Welcome to the Fire page for the story of the big fire that occurred in 1854 which killed 53 people and damaged / destroyed property on both sides of the Tyne

At one o' clock on the morning of 6th October, 1854, a nasty moment of Gateshead History occurred when

a fire was discovered close to the River Tyne in Wilson's worsted factory in Hillgate, (also known as Hellgate!).

The fire quickly got out of control and spread to an adjacent warehouse containing huge stores of salt, iron, lead, manganese, nitrate of soda, guano, arsenic, copperas, naptha, and 3000 tons of Brimstone. Enormous blue flames began emitting from the building as it caught fire and large crowds began to gather in both Gateshead and Newcastle, to see the spectacle. Boats on the River Tyne were said to be alive with spectators.

In Gateshead the premises of different kinds totally destroyed were as follows :—

Mr. Wilson’s worsted manufactory, (This plaque is at the base of the Tyne Bridge lift tower adjacent to where, until 2009, the nightclub boat was moored;)
Mr, Bulcraig’s engineering works; Messrs. J. T. Carr and Co.’s timber yard, with tenemented houses behind; Mr. Bertram’s warehouse; Mr. Singers’ vinegar manufactory; Mr. Davidson’s extensive flour mill; Mr. M. Dunn’s beer shop; a number of tenemented houses and small shops in Hillgate; Mr. Wilson’s fellmongery; Mr. Martin Dunn’s timber yard. Church-walk was almost entirely demolished, and many other houses it is impossible to enumerate.

Reproduced here is a description from History, topography and directory of the County Palatine of Durham by Whelan & Co 1856..just 2 years after the event

A dreadful fire took place at Gateshead on the morning of the 6th October. 1854. It broke out on the premises of a worsted factory in the vicinity of Hillgate, and the flames soon spread to the neighbouring buildings, in which great quantities of sulphur, lead, and tallow had been stored. Large numbers of persons were everywhere engaged in endeavouring to arrest the progress of the destructive element, and as the flames reached the bonded warehouses their activity and anxiety were redoubled. A detachment of military, fifty strong. hastened down with their barrack engine to assist those already at work, and other aid was telegraphed for. A slight concussion warned the gathering crowd that there was something more perilous than sulphur in the burning pile ; but it was naturally supposed that with the shock the danger had ceased. A few minutes later the misinterpreted warning received a terrible fulfilment. The air was rent as with the voice of many thunders, and filled as if with the spume of a volcano. Massive walls were crumbled into heaps blocks of houses tumbled into ruins, windows shattered from their frames far and near, and a shower of burning timbers and crashing stones rained terror. death, and fresh destruction on every side. Of the fifty soldiers advancing with their engine, thirty were struck down—two of them dead, and one with an iron rail driven into his body. Firemen and helping citizens were crushed where they stood. Some, looking on in helpless amazement, were, in a moment, stricken beyond consciousness. Some perished under their own roofs, while others fell beneath the descending fragments. The wreck, &c.. in Gateshead, may be described in the following manner:—First, at the east end of Hlillgate, and forming the limit of the eruption, was the well-known vinegar manufactory of Messrs. Singers, which was totally demolished ; while proceeding from this point up the quay, a range of houses, followed by the exploded bond warehouses, Messrs. Carr's timber yard, Messrs. Wilsons worsted manufactory, and lastly, the engine manufactory of Mr. Bulcraig, this latter place forming the western limit. Running parallel with these premises, but on the opposite side of Hillgate, commencing with the shop of Mr. Lumsden, grocer, was a large cluster of houses, while the large flour mill of Mr. Davison was closely contiguous. These from their proximity to the worsted mill and bonded warehouses, received the full force of the concussion, and were totally destroyed. The houses in Church-walk were also entirely demolished. A short way beyond Buleraig's engine works another disastrous scene presented itself. The property at this place formed the left side of Bridge street, from Tyne Bridge up to Hillgate, and, as the back of these premises consisted of numerous factories, nothing could describe their bulged and tottering condition more forcibly than comparing them to having been subjected to some heavy cannonade, while the valuable commodities within them were laid waste by the same ruinous process. The whole of Cannon street, on the south side of St. Mary's Churchyard, was from end to end a mass of ruins. The ruins on Newcastle Quay extended from the Sand Hill to the Custom house, and reached almost as far back as Butcher-bank. In the foreground, there was, as at Gateshead, little to meet the eye but a mass of blackened rubbish, but, further back, portions of houses were left standing in all manner of attitudes. Here a gable stood alone—there a house was cut into a section, and presented to the spectator all the domestic arrangements which the unfortunate inmates had made before the catastrophe overtook them. In some parts one end of a house had fallen, leaving the roof half supported by that which still stood, while others were all but utterly demolished. The number of killed and wounded amounted to upwards of 270 persons, of whom twenty-five were killed in Gateshead, on the spot, and five in Newcastle—three died subsequently in Gateshead, and ten in the Newcastle Infirmary—the remainder were all more or less injured. The value of the property destroyed was more than £1,000,000.

