Saturday 12 April 2014

Great fire at Barclay Perkins

Have I written about this before? I must have, seeing as how cataclysmic an event it was.

In 1832 there was a massive fire in the Park Street premises of Barclay Perkins. Once again, it was malt to blame:
Tuesday evening, about ten minutes after five o'clock, fire broke out at the great brewery of the above eminent firm, near Southwark-bridge, which, for the frightful spectacle which it presented, and the extensive destruction of property which it caused, has not for a long time been equalled in this metropolis. Of all the marly conflicting statements which we have received on the spot of the origin of this terrible, catastrophe (and indeed so bewildered, so absorbed in terror and stupefaction did all seem to be, who witnessed the appalling vision, that it was not easy to collect any information, save what the visible progress of the devastation presented), the following seemed to be supported by the best authority:- The Miller, being obliged to absent himself for a short time from his post, committed his duty to another. A machine, called Jacob's Ladder, which conveys, by means of revolving buckets, the ground malt into the mash-tubs, became deranged in its operation, or had altogether stopped. The man, in whose charge it was left, took a lamp or lantern to the bottom, to examine the cause of the disorder or suspension. Either from accident or a sudden gust air, a spark dropped on the combustible malt-dust lying about. An instantaneous and widespread blaze seized the acrid wood that composed the machinery, and before the men on duty could recover from their consternation, the fire was fed by the susceptible fuel that the heated apartment abundantly furnished. Another version is that the engine Was set on fire by the velocity its own rotatory motion.
Sussex Advertiser - Monday 28 May 1832, page 2.
 A candle igniting malt dust was indeed the cause of the fire.

An enormous number of fire engines and people turned up to help. Doubtless many just wanted to gawk at the spectacle.
"An alarm was spread with the greatest possible promptness; but while fire engines and voluntary thousands were rushing to save the concern, the flames had gained too strorg a position, ln less than one hour about 40 engines arrived, and all the avenues were crowded with a dense mass of men, anxious to lend their aid. A great body was admitted within the gates, others were busy (flanked by a powerful body of police, forming outpost of defence) assisting those who plied at the engines stationed in the streets. London, Southwark, and Blackfriar's bridges were thronged with spectators gazing at the mafnificent but terrible picture.

At half-past six the fire having devoured the boiler apartments, burst into the brewing-house and mounted in a deluge of flame to the roof, which was topped by a cupola 110 feet high. The engines were then brought to bear with all their force upon this part; where the whole power of the fire seemed to beconcentrated. But the volumes of flame that burst through the windows and mounted high above the roof, mocked and baffled the energies of the firemen. The flames soon seized the cupola and soon overtopped it. For about half hour they shot 100 feet over the cupola in one immense column. The wind was quite still, which gave them perpendicular and compact form ; if the wind had been high, the lateral and devious spread of the element, which seemed at this time to rage with unconquerable fury, would undoubtedly have produced the most terrible results to the surrounding buildings ; fortunately, too, from the evenly-ascending direction of the fire, the buttresses of the cupola were consumed at once, and it sunk directly down, with crash of thunder, bearing all the under floors in its course along with it, and raised a shower of sparks that fell thickly on the firemen and spectators. If the cupola had been undermined only at one side, and had fallen over, the havock to human life, in consequence of its elevation, and the condensed multitude in the yard close to the building, not expecting a speedy fall, would have given a most appalling aggravation to this terrible event. The whole brewing house after this was one mass of tire from one end to the other. The engines were then brought to the hard, and continued for at least two hours to discharge torrents of water through the windows and apertures in the walls ; but all efforts were unavailing, neither skill nor power could check the fury of the fire. The immense beams that supported the floorings of this division of the building kept the flame alive for a long time, and when a few of them fell, and by drawing after them the superincumbent mass, formed heap of half-consumed fuel; no strength of water discharged from the engines could quench this compressed mass of burning materials The fire having now borne everything before it, and supplied from this reservoir in the brewhonse, gushed into the stage, where the mashing tuns and wooden machinery were placed, and having consumed these reached the dwelling-house of Mr. F. Perkins, which adjoins it.
Sussex Advertiser - Monday 28 May 1832, page 2.
The brew house sounds well and truly knacked. And it seems miraculous that there weren't any deaths.

The help of bystanders doesn't seem to have always been that, er, helpful:
"Before this, precaution was used to convey all the furniture away ; but from the confusion necessarily incident on such an occurrence, and the intemperate precipitation of the strangers who tendered their services, some valuable pieces of furniture were greatly damaged. They were flung into a little plot of the pleasure ground opposite the house, The main efforts of the firemen and persons employed in the brewery were directed to save the hops and malt-loft. Several thousand hop-bags were flung out of the loft, and rolled to a place of security. The contents of the beer-vats, containing about. 2,000 barrels of beer, were poured out from the cellars to supply the engines.

At eleven o'clock, by the most incredible personal exertion on the part not only of the firemen but of a vast body of persons assembled in the yards (most of whom seemed to us to be persons in a respectable sphere of life), the malt-loft was declared to be out of danger. However, from the immense pile of half-consumed materials that are blazing within a few yards of it, if a breeze should spring up from the south, there must be danger."
Sussex Advertiser - Monday 28 May 1832, page 2.
At least they managed to save the hops. Which were porbably worth a few quid.

Luckily Park Street wasn't Barclay Perkins' only brewery:

“Shortly after 5 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon a fire broke out in the extensive premises of Messrs. Barclay, Perkins & Co.  It spread devastation and caused much alarm in the surrounding district...the fire commenced in an inner quadrangle ... and the flames rapidly a distance of 250 feet.

“Information of the fire had been forwarded to Mr. Barclay, who was attending his Parliamentary duties (Charles Barclay was M.P. for Southwark and subsequently for West Surrey) and that gentleman came on the spot as speedily as possible and gave directions ... One of the squares, containing upwards of 1,000 barrels of beer, burst unexpectedly on a number of firemen .. . and the premises were nearly flooded with beer.  The total amount of damage, in buildings, machinery, etc., is estimated at £40,000.  Messrs. Barclay, Perkins & Co., have another brewery establishment in full operation in Stoney Lane, which, together with the whole of the stock of beer uninjured in Park Street, will enable them to supply their customers as usual.”
The Examiner, quoted in "A Draught of Contentment" by John Pudney, 1971, chapter 7.

40,000 quid was a shitload of damage back then. That sounds like pretty much complete destruction of the Park Street brewery. Luckily, they seem to have been insured.


Anonymous said...

I just love the style of prose.Somehow it paints a more vivid picture than a modern reporter would have painted.
Hope you will be able to weave "superincumbent" into your blog!

Interested to read that "thousands of hop bags" were flung out of the loft: judging by the hop bags I've experienced they would take some flinging!

Martyn Cornell said...

The brewery in Stoney Lane (or at least A brewery in Stoney Lane) was run by Clowes & Co,which merged with/was acquired by Meux & Co of Tottenham Court Road in 1813/14 - I wonder if Barclays had acquired Clowes' old premises ...