Tower of London

Tower of London Fire – October 30th 1841

“Article from “The Gentleman’s Magazine” Volume XVI dated 1841

The City was alarmed by a destructive fire in the Tower of London. The first discovery was made about half past ten o’clock at night by the sentry at the Jewel Office, who perceived a bright light issuing from the windows of time Round or Bowyer Tower, which is situate at the northern extremity of the fortress, immediately behind the Grand Armoury. He ran to the main guard, and gave the alarm, when the bugles were sounded, and in a short time the whole of the garrison were aroused and called out to render assistance. The engines stationed in the Tower and its neighbourhood were quickly followed by those of the Fire Brigade. The flames had by this time gained a fearful ascendancy, and the fire burst forth from several windows of the Grand Armoury with extraordinary fury, rapidly extending along the roof towards both ends of the building.

By half past twelve o’clock the conflagration had reached to a frightful magnitude, At one o’clock the Clock Tower, together with a great mass of the roof, and some portion of time upper heavy stone work of the building, fell in with a tremendous crash, resembling the firing of heavy artillery. Immediately after this, the flames for some time increased their height, and blew over in the direction of time White Tower, for which great fears were now entertained.

The leaden water pipes, running from the roof, were melted, and the frames of the windows had already ignited, but a plentiful supply of water having been obtained, by great exertion further damage was prevented. The chapel of St. Peter was also on fire, at its northeast cornier, but the flames were arrested.

The Jewel Tower next attracted the attention of the authorities; the wind having somewhat shifted, blew the flames in that direction, and its destruction appeared inevitable. Mr. Swifte, the Keeper of the Jewel House, then determined to remove the Regalia. To elect this, crowbars were found to be indispensable, some of the keys being in the possession of the Lord Chamberlain.

After a lapse of about twenty minutes this was effected, amid a most extraordinary scene presented itself, the warders carrying crowns, sceptres, and other jewels of royalty between groups of soldiers, police, firemen, and others, from the Jewel Tower to the Governor’s residence, which is situate at the further extremity of the green. None, however, sustained the slightest injury; and by dint of most prompt exertion the Jewel Tower itself was saved.

At one time great fears were raised that the Ordnance Office would have caught, in which were above 200 barrels of gunpowder, besides ball-cartridges. The artillerymen were directed to remove them. About 150 barrels were lodged in the magazine; and when they were not able to put any more there, the remainder was hung into the moat.

A new cause of alarm arose for the Map Office, the contents of which were very hastily removed, but the building was saved. Not long before five o’clock, a portion of the upper part of the Round Tower fell down on the roof of the barracks opposite the King’s Head, which drove it in, but without injuring any one. During the entire day of Sunday, the centre of the building presented one body of fire; and it is left a complete shell. A fireman named Wivell was killed by the fall of a large piece of wall, and another had his arm broken.

The building thus destroyed is the Grand Storehouse commenced in the reign of James 2nd and finished in that of William and Mary. It was a fine structure of brick with stone dressings, with an entrance adorned with five Doric columns, and a large pediment, handsomely carved with the royal achievements by Gibbons. The length of the building was 34.5 feet, and its breadth 60. In the lower floor were kept about forty-three pieces of cannon, made by founders of different periods, besides various other interesting objects, and a large number of chests containing arms in readiness for use.

A grand staircase conducted to the upper floor, which was all one room, and called the Small Armoury, in which were above a 150,000 stand of small arms, new flinted, and ready for immediate service. The whole of the staircase is, with the exception of eight brass cannon taken at Waterloo, a mass of rubbish.

The only other relics to be seen from the grand entrance, rearing their heads amidst the ruins, are the large anchor taken at Camperdown, and the huge mortar employed at the siege of Namur in 1695; but some others of the larger articles have since been recovered; and even the copper kettle drums, captured at Blenheim by the Duke of Marlborough, have been dug out very little injured. A brass gun of very beautiful workmanship, which was taken from Malta by the French in 1798, was rescued from the flames; as were the sword and sash of the late Duke of York.

The amount of loss has been much exaggerated. The Ordnance stores destroyed are now estimated at £160,000 to which has to be added a sum of from £50,000 to £100,000 for the restoration of the buildings. It is a source of much congratulation that the historical museum of armour and arms has not partaken in this calamity.

In addition to the Armoury and the Bowyer Tower, three other large buildings have been wholly consumed. The Butler’s Tower, at the east end of the Armoury, a building mach larger than the Bowyer Tower, is completely gutted; as also two warehouses on either side of the Bowyer Tower, one 30 and the other 60 feet in length, containing naval stores, consisting of arms, cutlasses, boarding pikes, etc.

The Superintendent of the Government Stores, and others have visited the Bowyer Tower, in order to examine the Inspection Room, where the fire originated. It was divided by wooden panels into several compartments, in which were deposited arms. This room was over a store, and had a bombproof flooring.

Above it was the celebrated Table Room, in which the Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. On this bomb-proof floor, and in each room, were placed stores, with flues passing along near the panels, one westward and the other eastward, and through the walls of the tower to the roof. The stove on the west side was found standing on the floor in its original position, but that on the east had been broken and thrown on one side by the falling of the materials from above.

The general opinion, at the conclusion of the examination, was that the fire must have originated from one of these stoves.