Colonial Wharf Fire

The
second big fire of 1935 was described as “one of the fiercest and most
spectacular fires seen in London for many years”, even after the gas wor
ks blaze a few months earlier.
The fire
was detected at about 3.30 in the afternoon of Wednesday the 25th September,
when a “curling wisp of smoke” was seen coming from one of the upper
windows of the warehouse. Soon after the smoke was spotted, a glimpse of flame could
be seen through the windows and the alarm was raised and the building was
cleared of workers.

A  map of the area in 1926.

Colonial Wharves sit on the riverside,
in the centre of the picture

The
warehouse was 7 floors high and was part of stretch of warehouse on Wapping
High Street owned by Colonial Wharves Limited and was described as the largest
warehouse complex on that part of the river. The warehouse had only been built
two years earlier (though the name Colonial Wharves had been present on the site for many years), and stored rubber, tea and oriental goods. Its location was
broadly where Cinnabar Wharf is today.

The Times
reported that the warehouse was in what was known as “the danger zone”,
presumably referring to the number of warehouses with precious (and potentially
flammable) goods stored within. As a result, a district call was circulated
immediately (requesting support from across the district and not just the home
station), but the flame took hold with astonishing speed and very shortly a
brigade call (requesting support from across the brigade) was sent out, bringing
pumps from across London.
By the
time the Fire Brigade arrived, the fire had reached the top floor and was
burning on both the High Street and riverside of the warehouse. Tall water
towers were set up along the High Street, and hoses were aimed at the warehouse
from the surrounding roofs.
The scale
of the blaze was such that despite the entire resources of the London Fire
Brigade being called out for a long time the fire was beyond their control, and
their efforts were focussed on preventing the spread of the flames, which were
described as as burning some 70 or 80 foot high above the building, burning like
a great brazier and visible from some distance away.

(L) Fire from the riverside; (R) From the landside

However,
deployment by the Fire Brigade was not without problem and various appliances
were held up by both mechanical failure and misfortune. The local firemen first
on the scene complained of a lack of sufficient pressure, with the water
falling short of the fire. However, this was compounded by the delay
experienced by back-up appliances arriving, as pumps heading over Tower Bridge were
held up by the passage of shipping, which not only made it necessary to open
Tower Bridge, but then once across the river, swing bridges over Wapping High
Street had been opened to allow ships in an out of the docks. All the while,
the fire was growing in ferocity.
In
addition to appliances on the landside three fire-fighting river floats,
including the new craft Massey Shaw, described as one of the most powerful of
its kind in the world, came down the Thames. and got as close as they could,
pumping river water onto the fire. However, as with the land appliances the
river appliances did not enjoy plain sailing.

The Massey Shaw
Photo courtesy of the Massey Shaw Education Trust

On
arriving at the scene the fireboats found a large number of lighters (barges
used for unloading moored ships) blocking access to the warehouse from the
river. However, the lighters found new purpose, as when the tide started going
out, the fireboats were forced away from the warehouse and into the middle of
the river. The enterprising men of the London Fire Brigade took adversity by
the hand and used the lighters as a platform to fight the fire from, hooking up
longer hoses to the fireboats sat in the middle of the river.
The Times
reported that a little more than an hour and a half after it was first detected
the roof of the warehouse fell in and the flames roared up to a great height,
and at the same time the fire began to creep relentlessly downward through the
floors of the warehouse.
Great
crowds massed on the Bermondsey side of the river to see the spectacle of the
fireboats fighting the massive fire, whilst pleasure boats filled up with
people seeking the best view point of the fight. Interest did not subside as
the sunset and in the evening men and women in evening dress were spotted
leaving theatres and heading over to Tower Bridge to watch the fire.
The Chief
Officer of the Fire Brigade, Major Morris, was in command, and led the
operation using a megaphone. Major Morris’ position was marked out by a flashing
red electric light, which was ineffectual given the dense smoke drifting over
his position and the smoke formed clouds that cut out sunlight enveloping
Wapping in penumbra.
Keen to
engage his students in fire safety, Mr. J. R. Lilly, the headmaster of Hermitage
elementary school for boys, perhaps with a cavalier attitude, marched the boys
onto the street to watch the fire and proceeded to lecture them on fire drills
and precautions against fire.
The
police formed a cordon keeping a long section of the High Street clear for the
firemen, but large crowds gathered wherever it was possible to get a glimpse,
and there was some alarm among residents in dwellings in the neighbourhood, who
anxiously watched for any possibly dangerous change in the direction of the
wind.
The Times
said that with the fire burning furiously “the scene as night fell was
remarkable, and in a sense magnificent…the top three floors of the building
were still burning furiously, as though the concentrated force of a score of
jets of water thrown through the shattered windows at the front and rear had
had no effect whatever, and the flames were steadily working downward and even
appearing fitfully through the windows of the adjoining block”.

