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Customs House Fire

Customs House Fire

Saturday 12th February 1814, about six o’ clock a dreadful fire broke out in the Custom House, in Lower Thames Street, which burnt with great fury, and in a few hours destroyed that old but useful pile of building. The fire is supposed to have originated in a flue belonging to one of the rooms in the eastern wing of the building adjoining the apartments occupied by Miss Kelly, the housekeeper.

On the first alarm, her brother (Col. Kelly, late of the guards) who occasionally slept there, hurried to his sister and found her in such a senseless state from the fright, that it was with extreme difficulty he could drag her out almost naked. As the flames were this time were beginning to rage with great fury, he was much scorched in his effort, and was obliged to be conveyed in a blanket to the Rev. Mr. White’s on Tower Hill, where shelter and assistance had been afforded to his sister. The engines arrived soon after seven o’ clock. About eight the flames had obtained such a great ascendancy, that all attempts to save the Custom-house were abandoned. The exertions of the firemen and others were then directed to the warehouses and other buildings on both sides of the street, when a report was circulated that many barrels of gunpowder were deposited in the vaults, and that consequently an explosion might soon be expected. This report had nearly a magical effect. All withdrew to a distance, both firemen and spectators. At half-past nine the report which had been circulated was confirmed not to have been an idle one. The explosion of about two barrels and a half of gunpowder was tremendous. The shock was distinctly felt on the Royal Exchange, and by persons who came to London by the Whitechapel Road; it was felt four miles in that direction. Many of the buckets were carried as far as Billingsgate; and one man was hurt or killed by two bricks falling on his head. The concussion spread devastation around the neighbourhood breaking many windows in Cannon Street, East Cheap and the adjoining streets, and exciting in the breasts of the inhabitants apprehensions of the complete destruction of that quarter of the City. Merchants were seen in all directions giving orders for the removal of stores from different warehouses, and every individual who happened to possess property, however trifling, near the scene of destruction, was most anxious in his endeavours to remove it to a place of comparative safety.

The flames soon communicated to the houses in Thames Street opposite the Custom House, and embraced, in a short time, warehouses in Globe Yard, and the whole of the tenements extending from Beer Street to Water Lane from which it required the utmost activity of the inmates to escape, not with their property but with their lives. Numbers of individuals were severely scorched; while others in a state almost of nudity were seen rushing in search of a place of shelter. Among the more remarkable escapes, were those of the storekeeper and his family, who, but for the assistance of a fire-ladder, and the prompt exertions of a fireman, must have perished in the flames.

At one o’clock the whole of the Custom House and the adjoining warehouses were completely reduced to ashes; and the food of the flames having been at that side exhausted, the attention of the firemen and their assistants was directed to other quarters, where they were enabled to render the most effectual assistance, and before three, all fear of the further extension of the flames had subsided.

Ten houses opposite the Custom House were burnt down by two o’clock. Among them were Holland’s Coffee House, the Rose and Crown, and Yorkshire Grey Public Houses and the King’s Arms Public House much damaged. The gunpowder which is said to have been deposited in the Armoury of the Custom House volunteers; there were deposited there likewise 500 stand of arms, 500 suits of clothing, etc.

A female servant of Miss Kelly jumped out of two-pair of stairs window: she was much hurt, and carried to St Thomas’s Hospital in a lifeless state.

The East India and Custom House corps of volunteers were soon after the bursting out of the flames, and by their unceasing attention prevented much of that plunder and confusion which would have otherwise prevailed. They formed lines across the different avenues which led to the flames, and would on no pretence whatever suffer the crowd to approach.

The books and papers of the Searchers’ office, on the quay, were saved: they were conveyed out of the windows, and put on board a lighter lying alongside. In the Surveyor’s office some books were preserved; but in the Secretary’s office from being so close to the Storekeeper’s apartments, few if any documents were saved, and consequently the bonds in the Coast Bond office were lost. In the long room, the objects so important in a national point of view, the books and some of the documents of the collector outwards, were saved; but it is feared that those belonging to the collector inwards are lost. These documents were many of them of great age.

The actual loss to government by the sudden destruction of the Custom House cannot be calculated; books, bonds, debentures, pearls, coral, valuable property of every description and securities of all kinds have been consumed. Business is and must remain quite at a stand for some time; numerous vessels ready to sail cannot clear out, and consequently the injury to the mercantile world will be most severe and distressing. The private property lost within the buildings is very considerable: several gentlemen had left large sums of money in their desks, ready to make payments on the following day. One individual has lost upwards of six thousand pounds in bank notes, which will be irrecoverable, as the memorandum of the numbers was in the desk with the notes and met the same fate.

