‘The Great Fire at London Bridge’. Image depicting the fire after it had burnt for two days and two nights.
The Tooley Street fire, often referred to as the greatest fire since the Great Fire of London (1666), began in the afternoon of Saturday, 22 June 1861.
The fire occurred at Cotton’s Wharf where many warehouses were situated. The buildings were filled with an array of goods, including jute, hemp, cotton, spices, tea and coffee. It’s thought the fire started by spontaneous combustion.
The London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE) attended the fire and by 6pm 14 fire engines, including a steam fire engine and the floating engine, were all at the fire. The fire spread quickly throughout the workhouses as the iron fire doors, that separated many of the storage rooms, had been left open. It is believed that if they had been closed, as recommended by James Braidwood the Superintendent of the LFEE, the fire may have burnt out, avoiding disaster.
It has been suggested that the fire was so fierce because the firefighters couldn’t get a supply of water for nearly an hour. This was made even more difficult as the Thames was at low tide. Whilst the firefighters were tackling the blaze Braidwood noticed how tired they were getting and ordered that every firefighter receive a ‘nip’ of brandy. While he was assisting one of his firefighters the front section of a warehouse collapsed on top of him, killing him instantly. Unfortunately the firefighters were unable to rescue Braidwood’s body for three days because of the intensity of the fire.
By the evening the fire stretched from London Bridge to Custom House and was so hot the firefighters could not get near enough to squirt the necessary amounts of water. Engines arrived from all over the country to try and help the London Fire Engine Establishment, this included private works brigades. People from all over London came to view the magnitude of the fire. With more than 30,000 spectators; vendors of ginger beer, fruit and other cheap refreshments did a roaring trade. Public houses stayed open, throughout the night even though this was forbidden in an Act of Parliament.
Queen Victoria was particularly concerned about the event and the fate of James Braidwood and in her diary she wrote ‘poor Mr Braidwood … had been killed … and the fire was still raging. It made one very sad.’
James Braidwood was buried at Abney Park Cemetery on 29 June 1861. The funeral procession was a mile and a half long and shops were closed with crowds lining the route. As a mark of respect every church in the city rang its bells. The buttons and epaulets from his tunic were removed and were distributed to the firefighters of the LFEE.
It took two weeks to put the fire out and cost an estimated £2 million due to the contents of the warehouses. The cost for the pumpers helping to pump water from the manual fire engines was £1,100.
The insurance companies had to raise their premiums and insisted on better storage of products in warehouses. However in 1862, the insurance companies wrote to the Home Secretary stating that they could no longer be responsible for the fire safety of London as they had often put out fires without charge, so this service should become a public authority. The London Fire Engine Establishment had been efficient but it was much too small for London. Therefore the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act was passed in 1865 which stated that from 1 January 1866 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade would commence; as a public service.
To find out more about the Tooley Street fire please visit the London Fire Brigade Museum and see our exhibition about the bravery of James Braidwood.