A Disastrous Fire

[Berwick Journal 30 August 1872]

In August 1872, what was described as a disastrous fire by the Illustrated Berwick Journal, broke out in the extensive cabinet making and upholstery premises of Messrs James Purves & Sons, Hide Hill. Exceptional detail is provided in the following report.

…The alarm was immediately given, and in a short time a powerful hose was attached to the hydrant in the street, nearly opposite to the premises. The engine from the Barracks also arrived, under the charge of the staff of the Northumberland Artillery Militia. At half past nine, barely half an hour after the discovery of the fire, the roof was in flames, and the situation at this time to all appearances most desperate…

….while they formed the most handsome business premises in the town, they were also so carefully constructed as to give the utmost accommodation for the valuable stock of furniture and upholstery goods which the Messrs Purves have always in stock. The building consists of four storeys – ground floor, containing counting offices, and large show room; second floor, upholstery, mirrors, and valuable furniture; third floor, dining and loo tables, sofas, couches, easy chairs, mirrors, and marble slabs. The upper flat, besides having iron bedsteads, and a miscellaneous stock of valuable goods, is partly used by the women engaged in the manufacture of upholstery, and in this large room the fire originated. In this room is a box for the purpose of heating the irons used by the women in their work. The box was specially erected for the firm, and was thought to be as safe from danger as it was possible to make anything safe. It was heated by a gas jet from below, and unless some inflammable material came in contact with it, it was almost impossible that any mishap could arise. The women left their work on Tuesday morning at nine o’clock, when the gas of the stove-box was turned on and the irons inserted with the object of their being properly heated when the women returned from their breakfast. The women had not been long out of the premises when smoke was seen issuing from the building, and on Mr James Purves, son, going to the women’s room, he found that the place was on fire. The alarm was immediately given, and in a short time a powerful hose was attached to the hydrant in the street, nearly opposite to the premises. The engine from the Barracks also arrived, under the charge of the staff of the Northumberland Artillery Militia. At half past nine, barely half an hour after the discovery of the fire, the roof was in flames, and the situation at this time to all appearances most desperate. The Barrack engine was brought to the back of the premises in Mr Strother’s yard, and the water, which was conveyed in buckets and tubs, by numerous willing workers, kept the engine in constant supply; and the staff of the Militia, as well as a host of other workers, pumped vast volume of water on the back part of the building, where the fire principally raged. The hydrant hose, under the charge of Mr Gray, surveyor, and others was well directed. Volumes of water, the supply being very plentiful, were being poured upon the roof, but it seemed to no purpose. The flames burst forth anew, seeming to threaten destruction to all around, and preparations were made accordingly. From Mrs Winter’s ironmonger’s shop adjoining [No. 12] the powder and oils of different kinds were removed. Mr Buchanan, picture dealer, [No. 16] had his valuable pictures removed and steps taken to remove everything if need be. Mr Strother further off [No. 18], had his men ready to remove. At Messr’s Wood’s Bank, [No. 20] below the shop of Mr Strother, the money, notes, valuable documents, etc., were immediately secured and made ready for removal, and men placed upon the roof of the bank to watch the progress of the fire. At 10 o’clock the roof fell in with a frightful crash, completely carrying down the upper floor and the greater part of the third floor, smashing the heavy beams in two places, and it was feared the entire building was endangered, as the walls vibrated from the shock.

The excitement now became intense, and the general fear was that the flames would extend to the next floor below, and the whole building and its contents would be consumed. The windows in the middle flat were opened and cries for assistance raised, as the fire had appeared there. A good many people then ascended by ladders and having got access to this part of the building, commenced at once to throw a large quantity of cabinet and upholstery articles on the street, without respect to the nature of the goods, some of which were greatly damaged. It was soon found that the fear of the fire spreading to this part of the building was unnecessary. The great volume of water poured into it was so well directed that orders were given to stop the rash acts of those who had voluntarily thrown the goods on to the street; but many people prudently continued to carry large quantities of valuable goods from the showrooms across the street to safer premises, where they were out of harm from the water, as well as free from the danger of the fire. Relays of workmen continued to keep the engine and street hose working. At times their efforts were, by order, briefly relaxed to ascertain the worst region of fire, during which the flames again burst forth, but the watchfulness and persistent efforts of the firemen gradually overcame the conflagration, which was completely got under by eleven o’clock, and in about half-an-hour afterwards, was wholly subdued. Besides the damages done by the fire, much loss will have been caused by water, as a large part of the stock in the premises was completely soaked by it; while the fittings and ceilings that remained have been greatly injured.

Among the first who noticed the fire was Mr Buchanan, who from the smell of burning wood was convinced that there was something more than a chimney of fire, as some people had imagined. He immediately communicated his fears to Mr Purves, who along with some of his employes [sic] was on the ground floor of the building and quite unconscious of the disastrous ignition which had taken place in the upper flat. All doubt, however, was soon set to rest, by observing smoke issuing from the room where the fire was. Mr Purves, Mr J Evans, and others at once repaired to the place and endeavoured to overcome the flames, but their efforts were useless.

Soon after the fire broke out, Mrs Buchanan and her daughter, who were confined to bed ill in the adjoining house, and of course naturally much alarmed at the outbreak of the fire, were carefully removed to safer quarters in Mr Fair’s house, who kindly offered them shelter.

Much praise is due to all who voluntarily aided in every way in extinguishing the fire, but for the noble and willing services of a large number of people, the consequences might have been greatly more disastrous. By their united efforts not only was the conflagration prevented spreading to the adjoining properties, which at one time appeared to be in great jeopardy, but the fire was confined to the upper flats of the premises in which it originated. Amongst those who were conspicuous in giving orders and directing the supply of water were- Messrs J.D. Purves, Thomas Purves, and W.D. Purves; Mr Gray, surveyor; Mr Ord, inspector of nuisances; Quarter-Master Swaine, Captain Wood, Sergeant-Major Stuart, and the staff of the Northumberland Artillery Militia. Active assistance was rendered in various ways by Messrs R. Douglas, S. Sanderson. Mat. Young, W. Willoby, R. Thompson, W. Grey, Caverhill, T.H. Pattison, W.Alder, Logan, W. Patterson, Thomas Strother, David A. Lamb, W. Wilson, George Forrest, Supt. Ronaldson, J. Trainer, the men of the Coast Guard, the Berwick Rifle Volunteers, the workmen and women employed by the Messrs Purves, and a host of others. The police and others kept the way clear for the workmen, and for the removal of goods.

The amount of damage can hardly yet be estimated. The front of the building seems almost uninjured, even the plate-glass windows on each storey being intact, but the gables and back wall are materially damaged. The upper floor is completely gone, partly by the fire and partly crushed down when the roof fell in. The second floor is also considerably damaged; the large mass of debris which fell upon it has completely snapped a heavy beam, and the ceiling at present is prevented by wholly falling by strong supports which have been inserted. The ceiling of the lower room is greatly damaged by water.

We are glad to learn that Messrs Purves & Sons are insured to the full amount. The building is insured in the Caledonian Office, for which Mr S. Sanderson is local agent; and the stock in the Commercial Union Office, for which Messrs G. & J. Young are local agents.