The warehouse’s structural integrity looked increasingly vulnerable, and all but one of the fire
engines had to be moved away from the warehouse incase the wall fell down.
Despite the danger, hoses continued to feed water onto the flames from the
pavement opposite and from the roofs of surrounding building. So many hoses
were in use that firemen had to pick their footing carefully in the small gaps
between hoses to make their way up and down the street.

Picture courtesy of the Massey Shaw Education Trust
Those  fears
of the building’s collapse were well founded. At about 7 o’clock a huge crane
on the river front of the building, collapsed and crashed on to the lighters on
the foreshore in front of the warehouse. With the crane came falling masses of
flaming rubber which set fire to the lighters, momentarily requiring the
fireboats to redirect their attentions to the lighters that had been providing
a platform to fight the fire from.
Then,
sometime later, the end wall of the warehouse began to struggle. The Times
reported that “a large portion of one of the flank walls fell with a roaring noise
and with the renewed burst of flame went up a fountain of sparks which was
carried half a mile or more high up in the wind”.
It was
expected that the fire would burn all night, and, to meet the emergency, the
Chief Officer took the unusual step of retaining both the day and the night
watches of the Brigade on duty. In trying conditions one fireman was reported
to have broken an arm while running to avoid some falling wreckage, and another
had gashed his thumb.
By 11.30pm
the fire was blazing more furiously than ever and had made its way to the
ground floor. By this point much of the riverside and side walls had collapsed,
but still the High Street wall stood seven floors tall, some eight hours after
the fire had broken out.
As time
passed, so returned the tide and two of the fire boats were able to move in
range of the warehouse, “throwing tons of water under tremendous pressure on to
the flames” albeit “without apparent result”.
However,
by midnight the fire brigade were achieving “some slight effect”, and by 12.30
a.m. it was declared to under control and unlikely to spread further. However,
the fire continued to burn.
The firemen had been successful at keeping the fire within
the one warehouse. Although at one point it spread into an adjacent tea
warehouse. They were quickly prevented from spreading beyond the wall.
Firemen with “half a lifetime’s experience had never seen a
fire so stubborn”. For much of the day the wind had been kind, but a change of
direction forced smoke down and along the High Street and keeping the firemen in
a dense fog with the searchlights placed to direct the aim of the hoses making
pale gleams in the darkness.
From time to time thunderous crashes were heard, telling of
the collapse of floors within the building or of further pieces of the outer
wall. On the riverside the scene of ruin was even more, complete. Most of the
riverside wall fell down and at low tide its wreckage lay on the mud mixed with
that of the giant crane, smashed lighters and masses of crude rubber.
Superintendent Breaks, Chief of the Sheffield Fire Brigade
happened to be in London at the time and was provided a uniform by the London
Fire Brigade. Part of the reason that the riverside, and not the High Street
facing wall collapsed may possibly be attributed to the sheer power of the
Massey Shaw’s pumps:
Over a hundred firemen were
still at work. And they had literally, literally cut the building apart with
the aid of a jet three inches in diameter from a fire float, Massey Shaw, named
after London’s first Fire Chief.
“The pressure on this jet
was so great that masonry weighing half a ton was washed away with it. From a
150-feet crane we looked down upon the 100-feet high flames which were still
raging when I left.
However, whilst this might seem to be a defect in the
equipment, The Times reported this to be exactly was was needed:
Yesterday the efforts of the
firemen who have been engaged for the last three days in combating the fire
were directed to battering down the remains of the dividing wall between the
back of the warehouse and the river, so that the fire floats could swamp the
interior of the building. Powerful jets of water were hurled against the wall,
which held out for some time before collapsing and giving the lines of hoses
more direct access.
The rubber which had not burnt melted and dribbled into the
river on one side and the High Street on the other. The Age reported the drains
became blocked from the rubber pouring in and Superintendent Breaks that as he
approached the building at first the ground was sticky with molten rubber, and
as he advanced the depth of the molten mass became greater until he was wading
up to our knees.
The sheer volume of water needed, estimated as some millions
of gallons, meant that the water supply of residents nearby was severely
reduced a state of affairs that lasted for several days as the firemen
continued to extinguish the last of the fire.
Even before the fire was out, insurance underwriters were notified
of possible losses under a large number of contracts. Initial estimates of
losses were £60,000 of rubber for two specific contracts, £18,000 on copper and
a substantial amount of spelter (zinc or a zinc alloy). In total it was
estimated that 2,000 tons of rubber had been destroyed and about 1,000 tons
damaged. Newspaper estimates put the loss at between £250,000 and £1 million.
Over the operation, 400 firemen had been deployed, with most
wearing gasmasks. The fire burned from Wednesday 25th of September
until Sunday 29th of September and the Fire Brigade did not leave
until the 1st of October. The entire reserve stock of fire hose was
used by the Fire Brigade in attending the fire and required special
authorisation by the Deputy Chair of the LCC for the Fire Brigade to spend
£1,800 on replacement hose. 22 million gallons of water was pumped from the
land side and a phenomenal 48 million gallons from the fire floats. To pump
this amount of water the fire engines used 6,781 gallons of petrol and the
boats used 3,395 gallons of vaporizing oil and 870 gallons of diesel. To keep
all those pumps working some 250 gallons of lubricating oil and 56lb of grease
was required, indicating the workload put on the engines. In total 11 miles of
hose was in use.

