It was Tuesday 7 November 1837. At about ten past eleven on that clear November night John Wren was getting ready for bed in his home on the corner of Gloucester Square and Southampton High Street. A window was open in an upstairs room and Wren thought he could smell smoke. He peered out into the night and saw a faint column rising up above the houses. He went to another window and was greeted by the sight of flames. Wren called out, and his alarm pierced the quiet of the night.
The origin of the fire was a building a few doors down, a large warehouse belonging to King, Witt and Co. The building was brick fronted and it stood around twenty yards back from the pavement of the High Street. It was a building of considerable size, four storeys tall with a basement. King, Witt and Co. were merchants and so a wide range of goods were stored inside its walls, from vast amounts of lead to combustible articles such as gunpowder, oil, and turpentine.
By the time Wren arrived at the scene a crowd had gathered, and it appeared to them that the fire was coming from the stables at the back of the warehouse. It was not a large fire at this point in time, but it was slowly spreading. The first fire engine arrived after about an hour, and at intervals of ten minutes a second and third engine appeared. The engines however were ill-equipped, all lacking the amount of water needed to tame the flames which by now had spread further. People in the ever-growing crowd helped pass along buckets of water from neighbouring houses to the firemen, whilst other men entered the warehouse to retrieve important documents and papers. Volunteers then began removing some of the goods from the warehouse, including the gunpowder, so that it wouldn’t cause any further damage. This remained the scene until around one in the morning.
Those endeavouring to remove as much as possible may not have been aware of the fire spreading throughout the building. The firemen laboured to extinguish the flames, but they found their jobs increasingly difficult with a less than sufficient water supply.
All of the gunpowder was eventually removed from the premises. Next, the men tried to remove the turpentine by lowering the glass bottles through trapdoors in the floor. When a handle on one of the bottles broke, the rope slipped, and the bottle smashed on the floor below, spreading its flammable contents everywhere.
It was shortly after this that the first in a series of violent explosions rocked the building. Burning matter had reached the turpentine and it set the fluid alight in an instant, causing a huge blast that threw men into walls and through doors and windows. The second explosion followed a minute later, it was one that lit up the entire ground floor. To their horror, witnesses in the crowd outside could see men writhing in agony on the inside. The third explosion caused the entire front of the building to burst out and collapse. For a while the floors remained propped up but after a short while they too collapsed, leaving nothing but a glowing tangle of ruins.
Volunteers helped clear the wreckage for days after the fire, and the good people of Southampton came together to discuss how they could help the families of the victims. Tragically, the death toll continued to rise as more bodies were pulled from the building, and more men died from the injuries they had sustained in the explosions.
The deaths of twenty-two local men and boys had a profound effect on the town. The mayor, Joseph Lobb, who had been in the crowd when the fire was raging, led the efforts to help the families. A town meeting was called where ‘all religious and political differences were merged in the desire to bind up the wounds of the sufferers, and to heal the sorrows of the widow and orphan’. Thousands of pounds were eventually raised, including a donation from a young Queen Victoria.
The survivors and victims alike were hailed as heroes for removing so much of the flammable material. Had they not done so, the fire could have been so much worse and it could potentially have destroyed the entire neighbourhood. The fact that it was restricted to such a small area was put down to the actions of these brave men. In May 1838 eleven men were presented with silver medals in an attempt to recognise their bravery.
It was also decided that two memorial tablets should be placed on the front of Holyrood Church on Southampton High Street in order to forever remember those who died. Theses tablets were unveiled in July 1838. With a list of the victims and their ages, the tablets read:
Sacred to the memory of twenty two brave and disinterested men commemorated by name in a corresponding tablet who in attempting to check the ravages of a calamitous fire in this parish on the night of November the 7th 1837 either perished in the flames or survived but a short time the injuries they received. The sympathizing public who have protected the widows and orphans of those who had families. Erect this grateful but melancholy memorial of their intrepidity, their sufferings, and their awfully sudden removal in to an eternal state. Prepare to meet thy God. Amos. 4. 12.
This tablet is a memorial of the names of the sufferers [see image below]…
Boast not thyself of tomorrow: For thou knowest not what a day may bring forth. Proverbs. 27. 1.
The tablets on Holyrood Church were in place for one hundred and two years before the church itself faced destruction at the hands of the Luftwaffe in 1940. The ruins of the church are still standing today, dedicated as a memorial to the Merchant Navy and as a reminder of the destruction of the Second World War. The tablets survived the Blitz and were restored in 1985, they continue to serve as a reminder of the 1837 fire and those who died fighting it.
Hampshire Advertiser – 18 November 1837, 25 November 1837, 5 May 1838, 28 July 1838