Here's another account written at the time


The most terrible and appalling catastrophe
which ever occurred in the towns of Newcastle and Gateshead
took place at an early hour this morning, under the following
circumstances : Shortly before one o'clock a fire was discovered
in the worsted manufactory of Messrs. J. Wilson and Sons, fronting
the river, and situate in Hillgate, Gateshead, a building which had
only recently arisen upon the site of a fire which took place on the
9th of October, 1850. The manufactory, which was of consider-
able height, was stored with wool in various stages of manufacture,
and contained, also, a quantity of oil, &c., and the inflammability
of these articles offered such food to the flames that in less than
an hour the building was entirely gutted from roof to cellar. On
the east side of Messrs. Wilson's manufactory stood a warehouse,
about a 100 yards in length by 18 in breadth, originally built for
storing goods by Messrs. Bertram and Spencer, and had been used
as a free warehouse for the storage of merchandise. At the time of
the fire it was stored with 200 tons of iron, 800 tons of lead, 170
tons of manganese, 130 tons of nitrate of soda, 3000 tons of brim-
stone, 400 tons of guano, 10 tons of alum, 5 tons of arsenic, 30
tons of copperas, li tons of naptha, and 240 tons of salt. The
intense heat from the manufactory placed this building in great
jeopardy, and streams of vivid blue flame proceeding from the
sulphur soon poured from the doors upon the various flats, and
afforded a most extraordinary spectacle. The most strenuous
efforts were made by the firemen, as well as by the soldiers of the
26th Regiment, but perfectly in vain, and by three o'clock the
whole range was one immense sheet of fire. The alarm had by
this time spread in every direction, and had attracted a large
number of the inhabitants of both towns to the scene. The Quay-
side, Newcastle, affording a full view of the burning property, was
deeply set with spectators, but not the slighest apprehension was
felt of any outbreak in Newcastle, and the crowd was fortunately
much smaller than it would otherwise have been ; but in Gates -
head, where the dwellings of many thousand persons were in close
proximity to the flames, and the alarm was naturally intense, every
spot was thickly studded with spectators. At about ten minutes
past three a slight report, like that of a rifle, was heard, but it
occasioned no movement, and was thought merely accidental ; but
about three minutes after it was followed by an awful explosion,
which rocked with a fearful sound the whole town to its founda-
tions, and which no description can give the slighestidea of. The
burning piles of brimstone, with bricks, stones, metal, and articles
of every description were thrown up with the force of a volcanic
eruption, only to fall with corresponding momentum upon the
dense masses of the people assembled, and upon all the surrounding
habitations. The crowd upon the Quayside and Sandhill was
mown down as if by a discharge of artillery, many being rendered
insensible from the shock, others temporarily suffocated by the
vapour, and many more wounded by the flying debris. An awful
calm succeeded for a few seconds, and then, as most of the sufferers
regained their consciousness, an appalling wail of distress arose in
all directions, but many were far removed from all earthly suffering,
and their voices were never heard again. The fearful extent of
the calamity was now perceptible. The ignited missiles had pene-
trated into three houses upon the Quayside, standing exactly
opposite the fire, to such a prodigious extent, that they were in
flames in every storey in less than five minutes. The ships lying
in the river were nearly blown out of the water by the concussion,
and their shrouds were set on fire by the projectiles. Many scores
of houses were entirely unroofed, the descending rubbish doing
fearful injury. The shop fronts and windows upon the Quayside,
the Sandhill, the Side, and all the neighbouring streets, were almost
universally blown out, and the gas lights, for a square mile around
the spot, were extinguished in a moment, adding a weird and
horrible confusion to the scene. The streets rapidly filled with the
entire population of the lower parts of Newcastle, hundreds of
them in their night clothes, and seriously injured. The blood-
begrimed countenances of many, and the shrieks, wailing, and
lamentatations to be heard on every side, commingling with the
