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On This Day... 16 November 1824: The Great Fire of Edinburgh

By Alexander Clapperton, November 16, 2014 - 3:29pm
The Great Fire, as seen from the Lawnmarket

Over the course of this evening in 1824, Edinburgh’s most destructive accidental fire reached its climax. It had broken out at around 10pm the previous evening in the workshop of engraver James Kirkwood at the top of Assembly Close, where a pot of linseed oil had been overheated, spilled and set fire to a stack of paper. By morning, the fire had spread most of the way along the close it began in, and by its peak it had spread as far down the Royal Mile as Tron Square, reached uphill to Parliament Square, and extended down Fishmarket Close as far as the Cowgate.

As the city's brand-new companies of firemen (formed that same year by pioneer fire-fighter James Braidwood) desperately fought the blaze, they were hindered by the confusion of the public officials, who gave contradictory orders and caused critical delays. Despite their best efforts, the sheer size of the buildings which were ablaze made it impossible for the firefighters to hold back the inferno. At its peak, as blizzard-like showers of sparks swept through the air and buildings collapsed in clouds of flame, the scene was one of apocalyptic destruction, as the Edinburgh Evening Courant reported:

"The fire however spread resistlessly… The roof of the adjoining house on the east side of the Square first appeared in a flame, and the fire afterwards broke out in the angle towards the Square from the windows and shop doors. From these it ascended in one continuous blaze up the front of the building; and about five o' clock in the morning all the eastern side of the Square, not consumed by the recent fire (of June last) presented one huge burning tower, the beams crashing and falling inwards, and every opening and window pouring forth flame. The scene was now awfully grand; and could we have divested ourselves of the thoughts of the losses, and hardships, and ruin, which attended the progress of the conflagration, we could not have been placed in a situation where we could have derived such a portion of sublime enjoyment.

"The whole horizon was completely enveloped in lurid flame. Spinicular columns of flame shot up majestically into the atmosphere, which assumed a dusky, reddish hue; dismay, daring, suspense, fear, sat upon different countenances, intensely expressive of their various emotions; the bronzed faces of the firemen shone momentarily from under their caps as their heads were raised at each successive stroke of the engines; and the very element by which they attempted to extinguish the conflagration seemed itself a stream of liquid fire.

"The clattering of the horses hoofs and the light reflected from their riders swords added a kind of martial terror to the scene, and when we beheld the whole, surrounded either with burning piles or with edifices that reflected a light more fearful than even that which was thrown upon them, we felt a thrill of mingled fear and admiration. The County Hall at one time appeared like a palace of light; and the venerable steeple of St. Giles’s reared itself amid the bright flames like a spectre awakened to behold the fall and ruin of the devoted city."

Despite the best efforts of the firefighters, sparks blown by the wind enveloped the Tron Kirk, causing its spire to ignite. Soon afterwards, citizens were faced with the additional hazard of literal streams of molten lead pouring from the roof, as it melted in the ferocious heat. As the evening wore on, the firefighters began to make headway in beating back the flames (in part due to the fire having reached a broad thoroughfare in every direction, which worked as firebreaks). A helpfully-timed shower of sleet contributed to the quenching of the blaze, and by the next morning it was contained, though it continued to burn until the end of the 17th.

In all, twenty-four tenement blocks comprising some four hundred homes and dozens of businesses were completely destroyed by the Great Fire, and another building had to be demolished by cannon-fire on the 18th, to prevent it from collapsing on its own and causing further destruction. The Tron Kirk was partly saved, though not before its spire had collapsed completely, the great bell crashing down through the building with a terrifying noise. Thousands of people were made homeless, and the total cost to the city was two hundred thousand pounds. Despite the destruction, only 13 people lost their lives (two of them firemen).

Praise was lavished on the new Fire Company which, regardless of its lack of equipment and incomplete training, and in spite of the interference of incompetent officials, had ultimately prevented the fire from consuming most of the southern half of the city. New laws were enacted providing greater resources and giving the Fire Master sole command of Edinburgh's firemen in the event of such an emergency. Perhaps thanks to these measures, such a conflagration as the Great Fire never troubled the city again.