. Today the Tower of London exists as a barracks, an armoury and a museum.