voices of others devoutly calling upon the Lord to have mercy
upon them, made up a scene which has been seldom paralleled.
As the uninjured regained their presence of mind every endeavour
was made to render relief to the wounded. The latter were at
first laid on the pavement round the Fish Market, in the most
melancholy confusion, and afterwards removed to the Infirmary,
and never were the resources of that great charity so severely
tried. Fifty-eight persons, seriously injured, were immediately
admitted into the hospital, fifteen of whom died there, and sixty-
three others were relieved as " out patients." Such were the first
effects of the calamity in Newcastle, but the worst remains to be
told. The long and narrow street in Gateshead, called Hillgate,
where the fire broke out, was filled with people at the time of the
explosion, the firemen, the police, and various assistants being
within a dozen yards of the burning pile. A number of influential
inhabitants were also present, rendering every assistance in their
power, and amongst them were : Mr. Robert Pattinson, tanner,
a member of the Newcastle Council; Mr, Charles Bertram, a
magistrate of Gateshead ; Mr. Henry Harrison, basket-maker ;
Mr. William Davidson, son of Mr. Davidson, miller (whose exten-
sive premises were within a few feet of the fire, and were after-
wards consumed) ; Mr. Alex. Dobson, son of John Dobson, esq.,
architect ; Mr. Thomas Sharp, a gentleman of independent means ;
and several others. In this narrow gorge the burning rubbish fell
in tons together, burying the gentlemen we have named, together
with Ensign Paynter who was at the head of a company of the
2Gth Regiment in Church Walk and many others several feet
deep. Of course their death under such circumstances must have
been instantaneous. Others, again, were suffocated by the deadly
fumes, while a third section perished by the falling of the surrounding
houses which were thrown into one mass of ruins. Whether the
loss of life was accurately obtained at the time is yet a matter of
opinion, but the total number known to have perished was no less
than fifty-three. Of course the explosion greatly increased the
extent of the fire in Gateshead. The vinegar works of Messrs.
Singers and Co., which adjoined the warehouse, soon fell a prey
to the flames ; the f ellmongery of Messrs. Wilson was also burnt
down, and several private dwellings shared the same fate. But
on the Newcastle side of the river the destruction was more awful
and alarming still. It has already been said that the fire broke
out in three houses opposite the warehouse in Gateshead. The
shops on the ground floors of these premises were occupied by
Messrs. Smith and Co., drapers ; Messrs. Ormston and Smith,
stationers ; and Mr. Harbottle, draper, and the stock in all was
valuable. Besides these premises the shop of Messrs. Spencer
and Son, drapers, and the offices above (one of which was
occupied by Mr. Bertram whose death has just been recorded)
were almost entirely reduced to ruins, by stones projected from
the site of the explosion. The property immediately behind
Messrs Ormston and Smith's, was the Dun Cow in the occupation
of Mr. Teasdale, and the spirits which it contained immediately
gave increased energy to the flames which consumed the whole
fabric in less than half-an-hour. The fire then gradually pro-
gressed both north and east, making its way in the first direction
up Grinding-chare, principally through old warehouses, toward
the Butcher-bank ; and in the second, along the range of buildings
on the Quayside, The shops of Mr. Atkin, bookseller, Mr.
Turnbull, watchmaker, and the Grey Horse Inn, succeeded
Messrs. Smith and Co., and the flames again ran north, up Blue
Anchor- chare and Pallister's-chare towards the Butcher- bank,
and again extended along the Quayside. The shops of Mr.
Snowdon, grocer, and the Sun Inn, intervened between Pallister's-
chare and Peppercorn-chare, where the flames made another run
to the north of Cohdn's-chare and Hornsby's-chare. By six
o'clock the fire had spread along the Quayside for nearly one
hundred and twenty yards, while the extent of the fire towards
the Butcher-bank was rather greater, it having travelled up the
whole length of Blue Anchor-chare, Peppercorn-chare, Pallister's-
chare, and Hornsby's-chare, and made a breach into the Butcher-
bank by three separate Louses, all of which were entirely
consumed. All this time a third fire was raging. At the time of
the explosion a large blazing beam of timber was thrown high
