Monday, 23 November 2009

Inferno that brought death and despair.

FIRE is a frightening and destructive force. A fire
ripping through a building in the dark of a winter
night is not only destructive, but terrifying. For many
of the men trapped in a Glasgow lodging house in
November 1907 it was not only terrifying, but deadly.

On that night nearly 400 men were inside asleep in
their cramped cubicles when they were roused by
a shout of "Fire! Fire!" Many escaped but saw their
possessions burn. Nearly forty men lost their lives.

Victorian Glasgow was a magnet for itinerant workers.
Highlanders, Irish workers and other Scots streamed
into the city in search of any low-paid manual labour.
By 1860 the city council, appalled by the overcrowded
hostels that accommodated these people, built six
Model Lodging Houses for men and one for women.
These were meant to provide better and cheaper
accommodation for the city's poor and destitute.
They were meant to keep them safe.

By the 1900s, Gordon Street, close to the centre of
Glasgow, was lined with these hostels. Number 39
was one of two owned by William Nicol, a local
town councillor.

This converted warehouse comprised four floors plus
an attic and basement. Each floor was divided into
dormitories – which in turn were broken up into
small wooden cubicles. These tiny cramped spaces
could fit only a bed. For the privilege of sleeping here
the men paid between 4d (pence) and 6d per night.

The interior was lined with wood. The cubicles were
made of wood. Although smoking in bed or using
candles was prohibited, the rules were often ignored.
And, fatally, there was inadequate fire protection.

On the night of Sunday 19 November 1907 the house
was full of men. At ten to six in the morning a
watchman outside noticed smoke and alerted the fire
brigade. By the time they arrived minutes later huge
licking flames were shooting out from the fourth
floor dormitories.

Soon half-clothed men started staggering out of the
building, shivering in the cold. Firemen struggling to
reach those trapped inside had to battle up the single
stairway, pushing their way through the throng of
panic-stricken men flooding towards the one exit.

The fire had started on the fourth floor, just below the
attic where yet more men slept. The firemen had only
ten minutes in which to mount their rescue before they
were forced back by the heat of the blaze. In this
time they rescued nearly 40 men – men who would
have surely perished but for their perseverance.

In the attic floors a different drama was unfolding.
Realising that escape downwards was impossible,
they took to the roof. Donald McNab, who was
physically disabled and used a crutch, later described
seeing men hammering away in desperation at glass
windows with their bare hands. He waited with a blind
man and a paralysed man whilst the able-bodied
around him tried to flee. One man, Jack Findlay – later
hailed as a hero – used McNab's crutch to break the
windows. He returned to help the three disabled men
onto the roof and found a ladder leading to a
neighbouring building. Over thirty men's lives were
saved that way – over the roof, most naked in the bitter

Survivors were taken to the Central Police Station
where they were served tea, bread and butter and
provided with clothing. The more seriously injured,
29 in total, were taken to the Royal Infirmary.

When the fire was brought under control the fire
brigade began the grim task of searching for the dead.
Eventually 39 bodies were pulled from the ruin of the
building; most had died from suffocation. The bodies
were laid out in the mortuary of the police station and
crowds formed immediately of those seeking to
identify missing relatives.

By Wednesday all but eight were identified and the
funerals began. Some bodies were taken by family
for private service, but the greater proportion were
honoured with a public burial.

On Wednesday 22 November thousands lined the
City centre streets to watch the funeral cortege process
to the cemeteries. On this wet drizzly day two mounted
policemen lead first the hearses containing the
protestant dead, then the hearses with the Roman
Catholic dead. Round the graves were women
carrying children, a desperate reminder of the
human tragedy.

The police, the fire brigade and the city council were
widely praised for the actions they took on the night
of the fire. But later there were concerns raised over
the level of safety in the Model Lodging House. Later,
in an effort to ensure that such a disaster never
happened again, the law was changed and many new
safety measures insisted upon for Lodging Houses.

Yet, although covered well in the press of the time,
there appeared to be a collective shame at the fate
of these vulnerable men. William Cross, author of
a book on the fire, Death in a Lodging House, is
saddened that their death was so quickly forgotten
and that unlike other areas where there was tragic
death, no memorial to the men has ever been erected.

""These men were among the poorest in the City,"
says Cross. " They were men with few friends some
separated from their families and their past. These
men deserve to be remembered. "

No comments:

Post a Comment