Infamous Glasgow Blazes that Made History
There are many terms you could use to describe Glasgow’s history, and one of them would certainly have to be ‘fiery’. Unfortunately, the landscape of the city has always been peppered with tragic fires. Even if the evidence of the tragedy may have disappeared, there are still records and little signs of how fire has changed lives in the city, and we decided to explore a few of the stories in a little more detail.
The Great Fire of Glasgow in 1652
A surprising amount of information can still be found about this historical event, and if you’re interested, have a look at this informative summary. Several years before the Great Fire of London, Glasgow was (albeit a much smaller) town suffering with plagues, and this fire destroyed nearly a third of existing buildings. Many families took shelter in the churches whilst they rebuilt their homes, in those days from wood and with thatched roofs. Following the disaster, officials headed to Edinburgh to find out how to make a “ingyne for slockening of fyre” (or a fire engine, to you and me) and as a preventative measure, the high-risk candlemakers were all sent to the outskirts of the city where any fire hazard could be controlled. We still remember it today as Candleriggs.
Theatre Royal – A Cursed Name?
A popular theatre name up and down the country, Glasgow’s Theatre Royals seem to have courted more drama than most. Various Theatre Royals (those in Queen Street, Dunlop Street, Hope Street) have burnt in Glasgow in 1829, 1840, 1863, 1867, 1879, 1956 and again in 1970. This summary of figures can be seen in more detail here. It is perhaps surprising that one of the most tragic incidents actually involved no fire at all – it was a false alarm but you can hardly blame people for panicking given the history. The Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street was owned by a Mr Henry Alexander, an eccentric actor, in 1849 when a false alarm caused a stampede in which nearly 60 people lost their lives. Alexander was said to be so deeply affected by this that he died of a broken heart a few years later. His impressive grave still stands in the necropolis (pictured above) and if you look closely, you can see the flames licking the bottom of the stage it depicts.
The Cheapside Street Fire/ The James Watt Street Fire
One which still haunts recent memory is the 1960 fire which is considered amongst Glasgow’s worst peacetime fires and claimed the lives of 19 people. The fire exploded due to starting in a warehouse containing millions of litres of whisky and rum, showering the surrounding area with rubble and burning a tobacco factory, an icecream factory and an engine factory in its path. Despite promises being made to prevent further tragedy, a second disaster occurred less than a year later and just a few streets away. An upholstery factory caught fire, and due to having barred windows as it was once a whisky storehouse, 22 people inside died before emergency services could help them escape. As Glasgow was spared much damage during the second world war, it lagged behind other UK cities in terms of buildings which were up to fire safety standards, and narrow streets also helped fires to spread. Glasgow became known as a tinderbox city.
The Art School Fire
On 23rd May 2014, shocked students and bystanders watched as firefighters fought to save the A-listed Glasgow School of Art, which lost its Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed library in a fire. A remarkable amount of the building was saved, but now a debate is ongoing surrounding whether to reconstruct the destroyed library from Mackintosh’s meticulous plans, or go for a slightly different approach. Glasgow will be watching closely as the building is brought back to life, and Project Manager Liz Davidson seems to have a typically Glaswegian approach, no matter how it is executed. “We’re going to rebuild it all with extreme care,” she says, “then hand it over to the students to treat with extreme irreverence.”, she told The Guardian in a recent update on the progress of the rebuild.
A few days ago, Scotway House was set on fire for the last time, as it is now nearly entirely destroyed. Previous arson attempts had left scorch marks, but failed to take hold. The fate of the skeletal remains is now uncertain – the house occupied a piece of land earmarked for development and some have begun to speculate as to what may happen next. Built in 1855, it originally served as a drawing office for the local shipyard, and it was the birthplace of designs for over 30 Anchor Line ships, as well as yachts such as Britannia. Results of a survey concerning the current condition of the house should be available soon. Whether this particular fire will make history, or whether it will be forgotten amidst new builds and gentrification remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, the history of fires in Glasgow includes far more than we have included here, and it generally doesn’t make for cheery reading. However, it is important to pay attention to all the moments that have made Glasgow the city it is today, both good and bad, and safeguard memories for the future, even if the places themselves no longer remain.