The Great Gateshead Fire
by Rhonda Handyside
On October 6th 1854 the people of Tyneside believed that the end of the world was upon them. In the early hours an explosion occurred which shook the city of Newcastle upon Tyne and its neighbour Gateshead to their very foundations.
Between midnight and 1am on Thursday 6th October, Police Constable John Ewart of the Newcastle Constabulary spotted flames coming from the upper windows of the Worsted Manufactory of Messrs. Wilson and Sons in Hillgate, Gateshead. As he raced across the old Tyne bridge to raise the alarm, he could never have foreseen the calamitous events to follow.
Private engines assisted by soldiers from nearby barracks fought strenuously to beat back the flames with little success and the fire raged quickly out of control. By 3am the whole range was one immense sheet of fire. Next to Wilson’s stood the warehouse of Bertram and Spencer containing a nightmare cocktail of chemicals and combustible materials. The intense heat from the nearby blaze presented a very real danger.
Crowds assembled at every point where a view could be obtained, enthralled at the spectacle of melted sulphur flowing like lava from Bertram’s. At ten minutes past three several popping sounds were heard but were ignored, before Bertram’s warehouse blasted apart with all the force of an erupting volcano.
Newcastle and Gateshead Great Fire, from the Illustrated London News, 14th October 1854
Crowds on the opposite side of the river were mown down and the old Tyne bridge shook. Huge blocks of masonry, burning timber and red-hot metal were catapulted into the air, cascading down onto people and property with dreadful consequences. Windows shattered and street lamps extinguished. Roofs split open, descending hot sulphur spreading the flames over a wide area, starting new fires.
The shock of the explosion was felt from Blyth in Northumberland to Seaham near Sunderland and in some pit villages it was feared that there had been an explosion underground.
The people were held in a paralysed stupor, broken suddenly by screams and wails as the enormity of the situation was realised. Men, women and children stumbled about in blind panic, bloodied and grimy. Many were seriously injured, some in their night attire, having been shaken from their beds. The tenement housing collapsed, burying occupants. Many of those who had been fighting the fire disappeared under falling debris.
In Hillgate firemen, policemen and volunteers filled the long narrow street. Among them were Charles Bertram, Magistrate of Gateshead, Robert Pattinson, a member of Newcastle Council and Alexander Dobson, the 26-year-old son of famous local architect John Dobson. Placed as they were at the very heart of the explosion, death must have been instantaneous before they were buried under the tons of falling wreckage that filled Hillgate to a depth of several feet.
Casualties were laid out by the old Fish Market. Injuries included burns, impalements and fractures. Elizabeth McMillan, sixteen months old, suffered a fractured skull, bruises and burns but survived. Anne Ludlow,a tripe dealer of Oakwellgate was less fortunate, having ‘her arm torn off by the stone’. She died in Newcastle Infirmary.
Firefighters worked feverishly through the night battling not only the flames but also the suffocating fumes of burning sulphur. However, at sunrise the fire was still advancing on both sides of the Tyne. Appeals for help went out to surrounding towns. Floating engines from Shields and Sunderland were put into use and fire engines from Hexham, Durham, Morpeth and Berwick were brought to Newcastle by rail to replace those lost or crippled.
Nearby St Mary’s church was in great danger from the flames. The ancient structure was only saved from complete destruction by the swift and courageous actions of a certain Mr James Mather, who entered the church armed only with a hose pipe and an axe. Miners and Army Sappers began blowing up buildings in the fire’s path until the flames were gradually brought under control.
At last the full extent of the disaster could be seen. Whole streets were laid waste and on the site of Bertram’s warehouse, a crater over thirty feet deep and fifty feet across scarred the riverside.
Steps could now be taken to recover the bodies of the dead. Of those who perished in Hillgate little remained. Alexander Dobson was only recognised by a piece of his coat and a bunch of keys, his body described as a charred and crumbling mass. Of Charles Bertram JP nothing was found except for a key and a snuff box.
Fifty-three people died that night and over five hundred were injured. At least eight hundred homes and businesses were lost and damage to property totalled around £500,000.
After the explosion, with St. Mary’s Church in the background
In the days following the disaster a relief fund was set up. Churches held special collections and the Theatre Royal in Newcastle organised a charity performance. Private donations included one hundred pounds from Queen Victoria herself. Ten thousand pounds was eventually raised and was paid out at the rate of fifty pounds per family.
Two inquests were held, one in Gateshead and one in Newcastle. Various theories were put forward as to the cause of the fire and subsequent explosion, but no definite conclusion was ever arrived at and an open verdict was declared.
The disaster brought into question the provisions made for fire-fighting in the area. Tragically Robert Pattinson, an active campaigner for the establishment of a town fire brigade in Newcastle died in the carnage that was Hillgate. A programme of redevelopment began under architect John Dobson, a lasting memorial to his lost son.
Traces of the disaster can be seen today. Near the north boundary wall of St Mary’s Church lie rocks and boulders that rained down upon the church from the explosion and set into the wall is a plaque. Inside the visitor centre is a memorial to Charles Bertram JP and another plaque can be seen on one of the supports of the Tyne Bridge, marking the spot where Wilson’s once stood. The disaster itself, along with the people whose lives were changed forever or snuffed out, has largely been forgotten.
By Rhonda Handyside. I am a freelance writer with a passion for history. I live in Blaydon, near Newcastle -upon-Tyne. I’m married to a lovely man and I have a great daughter, son in law and two fantastic grandchildren. I am currently working on a series of children’s adventure series with a historical twist.