The 1846 Great Fire

On 9 June 1846, a fire broke out in a cabinetmaker's workshop on George Street in downtown St. John's. Dry weather and strong winds fanned the flames, which spread to other parts of the town, where closely built wooden houses provided excellent fuel. So did the numerous vats of seal oil stored at merchants' premises along the waterfront. By nightfall, 2,000 buildings had been destroyed and 12,000 people were homeless. Damages were estimated at £888,356. It was the second of three "Great Fires" to raze St. John's in the 19th century. The others occurred in 1817 and 1892.

St. John's a Fire Risk

Long before 1846, government and insurance officials in Newfoundland and Britain had recognized that St. John's was at risk of a large-scale fire. Houses and commercial buildings lined narrow downtown streets, while merchants' premises crowded the waterfront. Most structures were built of wood and there were few firebreaks. On 25 October 1845, J.J. Broomfield of London's Phoenix Fire Insurance Office expressed his concerns - he was visiting North American properties that the firm insured, which included more than half of all St. John's structures that carried fire insurance. "I may remark generally that St. John's, Nfld. is the worst built town that I have seen since I left England - the streets are all of a very irregular width, especially Water Street, which is in one part 60 feet, in another 40 feet wide. This is owing to the operation of the recent Act of the Legislature [the 1839 Water Street Rebuilding Act], which provides that in every case, upon the expiration of a lease, the building shall be pulled down and not allowed to be re-erected at a nearer approach to its opposite neighbours by 60 feet, so that in process of time, when the leases of all the wooden buildings shall have fallen in, a clear open space of 60 feet wide will be secured thro-out the whole line of Water Street, and as the same Act requires that all the buildings facing the street shall be of brick or stone construction and slated, a very great improvement will be thereby created" (qtd. in O'Neill 455-456).

St. John's two years before the fire
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records. 2nd edition. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896. 458. Print.
Larger Version with more information (61 kb)
St. John's, 1844

Fire Breaks Out

But before these changes could be fully implemented, the Great Fire broke out. At about 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, 9 June 1846, a pot of glue was heating on a gas stove at Hamlin's cabinet shop, near the corner of George and Queen Streets. It boiled over and caught fire. Flames spread through the wooden house and then to adjoining buildings and streets. The weather was dry and windy. By the time firefighters arrived 20 minutes later, the fire was too large to be put out with the available water supply.

The fire swept along Queen Street and soon reached the city's business district at Duckworth and Water Streets. It branched east and west, and moved north along King Street. Homes, businesses, and most public buildings were consumed. Looters ransacked abandoned buildings, while panicked residents fled to safety with as many belongings as they could carry. One man collapsed in the street and died.

Map of St. John's showing the extent of the 1846 Great Fire.
From George Brown Goode, Newfoundland and Quebec, Copies or Extracts of Correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Governor of Newfoundland on the Subject of the Fire at Saint John's and the Measures Adopted for the Relief of the Sufferers: Also between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Committee for Raising Subscriptions for the Relief of the Distress Occasioned by the Same Fire; and Also, Similar Returns Relative to the Fire at Quebec. London: Ordered to be printed 29 Mar. 1847. Print. Larger Version with more information (61 kb)

Governor Sir John Harvey ordered firefighters and military personnel to create a firebreak on the south side of Water Street by blowing up a wooden house with gunpowder. The explosion killed one artilleryman and sent a shower of burning timber onto nearby buildings. Some landed on vats of seal oil stored at the Bowring Brothers premises, which burst into flames. The spring seal hunt had been a success that year and many more vats waited at other merchant houses. Some spilled into the water and set the harbour ablaze. Many wharves and vessels were destroyed. Flames eventually stretched from Riverhead in the west (where the Waterford River empties into the harbour) to the Battery's fish flakes in the east.

By the time the fire burned itself out the following morning, almost three-quarters of the city lay in ruins. Approximately 2,000 homes and buildings were destroyed, including the Anglican Cathedral, the Customs House, the Court House (where one prisoner died in his cell), the Amateur Theatre, and some schools and churches. The city's two banks and the Colonial Treasury were also destroyed, but not before all the money had been taken to Government House, which survived the fire. Of the downtown's approximately 60 merchant establishments, only Newman and Company was left standing. It was located just outside the fire's range, at the western end of Water Street. Property damage was estimated at £888,356, although insurance companies later paid out only £195,000. Three people died in the fire and about 12,000 of the city's 20,491 residents were made homeless.

Government Response

Feeding and sheltering victims was the most pressing need in the fire's immediate aftermath. Governor Harvey chartered two vessels to import provisions from Halifax and New York, and banned the exportation of goods from St. John's. The military set up tents near the Colonial Building and at various fields around the town. Some buildings that survived the fire also served as emergency shelters, including the Orphan Asylum School on Queen's Road, the Roman Catholic chapel on Henry Street, and the Native Hall in what is today known as Bannerman Park. Warm weather somewhat lessened the hardship. Within two weeks, residents and landlords had built temporary wooden houses near Fort Townshend and others soon sprang up between Water Street and Queen's Road.

The legislature appointed a Fire Relief Committee at an emergency session convened on 16 June to coordinate disaster response. As well as distributing food, clothing, and other goods, the committee helped individuals to rebuild. It also paid the travel costs of victims who chose to leave the island - there were about 500 of these, who went to Halifax, Prince Edward Island, and Boston. The relief committee also handled cash donations (eventually totalling £100,000), food, and other provisions that arrived from Britain, the British North American colonies, and the United States.

The government reorganized the city's fire brigades in the wake of the disaster. The 1833 St. John's Fire Companies Act had created four fire brigades and granted them the ability to draft the number of personnel required. It did not, however, provide an effective way of financing the brigades or create any punishment for individuals who refused to join them. As a result, the brigades were chronically undermanned and ill-equipped. In 1846, the government replaced them with voluntary fire companies tied to specific businesses and churches. For example, the Phoenix and Cathedral Fire Brigades were respectively supported by the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities, while the St. John's Water Company also maintained a brigade. The volunteer brigades were better staffed and financed than their compulsory predecessors.

The Newfoundland government decided to rebuild St. John's on an improved plan. The Surveyor General recommended laying streets out on a grid pattern and widening them to 70 feet, but these changes proved far too expensive for the colony. In the end, Duckworth and Water Streets were straightened and widened to 60 feet and 11 new firebreaks were installed. Only brick or stone buildings were permitted on Water Street and the south side of Duckworth. However, the wooden houses and sheds that were quickly built after the fire were exempt from these restrictions until 1851, when they were torn down. By then, the rebuilding of St. John's was complete, although with fewer precautions than originally envisioned by the Surveyor General.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2012, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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