Fires at the wharves and warehouses
|Thomas Ripley's Custom House. © NMM|
The port and the surrounding districts were especially vulnerable to fire. Many volatile and flammable cargoes were brought into the wharves and stored in the neighbouring warehouses.
Thomas Ripley's Custom House was destroyed by a fire in 1814, after a nearby gunpowder store erupted.
The most common fires were those in the riverside warehouses. The worst peacetime fire of all - the Tooley Street fire of 1861 - broke out in a nearby warehouse, packed with jute and other goods.
|The Tooley Street fire. © NMM|
The fire caused damage worth more than £2 million (around £100 million in current prices) and claimed the life of James Braidwood, head of the London Fire Engine Establishment.
|Cotton's Yard after the Tooley Street fire. © NMM|
Not all the warehouse fires were so devastating, but they were very frequent. Here is a selection of 19th century fires at riverside wharves, as depicted by the Illustrated London News.
On 19 August 1843, a huge fire broke out at Topping's Wharf, on the south bank near London Bridge. It destroyed the warehouses and the nearby church of St Olave, Bermondsey.
|The fire at Topping's Wharf, 1843. © NMM|
Another fire destroyed the buildings at Irongate Wharf, in January 1847. Fortunately, the fire did not spread to the nearby warehouses of the St Katharine Docks.
|Ruins of Irongate Wharf, 1847. © NMM|
However, the St Katharine Docks were not so fortunate in January 1866, when a fire gutted the warehouses there.
|The fire at the St Katharine Docks, 1866. © NMM|
A scene of utter devastation at Rotherhithe in December 1871. This engraving shows members of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade inspecting the ruins.
|The Great Fire at Rotherhithe, 1871. © NMM|
|The great fire at Brook's Wharf, 1876. © NMM|
A huge fire at a warehouse at Brook's Wharf, Queenhithe, in June 1876.
Fires in the shipyards and riverside industries
|The explosion at the Samuda Works, Blackwall. © NMM|
The wharves and the warehouses were not the only dangerous parts of the port. The numerous shipyards, workshops and factories along the river increased the risk of fire. In November 1844, a boiler explosion at the Samuda Works in Blackwall killed three workmen and destroyed several buildings.
|The fire at Scott Russell's Yard, 1853. © NMM|
One of the most disastrous fires anywhere in the port occurred in September 1853. Part of John Scott Russell's shipbuilding yard on the Isle of Dogs - where the Great Eastern would soon be built - and the neighbouring Napier's Yard were destroyed.
Distilleries were also prone to fires. The Three Millls Distillery, on the River Lea, suffered a disastrous fire at its granary in August 1920.
|The Three Mills Distillery, August 1920. © NMM|
The Rum Quay fire of 1933
|Clearing up after the fire at the Rum Quay. © NMM|
One of the worst fires in the docks occurred at the Rum Quay, at the West India Docks. This started on 21 April 1933 and took four days to put out.
One of the main sheds and a vault were destroyed, along with 6,500 puncheons (3.1 million litres) of rum.