over the Butcher-bank and fell into the workshops of Mr. J.
Edgar, situate behind his premises in Pilgrim-street. Here the
flames worked their way uncontrolled, destroying a front shop
occupied by Mrs. Ann Shield, grocer, on one side, and a large
number of tenemented dwellings and workshops adjoining the
George's-stairs on the other. By this time the sun had risen, and
never, perhaps, had his rays exhibited Newcastle in so awful a
state. The fire was still extending widely amongst the property
near the Quayside, whilst the flames in Grateshead were quite
unsubdued. Owing to the fire-engines having been almost entirely
buried in the ruins and the serious injuries that had been sus-
tained by the firemen, there were no adequate means available for
checking the progress of the flames. The engine of the North-
Eastern Railway Company was fortunately uninjured and proved
of great service on the Quayside. Communications were sent by
telegraph to all the neighbouring towns for assistance in the
emergency. The floating engines at Shields and Sunderland,
three land engines from the latter town, and one each from
Hexham, Durham, Morpeth, and Berwick, were sent by the
authorities of these places by the most expeditious means avail-
able, and the supply of water from the company's pipes continued
most abundant to the last, and was exceedingly effective even
when engines were not obtainable. On the 7th the fire was got
under on both sides of the river, and immediate steps were taken
to disinter the bodies of those who were known to be killed by the
calamity. Amongst those the bodies of Mr. Pattinson, Mr.
Hamilton, hairdresser, Ensign Paynter, Corporal Stepherison,
Mr. Willis, a skinner, Mr. Duke, a bricklayer, and his son, a child
named Conway, and McKenny, a labourer, were rescued. On the
8th the body of Mr. Mosely, a smith, was found much disfigured ;
and about noon a charred and crumbling mass was discovered,
without the least resemblance to humanity. A piece of the coat
and a bunch of keys, lying close by, led to its identification
as that of the son of John Dobson, esq. The next frag-
ments found were those of Mr. Thomas Sharp, a gentleman,
shockingly mangled, but were identified by his gold watch
and two dog whistles. Several other bodies were discovered
in a similar condition. Mr. Davidson was identified by a signet
ring, Mr. Harrison by a cigar case, one of the firemen by the nozzle
of the engine pipe, and many others by similar articles known to
have belonged to them. In Church- walk were found the family
of a man, named Hart, consisting of himself, his wife, bis son, and
his niece. No portion of Mr. Bertram's body could be found, but
a key, which he was known to have, and his snuff box were dis-
covered among the ruins. Inquests were soon after opened on the
bodies, and a great amount of evidence was tendered as to the
cause of the explosion, the general opinion being, that nothing but
a vast store of gunpowder could have been the cause of the catas-
trophe. Mr. Hugh Lee Pattinson offered an explanation of the
disaster, which he attributed to water, whilst Professor Taylor
suggested the probability of its origin to gas. Mr. Pattinson be-
lieved that the heat of the building had inflamed the sulphur, and,
gradually, the whole mass of nitrate of soda and sulphur in the
lower vaults had melted together, producing intense combustion
and a heat such as could not well be conceived, and his assumption
was, that whilst in that state, a body of water had found its way
to the burning mass, and, by the immense expansive power of
steam at such a heat, had caused the explosion. In his opinion
328 gallons of water falling in this way, would have as powerful
an effect as eight tons of gunpowder. Professor Taylor sup-
posed, that the sulphur having taken fire had inflamed the
nitrate of soda, which, he said, would set free half-a-million
cubic feet of gas, and the inability of the gas to escape fast
enough through the door of the vault, had, he believed,
caused the explosion. Both chemists, from various analysis of
the ruins, were equally confident that no gunpowder had been
present. The juries, after very lengthened sittings, finally came
to open verdicts, expressing, however, their belief that the explo-
sion had not arisen from gunpowder. The loss by this terrible fire
was never accurately ascertained, but it was pretty generally
estimated at half-a-million. In Newcastle, commencing at the
