The Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead
Sometime before one o’clock in the morning of October 6 1854 a fire started in the Hillgate district of Gateshead, in the worsted factory of Wilson and Sons. Rapidly out of control the fire spread, growing in intensity for about two hours until the factory began to collapse and material in an adjoining warehouse combusted. A contemporary description paints a vivid picture of sulphur, lead, and tallow “in torrents, like streams of lava” pouring from the windows of the eight-storey building. When this building in turn collapsed burning timbers were thrown onto the roofs of houses nearby. Crowds gathered to observe the conflagration.
But the worst was yet to come: a second warehouse, supposedly fire-proofed with metal floors and pillars, contained a highly combustible mix of naphtha, potash, tallow, soda and sulphur. Fire-brigades tried to prevent the fire reaching and igniting this potential bomb, but in vain. Some men died as they approached the place, asphyxiated by the fumes it was giving off; and it was possibly this gaseous mix that exploded in a massive blast that shook houses in Seaham to the south of Sunderland ; was felt by a ship 10 miles distant; the percussive blast of which snuffed out gas lights as far away as South Shields ; and which in distant pit villages was thought to be an underground explosion in the mines such was the shock it sent through the earth. Flames crossed the Tyne and destroyed property in Newcastle ; stones projected by the Gateshead blast smashed houses and shops on the Newcastle side.
In total 53 people died in the disaster, possibly more as some buildings were blown to smithereens. Some of the watching crowd were mown down by the shock wave; others fighting blazes were buried beneath the debris launched from the building like a volcanic eruption; windows for miles around were smashed into fragments. Streets of houses were gutted, and flames spread inexorably as the fire engines locally had nearly all been incapacitated or had their crews killed or disabled in the blast.
A subsequent inquiry found that contrary to rumour the second warehouse had not illegally stored gunpowder, but that the explosion possibly resulted from water hitting the burning material, creating a cloud of super-rapidly expanding steam.
The entire country was touched by the disaster, which ruined already poor people: £11,000 was raised to help such victims – in all 800 families needed help from the fund.
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