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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 July 2012

"Not with their property, but with their lives"

While researching smuggling for The Ghost and Miss Moore, there's one problem I run into again and again: the bulk of the records of the customs service were lost in the 1814 London Customs House fire. To me the greatest loss is that every revenue officer was required to keep notebooks detailing his daily activities and submit them to his superior officer. There are almost none extent from before 1814 because of this fire.

"The fatal Conflagration of the Custom House, on the Morning of the 12th February 1814"
(British Museum)

The fire was discovered by the porter at 6AM. By 7 the fire engines had arrived, and by 8 the flames were so high they had given up on saving the Customs House and began trying to save the surrounding buildings.
[A] report was circulated that many barrels of gunpowder were deposited in the vaults, and that consequently an explosion might soon be expected. This report had nearly a magical effect. All withdrew to a distance, both firemen and spectators. At half-past nine the report which had been circulated was confirmed not to have been an idle one. The explosion of about two barrels and a half of gunpowder was tremendous. The shock was distinctly felt on the Royal Exchange, and by persons who came to London by the Whitechapel Road; it was felt four miles in that direction. Many of the buckets were carried as far as Billingsgate; and one man was hurt or killed by two bricks falling on his head. The concussion spread devastation around the neighbourhood breaking many windows in Cannon Street, East Cheap and the adjoining streets, and exciting in the breasts of the inhabitants apprehensions of the complete destruction of that quarter of the City.
[...]The explosion of the gunpowder carried the burnt papers, ships registers, and a variety of matter, as far as Dalston, Shacklewell, Homerton, Hackney, and all the adjoining villages in the direction of the wind. A bundle of signed debentures is said to have been picked up by a gentleman at as great a distance from the scene of destruction as Spital Square.
(From the British Fire Service's contemporary accounts on their website, which are definitely worth reading all the way through. I couldn't find any citations of whose accounts they are, though, and they are clearly a composite of several authors' work since there are two different stories about Colonel Kelly's "(late of the Guards)" actions. He was the housekeeper's brother and one writer claims he "hurried to his sister and found her in such a senseless state from the fright, that it was with extreme difficulty he could drag her out almost naked."  In the other, he was paralyzed with fear in his burning room when the porter found him, and then ran to a window from which he was "saved by a ladder with the greatest difficulty and shockingly burnt in the face and hands," while the porter went and got his sister and the servants. While I am not by any means criticizing the guy for freaking out while his room was on fire, if I were the porter I might be annoyed by that face-saving story, although I'd feel guilty about being annoyed since Colonel Kelly died a few days later of his injuries.)

It later turned out that there were only about 10 or 12 pounds of gunpowder stored in that nearby building, for use by the volunteers, but rumors that there were barrels and barrels spread quickly and kept many of the firemen from wanting to get very near the fire, with the result that it spread fast and far.
The flames soon communicated to the houses in Thames Street opposite the Custom House, and embraced, in a short time, warehouses in Globe Yard, and the whole of the tenements extending from Beer Street to Water Lane from which it required the utmost activity of the inmates to escape, not with their property but with their lives.
The flames didn't get under control until around 3PM, by which time the Customs House was ashes.

The Customs House before the fire, by Rowlandson, 1808. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the amazing non-archival things lost in the fire:
The actual loss to government by the sudden destruction of the Custom House cannot be calculated; books, bonds, debentures, pearls, coral, valuable property of every description and securities of all kinds have been consumed.[...]The private property lost within the buildings is very considerable: several gentlemen had left large sums of money in their desks, ready to make payments on the following day. One individual has lost upwards of six thousand pounds in bank notes, which will be irrecoverable, as the memorandum of the numbers was in the desk with the notes and met the same fate. 
A very fine collection of pictures was also lost, which the Commissioners had permitted a gentleman to leave in deposit till it would be convenient for him to pay the duties, amounting to one thousand five hundred pounds. A genteel young man, in appearance, was stopped by some police officers, in Thames Street and, on searching him, his pockets and breeches were found to be stuffed with coral beads, silk handkerchiefs, and other valuables of small bulk. It appeared that his boldness in venturing nearer than even the firemen dared to do, had enabled him to obtain this booty.
Fortunately a new Customs House was already being built, the Napoleonic Wars (and resulting embargoes) and increased trade having vastly increased the work of the Customs. The new building was completed in haste...which may or may not have led to the design flaws that caused a huge part of the floor of the Long Room to collapse and fall into the King's Warehouse below in 1825, leading to major repairs, a new, much more classically Neoclassical facade, and the ruin of David Laing's career as an architect. But that's another story! (Which you can read a bit more about here, along with looking at many more engravings and drawings of the Custom House through the years.)

Do you have a favorite disaster, natural or otherwise? Tell me about it!

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9 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Wow, I’ve never heard about this fire. It would certainly make good grist for the story mill. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the burning of the Chinese Pagoda during the Grand Jubilee celebrating the British victory over Napoleon. Most spectators took it to be part of the planned celebrations, but a couple of people died and several others were hurt. I’ve always thought it could be a great, dramatic moment in a book (if only I wrote Regencies, LOL!).

9:24 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Isobel--Oh wow, that does sound interesting! Were there fireworks in it that went off when it caught fire? Otherwise I don't see how you could think it was planned...

Also, do you know how to delete spam comments? There's one right above yours and I can't figure out how to get rid of it...

10:24 AM  
Blogger Lil said...

Spam is weird, isn't it?

I don't know that I would call it a favorite disaster, but I always regret the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The wealth of classical literature that vanished forever--it is to weep.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

If you go to the post's actual page (view with the comments shown below the post) there are little trashcans next to each post for all of us that are owners/admins for the blog. I've deleted the SPAM.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

And yes, there were lots of fireworks during the celebrations, so no one thought the fire was anything but a planned event.

7:59 AM  
Blogger kita91 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:20 AM  
Blogger kita91 said...

Not to sound like a psychopath, but I have an intense love of stories, myths and images from floods... they just look so strikingly powerful to me. The 1910 Great Flood of Paris is a personal favorite, because of how destructive it was and because it showed the enormous resilience and tenacity people are capable of in the face of tragedy. Also, deluge myths are so filled with drama it's impossible not to love them.

5:24 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Isobel--Okay, I guess I'm just not an admin/owner, because I don't see them. Thanks for taking care of that!

Lil--It really is a tragedy...and an interesting one. The circumstances surrounding the fire are so dramatic!

kita91--Wow, I had never even heard of the 1910 Great Flood of Paris! But I'm looking at pictures right now and they're AMAZING.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Herry Pascal said...

This is of course a good grain mill history. I have been a bit of the Jubilee celebration of England defeated Napoleon has a Chinese pagoda burning.

Mandrien

2:43 PM  

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