The Great Fire of Edinburgh: Looking back on 1824 blaze which killed 13 people and left hundreds homeless
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On an icy and cold winter night, a small fire broke out in a workshop just off the High Street in Edinburgh. The fire would spread, destroying four large tenement buildings in the Old Town, killing 13 people and leaving almost 500 people homeless.
How the fire started
Monday, November 15, 1824. At around 10 pm, a fire was reported in James Kirkwood’s engraving workshop, which was found on the second floor of a building on Old Assembly Close. Tenements in the Old Town towered above the skyline, and were packed into small areas, door to door and window to window, allowing the fire to spread quickly.
Two months before, a permanent fire crew had been established in the Capital under the leadership of James Braidwood, and the custom built fire engines attended swiftly, but struggled finding a water supply. The fire had been burning for over an hour before the crew were able to start tackling it, and by then, it was too late. It had spread, and all six stories of the building were alight. The flames spread along the roof tops and within another hour, four tenements were on fire.
The next day
The fire burned throughout the night, destroying the Old Assembly Hall as well as the tenements on the close. At around 12 pm, the fire reached the Tron Kirk, and the spire caught alight. Fire crews raced to the roof, but were driven back by the blaze, which had started to melt the lead that held the structure up.
Embers from the fire floated up and down the Royal Mile, and by Tuesday evening, another fire broke out on the corner of Parliament Close – now named Parliament Square. The fire was on the top floor of an 11 storey building, and swiftly spread to the rest of the structure, with the fire crews racing to stop it from spreading further, to the now vulnerable St Giles Cathedral.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the council buildings had collapsed due to the flames. The crews continued to do what they could, and were saved later in the day as the heavens opened and the rain fell, putting out most of the flames. Crowds of engineers, as well as the navy, were drafted in to pull down the skeletons of structures that were destroyed, wand the crew were able to put out the last of the burning embers, a task which wasn’t completed until early on the Friday morning.
Thirteen people died in The Great Fire of Edinburgh, and around 500 people were left homeless. Around 22 tenement buildings were either completely or partially destroyed. The council buildings, part of the Tron Kirk, the Old Assembly Hall and the print works were also lost.
An inquiry was held in the aftermath as the fire crew received a lot of criticism for not acting quickly enough, and they were completely exonerated. A statue of fire master James Braidwood now stands in Parliament Square, where the crew helped stop the spread of the fire to St Giles.