The “Greatest” Fire of the 19th Century
One Hundred and Fifty-One Years ago today the huge Tooley Street fire of 1861 began.
As the excellent @londonhistorian pointed out earlier today, this was the fire which led to the creation of the first public London Fire Brigade in 1866, and was the “greatest” fire in London since 1666. The fire is famous for a number of reasons, including the death of James Braidwood, the Superintendant of the London Fire Engine Establishment, and also for the fact that it set the Thames alight with burning tallow for two whole weeks. You can find out more about the Tooley Street disaster here.
I have therefore been careful in The Day Parliament Burned Down not to describe the 1834 conflagration at Westminster as the “biggest” fire in London since the Great Fire (although it was still enormous) - that accolade goes to Tooley Street. But 1834 was certainly the “most significant” fire between 1666 and the Blitz because of the huge impact it had: on political life; on the appearance of London; on the neo-Gothic style; on the work of Turner and Dickens; on national recordkeeping; and even on firefighting techniques. In fact, it was after the 1834 fire that the first calls for a publicly-funded metropolitan brigade were heard. Unfortunately, it took the death of James Braidwood at Tooley Street for the government to heed those calls to create the London Fire Brigade, and even then it took five further years of bureaucratic inertia to respond to the crisis. The 1834 catastrophe also had a huge psychological impact on many of the onlookers, and its effects on the fabric of the surviving Palace of Westminster were still being felt well into the 20th century.
So, greatness is both size, or significance, or both: as you prefer!
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