A very fine collection of pictures was also lost, which the Commissioners had permitted a gentleman to leave in deposit till it would be convenient for him to pay the duties, amounting to one thousand five hundred pounds. A genteel young man, in appearance, was stopped by some police officers, in Thames Street and, on searching him, his pockets and breeches were found to be stuffed with coral beads, silk handkerchiefs, and other valuables of small bulk. It appeared that his boldness in venturing nearer than even the firemen dared to do, had enabled him to obtain this booty.

The explosion of the gunpowder carried the burnt papers, ships registers, and a variety of matter, as far as Dalston, Shacklewell, Homerton, Hackney, and all the adjoining villages in the direction of the wind. A bundle of signed debentures is said to have been picked up by a gentleman at as great a distance from the scene of destruction as Spital Square.

The following additional particulars have been communicated with regard to this lamentable event:-

The fire broke out at a quarter past six o’clock in the morning and it is understood to have originated from a fire flue of one of the offices of business, adjoining a closet attached to the housekeeper’s apartments. This closet was on the two-pair of stairs.

From the time of the morning at which it began, and from the instant burst of flame from the back part of the building, there can be little doubt of the fire having been slumbering in a latent state throughout the principal part of the previous evening.

The porter of the house was the first person who discovered. He was going up the stairs to a key to admit him, as usual, to a part of the house that communicated with the offices, and when on the second floor he heard a crackling of fire, and saw a flame breaking from the ceiling; he instantly rushed into the room which was that in which Colonel Kelly slept, whom he found standing by the bed feet, the curtains in a blaze, and the flame pouring from the above-mentioned closet. By this time the whole room was on fire, and a Mr Drinkald had given the alarm from the quay, towards which the windows of this room looked. The porter proceeded to call up the servants and the family; the Colonel ran into a room adjoining his own which was fronting the street: he was saved by a ladder with the greatest difficulty and shockingly burnt in the face and hands.

The account he gives is, that he was awakened by a smoke which filled his room, and almost in a state of suffocation he arose and opened his closet, for the purpose of getting at his dressing-gown, that he might hasten to alarm the family; but immediately upon opening his closet, a volume of flame burst forth – the curtains of the bed and those of the windows caught fire, and thus encompassed with the blaze, he was found by the porter. It appears that in this closet there was formerly a fireplace, which, for a long time, had been boarded up, the flue of which was connected with another in an office below. The Miss Kellys most narrowly escaped, with only the covering of blankets; and Captain Hinton Kelly made his way through the fire with his sisters in the same unprovided state. The Captain had but the day before returned from Brighton where he had been for recovery of his health, which had suffered greatly in consequence of the long service in the West Indies.

Most of the servants had previously fled to the top of the house, from which they were taken down by ladders. It is to be deplored that an orphan girl whom Miss Kelly had brought up in her service with another whom she was also about to provide for the in the same manner, perished in the flames. Miss Kelly, by her shrieks, endeavoured to awaken them, for which it was impossible for her to reach the chamber in which they slept.

The Colonel, at the moment, was carried to Mr Lingham’s in Beer Lane, and the injuries he has received make it dangerous to remove him for the present; this added to a severe asthmatic complaint which he caught in the retreat under Sir John Moore, and which was much increased by the Walcheren fever, renders his recovery very doubtful. Miss Kelly and her family have lost every part of their property that was in the house. Nothing was insured.

The fire, according to the report of the firemen, would have been got under very soon, but the explosion of the gunpowder having struck terror into the men who worked the engines, they fled and left the flames for some time to rage uncontrolled. This powder was for the use of the volunteer corps, and did not, and is now said, amount to a larger quantity than ten or twelve pounds; but the assertion that there were as many barrels, threw an instant panic on all round, and throughout the neighbourhood. Certain, however, it is, that had not this explosion taken place, the fire would not have spread. As it is, there is great consolation in knowing that many of the important papers of the office have been recovered ; and several chests of valuables, with the principal records, have been saved. No delay will take place in the progress of business.

The first Custom House built in London was in 1559, 225 years ago; it was burnt down in 1718, and rebuilt in the same year; and it was on Saturday 12th February, again totally consumed by fire. The first Custom House, therefore, stood 159 years; the second, which was burnt down on Saturday, stood 96 years.