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Royal Exchange, London 1838

At about half past ten on the 10th January 1838, a very cold and frosty night, one of the Bank of England watchmen gave the alarm from what proved to be one of the most spectacular fires of the 19th century - the fire at the Royal Exchange in the City of London.

Origin of the Fire

Unfortunately there was no watchman attached to the Royal Exchange at this time, and it is thought that the fire had been raging for at least two hours before the alarm was given. However, within an hour of the alarm, nearly a hundred firemen with about twenty five engines were on the spot. some delay was occasioned by the fact that the courtyard gates were closed and it was some time before entry could be forced: further, owing to the extreme cold, the hoses and works of the engines had to be thawed out before they could be put into operation.

Premises Involved

By the time the brigades got to work the fire had secured a firm hold in the north west corner of the Exchange (occupied by Lloyd's Coffee House) and was spreading in a westerly direction, steadily consuming a long range of offices which belonged to the Royal Exchange Assurance. Cornhill was at this time a residential area, and the fire soon attracted crowds of people who flocked into the streets, in spite of the intense cold.

The Lord Mayor was present and men of the first battalion of the Grenadier Guards came from the Tower of London for guard duty until nine o'clock the following morning, the 11th January. They were then relieved by the ward officers of the city who had not been on duty during the night, a number of special constables and nearly the entire force of the City day police. The bridges over the Thames were crowded with people, and flames were visible at Windsor Castle, twenty four miles from Cornhill. On the high lands of Surrey the fire was observed by the country people.

The Clock Tower

At one o'clock in the morning of the 11th January the north and west sides of the quadrangle were wholly in flames and the fire was rapidly approaching the clock tower. This tower caused much anxiety throughout the whole period of the fire, since had it fallen it would undoubtedly have destroyed the houses opposite, and probably caused great havoc amongst the crowds in the street. With this in mind the Lord Mayor ordered the inhabitants to leave their homes and go to the rectory of the nearby St Michael's Church, which was also used for storing valuable contents of the shops which were in danger. As an appropriate accompaniment to the extraordinary spectacle before them the crowd was no treated to an unexpected musical item. By some curious freak, the bells suddenly started to chime, and a tune they played, ironically enough, was "There's nae luck about the house". They played thus for fully five minutes until the fire reaching the tower, the mechanism was destroyed, and the bells fell with a crash, one after another into the flames below, carrying away everything in their progress towards the pavement within the central entrance. Soon the interior of the tower became filled with flames and the crowd's attention was caught by the huge face of the clock, which was glowing red hot and was a most impressive sight. It is also said that all the statues round the walls of the Great Hall fell down and were destroyed, the only one to remain standing being that of Sir Thomas Gresham, who built the first Exchange in the reign of Elizabeth.

Fire Fighting

By half past three in the morning the flames had reached the east side of the Exchange, threatening the destruction of the shops and houses in Sweeting's Alley. The people on both sides of the alley succeeded in removing most of their furniture and goods, and the firemen managed to get on to the roofs of the houses of the side of the alley farthest from the fire, directing their hoses on the shops and houses below. But it was impossible to save even the eastern wing of the Exchange, where the flames were spreading from floor to floor, and within a few hours it was reduced to ruins.

Curious Incidents

The fire raged on throughout the early morning of the 11th January and when daylight came the streets were still thronged with people. At one point a bag of twenty sovereigns was blown out of a window and rapidly picked up by the crowd. Later on in the morning firemen succeeded in rescuing a safe containing Lloyd's secretaries' books in addition to cheques and bank notes of considerable value. The bank notes were burnt and when the drawers of the safe were opened "the air rushing in upon the tender fragments blew them about". According to the same contemporary account these cinders were collected carefully and the numbers and dates traced.

Extent of the Fire

By about midday on the 11th the fire was under control and, according to the report of James Braidwood, the superintendent of the London Fire Brigade, the buildings destroyed were the Royal Exchange, the Royal Exchange Assurance office, the Gresham Committee rooms, Lloyd's rooms and the Lord Mayor's offices. An inquiry was held into the fire but without any positive result. It is thought that the cause was an overheated stove in Lloyd's rooms. Fortunately there was only one casualty, a man who had his legs broken by a falling chimney.

Criticism of Fire Fighting

In spite of the difficulties with which the firemen had to deal, notably the extreme cold which froze their equipment, and the fact that the fire had been raging for the best part of three hours before they could tackle it, the fire fighting system was severely criticised in the press. It was alleged that there were neither firemen nor fire engines sufficient to combat such a vast fire and that the engines were frequently at a standstill for want of sufficient hands. It was suggested that a liberal supply of refreshment would have encouraged a number of labourers to work with greater energy, instead of dropping off one by one as they did. It was also urged that a corps of firemen and watermen with sufficient number of engines should be maintained for the special protection of the City area, consisting of the East India House, the Customs House, the Mansion House, the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England, the Excise Office, the South Sea House, the Guildhall and the Courts of Justice. The periodical John Bull was even more forthright and stated on the 14th January 1838 that "had the engines been in property order or capable of throwing as great a body of water as the old fire engines used to, a great portion of the ancient fabric could have been saved. At the west and south ends some of the engines could not throw the water higher than the first floor, and even then they were unable to break a single pane of glass by the mere force of the water, and ice and stones had to be used for that purpose. Although about twenty five engines were employed, for what good they did they might not have been."

Historical Points

This was the second destruction of the Royal Exchange. The first took place in the Great Fire of 1066 and the new building that arose thereafter was attributed to Christopher Wren. At the time of the 1838 fire this building was insured for £32,000 and it is reported that the tenants were bound to insure to the extent of £15,000.

Tradition has it that the gilt grasshopper which can be seen on top of the tower of the present day building is the same grasshopper which was on the first Exchange built in 1565-70 having survived both the Great Fire and the 1838 fire. It was taken down and stored away for safety during the war and restored with all due ceremony on the 10th January 1949 exactly 111 years after the 1838 fire.

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