Mention the Great Fire of London and most people will nod knowingly, but what about the Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead?
That conflagration, which started on October 6th 1854, wrought devastation on a similar scale and resulted in a greater loss of life, but is little known outside the North East of England.
In 1854 Newcastle and Gateshead, facing each other across the River Tyne, were among the busiest ports in the country, their bustling quaysides lined with warehouses, mills and manufacturers, while the sloping hillsides behind were filled with densely occupied tenemented workers' dwellings. The towns were linked by two bridges less than 100ft apart, the older a nine-arch stone bridge built in 1771 and the newer an ingenious double-decker design by Robert Stephenson, opened just five years previously. It carried a railway on its upper deck and road traffic on the deck below.
On the Gateshead side, close to the old bridge, stood a splendid new mill built for worsted manufacturer Messers Wilson & Son, illuminated by gaslight. It had replaced an earlier mill on the same site which had burnt down on 1851, but the new mill was to meet the same fate, and in the process start a blaze which would leave much of the two towns in smouldering ruins.
It was around half-past midnight on October 6th when the upper storeys of the mill were seen to be alight. People rushed to the building to salvage stock from the lower floors, but the mill housed large quantities of oil used to treat wool and despite the attempts of the North British and Newcastle Fire Brigades, the fire grew.
Nearby was a large seven-storey bond warehouse, storing thousands of tons of sulphur, nitrate of soda and other combustibles. Even though the warehouse was designed to be fireproof, the intense heat from the mill blaze caused the sulphur to ignite, melting and pouring in a burning liquid state from the windows, its blue flames setting light to everything in their path.
Abandoning the mill blaze, the fire fighters focused all their efforts on the warehouse, but it was already too late and when the mill roof collapsed, sending up a cloud of burning embers, the situation worsened. The whole area was illuminated with a lurid purple light from the sulphurous blaze, while the burning sulphur flowed in torrents like lava to spread the blaze.
By now large crowds of spectators had gathered, thronging the bridges and wharves to watch the inferno. They failed heed a series of small explosions, which should have warned them something more dangerous than sulphur was in the fire.
Suddenly there was a huge explosion, bursting open the vaults of the warehouse and heard 20 miles away. Vessels on the river were lifted and the bridges shook, while buildings all around the warehouse collapsed. Debris including huge chunks of granite and timber beams were propelled as far as three-quarters of a mile, including across the river to Newcastle. People living 10 miles away reported feeling the ground shake and thinking it was an earthquake.
Those near the explosion were thrown into the air like rag dolls, with many killed and many more injured. Light from the flames could be seen 50 miles away, in Northallerton, and the explosion crater was later found to measure 50 feet across and 40 feet deep.
Worst of all, the blast tore the roofs off properties in both Gateshead and Newcastle before burning debris rained down on them, beginning countless secondary fires which quickly grew and spread. The Newcastle fire brigades had all been despatched to Gateshead, where many were now buried under the rubble, leaving Newcastle at the mercy of the new firestorm.
Telegraph wires damaged by the explosion were hastily repaired so messages could be sent to neighbouring towns for help. Soon fire brigades from Durham, Hexham, Carlisle, Morpeth and Berwick were rushing to the scene, together with fire fighting boats from Shields and Sunderland and military detachments from across the region.
Throughout the night and into the next day a superhuman effort eventually managed to control the fire, although a stream of burning sulphur setting fire to new properties caused a resurgence on the Gateshead side. It was eventually contained almost 24 hours after the fire had started, with miners and sappers using explosives to create firebreaks.
As the flames dies, the massive scale of the damage on both sides of the river was evident. Even buildings which escaped the flames had been badly damaged by the force of the blast and many had to be torn down. Remarkably, only 53 people were killed, although many more were injured.
An inquiry later blamed the massive explosion on the interaction of sulphur and nitrate of soda, but could not explain the chemical process which led to it. No evidence was found of gunpowder being stored in the warehouse, which many had suspected.