Firsthand Witness: The Town Hall Fire – 1795.


I don’t believe there is another man in Liverpool alive at this time who saw the Town Hall on fire in 1795.

I saw it, I may say, almost break out, for I was in Castle-street in ten minutes after the alarm had spread through the town, and that was soon done, for Liverpool was not of the extent it is now.

I believe half the inhabitants turned out into the streets to witness that awful sight, although it was at five o’clock on a frosty Sunday morning in January.

For my part, I was aroused by the continuous springing of rattles by the watchmen, and the rushing sounds of people running along the street.  I was soon out of bed and joined the throng of people who were hurrying to the scene of disaster.

When I arrived there, a crowd had already assembled.  Castle-street was then very narrow.  It was quite choked up with people.  Dale-street was beginning to be crowded while High-street and Water-street were quite impassable.

From the windows of all the houses the terrified inmates were to be observed en dishabille, and the large inn in Water-street, the Talbot, which was nearly opposite the Town Hall, had people looking out at every window.

The smoke first made its appearance at the lower windows of the Town Hall.  The doors having been forced, a party of men got into the interior of the building, and brought out for safety the books of the various departments, and some of the town’s officers having arrived, something like system took the place of the dreadful confusion which prevailed.

The town records, the treasurer’s accounts, and the muniments, etc., were safely removed to a house at the end of High-street.  I helped to keep order.  Assisted by many other volunteers for the work we formed a lane so that there should be no impediment to a quick removal of anything that was portable.

The fire was first discovered about five o’clock in the morning by the watchman on duty in the street. They were dull old fellows, those watchmen, and of but little use, for in calling the hour nine times out of ten they made a mistake.  The thieves laughed them to scorn.

When the watchman saw smoke issuing from the windows he gave the alarm without delay.  The fire soon showed itself, when it had once got ahead.

When the new Exchange was erected, after the former one had been taken down in 1748, somebody persuaded the authorities to have the woodwork and timber of the new building steeped in a composition of rosin and turpentine, so as to make the wood more durable.  It may therefore be readily imagined how inflammable such a composition would make the wood, and how fiercely it burned when once ignited.

There had been a perceptible odour of some sort experienced in the Exchange building for some days, and this was afterwards discovered to have arisen from the woodwork under the council-chamber having taken fire through a flue communicating from the Loan-office; and there is no doubt it had been smouldering for days before it actually made its appearance.

It could not have been ten minutes after I arrived on the spot before the flames burst out in all their fury.  It was an awfully grand sight.  It was yet dark.  What with the rushing and pushing of the anxious crowd, the roaring of the fierce flames, and the calling of distracted people, it was an event and scene never to be forgotten.

The building was soon all in a blaze, and nothing on earth could have stopped that frightful conflagration.  It was a mercy it was a calm frosty morning or the houses in the four streets adjacent must have caught the flame.

From the age of these houses, the quantity of timber in them, the narrowness of the streets, and the absence of a copious supply of water, I am sure Liverpool would have been half consumed if a wind had sprung up.

I thought the building looked like a great funeral pile as the flames roared out on all sides.  It was a grand, yet dreadful sight.  The whole of Castle-street was occupied by people, although, from the position of the Exchange, a full front view could not be obtained, it being almost parallel with the west side of Castle-street.

The best view of it was where I stood at the top of Dale-street, by Moss’s bank.  The dome, being constructed of wood, soon took fire, was burnt, and fell in.  We had not then as now powerful engines, long reels of hose, and bands of active men well trained to their arduous and dangerous duties, still, everybody did his best and seemed desirous of doing something.

We did that something with a will, but without much order, system, or discretion.  The engines in use were not powerful, and the supply of water was not only tardy but scanty, as you may believe when I tell you it had to be brought from the town wells, the Dye-house Well in Greetham-street, the Old Fall Well in Rose-street (where Alderman’s Bennett’s ironwork warehouse stands, near the corner of Rose-street—by the way, Rose-street was called after Mr. Rose, who lived in the house next the Stork Hotel), and the wells on Shaw’s-brow; indeed, every possible source where water could be obtained, was put in requisition.

The inhabitants allowed the rain-water to be taken from their water-butts in the vicinity to such liberal extent that I verily believe there was not a drop of rain-water to be got for love or money when that eventful day was out.  Staid housewives for many a day after complained of the dirt the trampling of feet had made in their lobbies and yards, and deplored the loss of their stores of soft-water.

At that time water was precious, every drop that could be obtained was saved, garnered, and carefully kept.  Every drop of hard-water we consumed had to be brought to our doors and paid for by the “Hessian” or bucket.

The water-carts were old butts upon wheels, drawn by sorry horses and driven by fat old creatures, half men half women in their attire and manners.  The buckets were made of leather and the water was sold at a halfpenny per Hessian.  They were so called, I believe, from their fancied resemblance to the Hessian boots.

You may judge how inadequate a supply of water we had when our wants were dependent upon such aid.  The water-carts came rumbling and tumbling along the streets, in many cases losing one-half of their loads by the unusual speed at which they were driven and the awkwardness of their drivers.

Water was also carted from the river, and I helped with others to push the carts up Water-street.  The steep ascent of this street in its badly paved condition made this work extremely laborious.  But everybody helped and did what they could, and those who did nothing made up for deeds by words and shouted and bawled and told the others what they ought to do.

Fortunately, only one life was lost, that of a fool-hardy young man who would press forward to see the fire better—he rushed up to the High-street door and a piece of timber fell on him.  The surging of the crowd caused several persons to be struck down and trampled upon.

I saved one woman’s life by beating off the people who would have crushed her.  By twelve o’clock the fire had slackened considerably, and by the evening it was to all appearance subdued. But the fire in the interior remained smouldering for some time afterwards.

In the churches on that day the event was alluded to in a very feeling manner, and in St. Peter’s Church the rector offered up a prayer of thanksgiving that the town had been spared from a more extensive calamity.

An excerpt from ‘Recollections of Liverpool by a nonagenarian’.

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Posted

11th January 2020 by Chris Gibson
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