1869 – The Great Fire of Whitstable

Many stories exist about the Great Fire of Whitstable in 1869 (November 16th). In fact one suggests that a monkey tipping over a paraffin lantern started the inferno.

What is undeniably true is that a large area from Sea Street along to the Harbour, all coal tar pitched wooden clad buildings, were destroyed. The only picture many will see of this event is the W.J.Cox postcard showing piles of timber amongst an otherwise barren landscape.

Here we have found a lithograph of the ‘Scene of Destruction’. I wondered at first if the newspaper editor had detailed an artist, who may have never visited Whitstable, to come up with an imaginary scene. Upon analysing the picture there is enough that ties in to suggest that the artist actually visited the area:
Oyster yawls in the bay, above and beyond a building the angled masts of a ship on the beach, boys sitting on a groyne, all seem to fit.

Lithograph - The Great Fire of Whitstable 1869
Lithograph - The Great Fire of Whitstable 1869

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A report at the time.

About a quarter to eleven o’clock on Wednesday night, a coastguardsman named Edwin George Lane, while on duty near the locality, first observed flames issuing from the roof of Mr. Hoult’s shop. He at once raised the alarm, and in a short time a considerable and excited crowd of people had hurried to the spot, though amid the general confusion little could be done effectually to arrest the progress of the fire, which, as soon as it had burst through the shop roof, rapidly spread to other parts of the building under the aggravating influence of a brisk north-east wind that was then blowing.

In the meantime, however, not only had telegrams and mounted messengers been sent to Canterbury and Faversham for the fire engines, but the Whitstable engine had made its appearance on the scene. Some time was unavoidable lost in obtaining water and getting the hose into play, and even when this had been accomplished, the work of repressing the momentarily increasing conflagration was, after a short time, brought to a standstill by the fouling and choking of the engine by the sand and weed drawn up with the seawater from the beach.

The flames now had it all their own way, and they devoured the inflammable, dry timbered and tarred buildings with a terrible avidity which it was next to impossible to withstand. The excitement and crowds every moment increased, the confusion and distress being heightened by the terrors of the unfortunate people whose dwellings and property were either being consumed, or were in imminent danger of sharing what then threatened to be the common fate.

At this crisis of the sad disaster, Mr. Superintendent Walker (of the Home Division), with a number of the constabulary under his direction, arrived upon the spot, and he, with characteristic coolness and energy, at once began to take the requisite steps not only for assisting the unfortunate persons who were fleeing from their endangered dwellings in alarm, and of protecting their scattered property from the hands of adventurous marauders, but also of discovering sources of water supply preparatory to the arrival of the fire engines from Canterbury and Faversham, which were now anxiously and eagerly looked for. In this task, as may be supposed, Mr. Walker encountered great difficulty, but his efforts were not without success – success to which it would be unfair of us did we not add that the coastguardsmen largely contributed, by the hearty readiness with which they placed themselves under his orders.

At length the engines of the “Kent” and “Phoenix” offices from Canterbury, and the “Kent” and “Norwich” from Faversham arrived, and were as soon as possible posted in available positions for contending with the fire that was now raging furiously around. The spectacle presented by the great mass of blazing was magnificently terrible, and, if the spectator could only divest his mind of the thought that it entailed so much destruction and distress, he could hardly look upon it as it lit up luridly the surrounding country, and reflected itself in the waters of the the Bay, that lay beneath the gloomy reddening clouds like a sea of molten gold, without a feeling of mingled admiration and awe. It was indeed a site fearfully impressive, and once seen could never be forgotten.

The flames despite all that the united efforts of the four engines could effect, continued their devastating march without any material check, from the harbour gates on the right, as far as the premises of Mr. Josiah Reeves, mast and block-maker, on the extreme left, where, owing to the interposition of a wider break than usual between the line of buildings, its further progress was providentially arrested. It had, however, by the veering of the wind to the north, and subsequently to the north-east, been carried across Marine-street into Harbour-street beyond, and had in both localities done great damage, especially in the intervening space, where almost the whole of the buildings were destroyed, and many were more or less seriously injured by the furnace-like heat to which they were subjected.

The fire extended along Harbour-street to the point nearly opposite the residence of Mr. Hayward, surgeon, which was greatly damaged by the extreme heat of burning buildings opposite, and the adjoining house and shop of Mr. Goodwin, greengrocer, suffered in the roof and upper rooms, it only being by the incessant exertions of the occupier that it was saved from destruction.

It was not until nearly eight o’clock on Thursday morning that the fire was extinguished, and there for several hours after, smouldering embers that required the repressive attention of the firemen. The total number of buildings consumed is stated to be no fewer than 71, of which 25 were inhabited houses of various dimensions, the remainder being stores, workshops, etc. Along the “Sea Wall” and in Marine-street there destroyed 36 stores, 16 cottages, three sail-lofts, two inns (the “Victoria” and the “Spread Eagle”), one blacksmith’s forge, one ship chandler’s shop and timber yard, one auction mart, one shipping office, and three shoemakers’ shops; and in Harbour-street there were consumed four dwelling houses and shops, and three private dwelling houses.

It is, of course, difficult to assess the damage done by the fire, but it is roughly estimated at not less than £10,000, the calculations varying from £7,000 to £13,000.