PortCities London

Fires in the port

Fires in the port

Fires at the wharves and warehouses

A view of the Custom House.
View full size imageThomas 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 Tooley Street fire.
View full size imageThe Tooley Street fire. © NMM
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.

Cotton's Yard after the Tooley Street fire.
View full size imageCotton's Yard after 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.



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.

The great fire near London Bridge.
View full size imageThe fire at Topping's Wharf, 1843. © NMM
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.

Ruins of Irongate Wharf after the late fire.
View full size imageRuins of Irongate Wharf, 1847. © 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.  

Scene of the Great Fire at the St. Katharines Dock.
View full size imageThe fire at the St Katharine Docks, 1866. © NMM
However, the St Katharine Docks were not so fortunate in January 1866, when a fire gutted the warehouses there.




The Great Fire at Rotherhithe.
View full size imageThe Great Fire at Rotherhithe, 1871. © 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 Brook's Wharf, Queenhithe.
View full size imageThe 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.
View full size imageThe 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 at Millwall.
View full size imageThe 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.

Three Mills Distillery granary fire, August 1920.
View full size imageThe Three Mills Distillery, August 1920. © NMM
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 Rum Quay fire of 1933

Clearing up after the fire at the Rum Quay.
View full size imageClearing 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.


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