The long task of rolling up the 11 miles of fire hose.

Further
amounts of rubber must have been lost to the river, and enterprising denizens
down river appear to have taken it upon themselves to assist with clearing up
the lost rubber. Henry Brown, 37, of Baring Road, Lee, Walter Henry Donnelley,
28, of Sunfields Place, Blackheath, both marine store dealers, and Daniel
Costin, 38, waterman, of Highbridge, Greenwich, found themselves in front of
the Magistrate on the 1st of October and were remanded on a charge
of stealing by finding or feloniously receiving 16 bales of raw rubber, valued
at £50.
One happy
story following the fire was that several days after the fire first broke out,
a cat and two kittens were found in the wine vault of the warehouse, safe and
sound despite the blazing fire taking place immediately above them. Even after
the fire was out wildlife continued to be affected. A policeman on duty in Old
Gravel Lane (Garnet Street), saw a swan standing on a log of wood in Shadwell
Basin plucking at the feathers on its breast, which were smothered in a thick
black substance similar to oil. The officer contacted the RSPCA. The RSPCA
attended and caught the swan with a rope and took it Putney, where it was
discovered that the substance with which the bird was covered was liquid
rubber, which had formed a black patch on the water which the bird had landed
on. The King’s Swan Master reported treating several swans which had been
similarly affected.

After WW2, part of the warehouse and others laid in ruins.

After WW2, the part of Colonial Wharves that didn’t burn
in the fire suffered from bombing and lost its roof.

News Reels

See also these links to contemporary news reels.

News Reel 1
News Reel 2

Sources:

LFB
The Times
The Age
Spokane Daily Chronicle
Sheffield Fire Brigade History
Isle of Dogs Life (modern photos of Massey Shaw)
A big thanks to the Massey Shaw Education Trust for giving permission to use some of their photos. Visit their site to find out more about the now restored fire boat.

Photos

The LFB have a good selection of photos on their site here  a few watermarked photos are shown below. Unfortunately the LFB haven’t responded to my request to licence some photos so I can’t include any here.

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