Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead

On the morning of Friday, the 6th inst., between twelve and one o’clock, a fire broke out in the worsted manufactory of Messrs.

Wilson and Sons, in Hillgate, Gateshead. After raging with great fury for about two hours, the roof fell in, and the heat became so intense that it melted the sulphur which had been stored in an adjoining bonded warehouse. It came out in torrents, like streams of lava; and, as it met the external air, began to blaze: its combustion illumining the river and its shipping, the Tyne, the High Level Bridge, and the church steeples of Newcastle–spreading over every object its lurid and purple light. The flames towered far above the masts of the ships moored at the neighbouring quays. From the various floors of the warehouse huge masses of melted tallow and lead flowed in copious streams. The eight storied edifice was one mass of flame, and from every landing melted sulphur and tallow and fused lead were descending in luminous showers. It resembled a cataract on fire. At length the walls fell. Burning brands were then scattered over the roofs of the adjoining houses, had widely extended the conflagration. The ships were taken from their moorings and placed in safety. A few smart explosions were now heard, but no suspicion was entertained of the astounding catastrophe which was about to ensue.

In the immediate neighbourhood of the fire was another bonded warehouse, filled with the most combustible materials–naptha, nitrate of soda, and potash, as well as immense quantities of tallow and sulphur; and it is also said that a large quantity of gunpowder was contained in it. To this building all eyes were directed, because, although a “double fire-proof” structure, and supported on metal pillars and floors, it seemed impossible to prevent the flames from communicating with the dangerous materials within its walls. These fears were well founded. No sooner had the flames reached this compound, which was in fact nothing but a huge fulminating mixture, than an explosion took place, which no pen can describe, and which made Newcastle and Gateshead shake to their foundations. The bridge shook as if it would fall to pieces, and the surface of the river was suddenly agitated as if by a storm. The shock was felt in every street. The front doors of many private persons’ dwellings were violently opened; and the shutters of the shops, particularly towards the quay, were shaken from their fastenings, and strewed about the pavement.

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 foundations, and which no description can give the slightest idea 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 force of the explosion was immense, and heavy debris was thrown as much as 3⁄4 miles (1.2 km) from the seat of the explosion. Huge granite blocks forming the tramway for carts outside the warehouse were flung over the church for two and three hundred yards into neighbouring streets and buildings. One is recorded as falling 400 yards (370 m) away through the roof of the Grey Horse pub. A stone of 20 stone (280 lb; 127 kg) weight damaged property in Oakwellgate. Large blocks of wood and stone were projected widely over Newcastle, reaching the west end of the quayside. The Courant newspaper office in Pilgrim Street was hit. A stone weighing 18.5 pounds (8.4 kg) fell through the roof of an opticians in Grey Street; when workmen discovered it in the morning it was still too hot to touch. A huge beam of timber, six feet long, was found on the roof of All Saint's Church. Another, ten feet in length and weighing 3 cwt (150 kg) landed on the Ridley Arms in Pilgrim Street; and others on the roof of a house in Moseley Street.

The reverberation of the explosion was heard at North Shields, 10 miles (16 km) distant, where residents thought the shock was an earthquake. Gas lights in a Jarrow paper mill were blown out. Light debris from the fire was scattered across 6 miles (10 km) of Gateshead and environs. Miners in Monkwearmouth colliery, the deepest in the country and 11 miles (18 km) away, heard the explosion and came to the surface, concerned as to the cause. 20 miles (30 km) westward at Hexham; 35 miles (56 km) north at Alnwick; and 40 miles (64 km) south at Hartlepool the explosion was heard distinctly; and for 20 nautical miles (37 km; 23 mi) out to sea. The light of the flames could be seen, reflected in the sky, 50 miles (80 km) away at Northallerton. And whilst the report of the explosion travelled so far, people on the scene were insensible of it. They describe themselves as having been lifted from their feet and dashed down, the violence completely stunning them; and when they awoke in a stupor they had only the dim idea of a rolling sound in their ears.

The explosion crater was measured to have a depth of 40 feet (12 m), and a diameter of 50 feet (15 m).