London Fire Brigade

Colonial Wharf fire: Eighty-two years on

25 September 2016

The Colonial Wharf fire in 1935 was one of the more dramatic fires seen in London for many years.

On 25th September at 3.30 pm, a wisp of smoke made its way out of the upper windows of a warehouse. The alarm was raised and the building was cleared of workers immediately, saving hundreds of lives.

The warehouse was in a dangerous zone with a number of neighbouring warehouses all storing potentially flammable goods like spirits, rubber and tea.

The fire spread quickly

The flames took hold with astonishing speed and London Fire Brigade was called. The Brigade brought 80 fire engines from across London.

By the time the first engines arrived the fire had reached the top floor and was burning on both the High Street and riverside of the warehouse.

Firefighters aimed their hoses at the warehouse from the rooftops of the buildings around it.

The scale of the blaze was enormous, burning 70 or 80 foot high above the building. The flames were from some distance away.

The entire resources of London Fire Brigade were called out and their efforts were focussed on preventing the spread of the flames, though the firefighters were facing problems.

Due to lack of pressure the water was not quite reaching the fire and fire engines heading towards the fire were also delayed by passing ships while crossing the Tower Bridge.

The Massey Shaw - the most powerful fireboat of the time

Three fireboats attended the incident, including the Massey Shaw, which was new and the most powerful of its kind in the world.

The fireboats came down the Thames and tried to get as close to the warehouse as possible, but a large number of barges used for unloading moored ships, were blocking access to the warehouse from the river.

As the tide started going out these barges became very useful as platforms to fight fire from the river side. Firefighters set up ladders and cranes on the barges and effectively tackled the fire from the riverside.

The roof of the warehouse fell in and the fire began to creep relentlessly downward through the floors of the warehouse.

The spectacular flames drew crowds on the side of the river and the high street to see the firefighters in their fireboats fighting the massive fire.

Streams of molten rubber flowed down the streets

Streams of molten rubber from one of the warehouses flowed down the streets blocking the drains while a film of burning rubber spread over the Thames. Firefighters picked their way around the maze of hoses and molten rubber.

The warehouse looked ready to collapse and the fire engines on the nearby streets had to be moved to a safe distance.

200 policemen came in to control the crowds and to move them to safety as well.

The warehouse wall on the riverside collapsed and provided firefighters better access to the fire.

They continued to spray water onto the flames precariously perched on cranes on adjoining wharfs, buildings and the barges on the river.

Newspapers at the time said 600 firefighters, 11 miles of hose, 70 million gallons of water were used, and four days later on 29 September the fire was finally put out. The losses were estimated at one million pounds then.