east end of the property destroyed upon the Quayside, the follow-
ing is a list of the principal sufferers : Mr. G. Wilson, eating-
house keeper; Mr. C.M. Mo wbray, ironmonger ; Free Porters' Office
greatly damaged ; Messrs. A. Parker and Co. ; Mr. G. Buckham,
sailmaker ; Mr. James Wilkin, broker ; Messrs. B. Liddell and
Co.; Mr. M. Plues, merchant ; Mr. George Gray, broker; Messrs.
Featherstone and Elder, ship chandlers ; Mr. S. Bailey, watch
maker : Mr. J. Potts, broker ; Mr. D. W. Hay, baker ; Messrs.
Carr and Barras, brokers ; Mrs, Swallow, Rising Sun ; Mr. L.
Reed, chemist; Mr. G. Brown, butcher; Mr. W. Wilson, cooper;
Mr. W. Berkley, malster ; Mr. Mark Thompson, ship chandler ;
Mr. W. J. Van Haansbergen, merchant ; Mr. J. Orrnston, whar-
finger ; Messrs. J. Carr and Co., coke manufacturers ; Messrs.
C. Lotinga and Co., brokers ; Mr. David Don, spirit merchant ;
Messrs. Longridge and Co., merchants ; Messrs. John Rogerson
and Co., brokers ; Messrs. Joseph Cowen and Co., fire brick
manufacturers ; Mr. Charles West, broker ; Mr. George Wraith,
broker ; Mr. Henry F. Morrison, sailmaker ; Mr. T. Guthrie,
sailmaker ; Mr. T. F. Davidson, Sun Inn : Mr. John Snowden,
grocer ; Messrs. S. M. Frost and Co., cartmen ; Messrs. T. L.
Colbeck and Co. ; Mr. Thomas Dixon, Prussian Arms ; Mr. A.
Nay lor, hair dresser ; Mr. W. Atkin, bookseller ; Mr. Hans Peter
Mork, merchant ; Netherton Coal Company ; Mr. S. D. Gething ;
Mr. G. P. Birkinshaw ; Mr. G. Robertson, sailmaker ; Messrs.
Leidemann and Co., brokers ; Messrs. R. Thiedemann and Co.,
brokers ; Mr. James Harding, Grey Horse Inn ; Mr. Fairweather,
watch maker ; Messrs. Mackey and Smith, drapers ;
Broomhill Colliery Office ; Mr. Fisher, fruiterer; Messrs. Ormston
and Smith ; Mr. James Scott, broker ; Messrs. Alexander and
Wood, provision merchants ; Messrs. Charlton and Angus, com-
mission agents ; Mr. Wm. Teasdale, Dun Cow ; Mr. Batey,
Golden Anchor ; Mr. Jules Averauw, broker ; Mr. John Harbottle,
draper. Butcher-bank Mr. Isaac Temple, paper merchant,
house and shop completely destroyed ; Mr. Piper's furniture shop
and workshops behind shared the same fate ; Mrs. Bailes, grocer,
shop entirely consumed. Pilgrim- street Mrs. Shield, grocer, house
and shop burnt to the ground ; Mr. J. Edgar's workshops entirely
destroyed ; a great number of small tenemented houses and work-
shops burnt down. In Gateshead the premises of different kinds
totally destroyed were as follows : Mr. Bulcraig's engineering
works ; Messrs. J. T. Carr and Co.'s timber yard, with tenemented
houses behind ; Mr. Wilson's worsted manufactory ; Mr. Bertram's
warehouse ; Mr. Singers' vinegar manufactory ; Mr. Davidson's
extensive flour mill ; Mr. M. Dunn's beer shop ; a number of
tenemented houses and small shops in Hillgate; Mr. Wilson's
fellmongery ; Mr. Martin Dunn's timber yard. Church- walk was
almost entirely demolished, with many other houses it is impossible
to enumerate. The public sympathy for the numerous poor
families, who were rendered destitute by this terrible catastrophe,
was displayed in the most marked manner throughout the kingdom.
Upwards of 11,000 were subscribed for their relief. No less than
eight hundred families applied for assistance from the funds, and,
altogether 4,640 were paid for the loss of furniture. In February,
1857, the committee stated that they had expended 6,533, and
reserved 3,044 for widows and orphans, and the remainder of the
funds was distributed as follows : Newcastle Infirmary, 1,190 ;
Gateshead Dispensary, 314; Ragged Schools, 195 ; other
charities, &c., 50.

1854 October 13. Her Majesty and the Royal Family passed
through Newcastle, on their return from Scotland. The Queen
alighted at the Central Station for luncheon, and her majesty spoke
a few words to the Mayor of Gateshead, expressing her great sorrow
at the late calamity in which she was much interested. The Mayor
of Newcastle afterwards received a letter from Colonel Phipps,
requesting that her majesty's name might be added to the subscrip-
tion for the sufferers for 100.

The main road to Durham led up Bottle Bank, named after the Saxon word 'botl' meaning settlement. This was and still is a very steep hill. Church Street was built in 1790 to overcome the problem of the steep hill, which was a buggar for the horses, and follows the same way as today, curving to the east, passing St. Mary's Church, and then rejoining Bottle Bank at the foot of High Street. Of course the current Tyne Bridge is at a high level and eliminates the steepness problem