The extensive store and premises of Messrs King, Witt and Co, at the southern end of the High Street near Gloucester Square and about 140 yards from the town quay, were destroyed by fire on Tuesday evening, 7 November 1837. King Witt and Co were one of the largest mercantile houses in the town, trading extensively in oil and sugar and the proprietors of at least two ships: Ariel, a whaler built the previous year, and John Witt, listed in Lloyd’s Register as trading with Mauritius. Their estimated loss was £12,000, of which only a fraction was covered by their insurance with the Imperial Fire Office. The store was a large brick building, about 100 feet broad by 120 feet deep, and consisted of a cellar and four floors. The principal stock at the time of the fire was sheet and pipe lead, in immense quantities, shot in bags, 50 carboys of turpentine, each of 12 gallons, oil, varnish, wine, paint, glass, brushes, lamp black, resin, bottle wax and about 190 lbs of gunpowder, just 10 lbs short of the legal limit for unlicensed premises.
The fire began about 11pm in the hay loft above the stables. These were a separate building at the back of the premises, but connected to the store by a strong shed roof. The cause of the fire was unascertained although fireworks let off recklessly on the Platform were blamed by many. A crowd quickly assembled and attempts were immediately begun to retrieve as much as possible from the threat of fire. Ledgers and other commercial documents were rescued from the counting house, which opened on to the High Street. The gunpowder and much of the turpentine were then brought to safety from the store, thus reducing the risk of a fireball which could have destroyed the lower town. The fire reached the store – via the connecting shed roof – after about an hour. By this time an estimated 150 people were engaged in the salvage operation, many forming a human chain between the store and the High Street. Three great explosions, caused it was thought by the flames meeting turpentine spilled from one of the carboys, demolished the store and engulfed many of the rescuers. Fifteen were killed outright and, of the over 100 injured, seven later died of their wounds. The corpses – many of them so badly burnt as to be barely identifiable – were laid out in the Fountain Inn. The tragedy was compounded by the social profile of the deceased, “principally the young, the strong, the active, and the brave”. Neighbouring property suffered minor collateral damage. The fire was eventually contained at about 4am on Wednesday, 8 November.
It was a preventable catastrophe. The fire brigade had almost an hour in which to isolate and subdue the fire in the stables, but the three engines that attended were in a poor condition and, critically, none carried any hooks with which to bring down the shed roof. The water supply was inadequate and a turnkey had to be despatched to the reservoir on the common, about two miles away, to turn on the full force of the water.
A Fire Fund, set up after the fire raised almost £7,000, led by a donation of £100 from the young Queen Victoria. One hundred and one persons had claim to the fund. £170 was awarded to each of the eight widows and £25 to each orphan (£20 for the purpose of apprenticing them and £5 for them when they were out of their time). The three most seriously disabled survivors each received £180. The conduct of those entrusted with the management of the fund flared into a contentious political issue in April 1860 as the editor of the newly-established Southampton Times (qv) attempted to exploit the complaint of two of the survivors that they had not been fairly dealt with.
A memorial tablet listing the names of the twenty-two victims was later erected in Holy Rood Church (see clipping below).
Calamitous Fire Which Took Place at Southampton November 7 1837, (Inquest report) (HS/h)
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