'The Devouring Element': the fire hazard in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1720-1870

Mike Barke

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Fire was an ever present hazard in towns and cities until the twentieth century, and in many places the impact of fires upon the townscape has been very clear. Local historians have long been interested in this subject but, as Michael Barke points out in this important paper, they have tended to consider fires as isolated one-off events and to concentrate on the largest and most dramatic instances, rather than looking at longer-term patterns and trends and including the smaller, but much more frequent, localised fires in their analyses. The paper looks at Newcastle upon Tyne over a century and a half, and thus seeks to place the events in a wider context. It begins with an explanation of sources—the journals of events kept by two nineteenth century historians, local newspapers, and municipal records. It is emphasised that only serious fires were included—those which involved destruction of property or loss of life, and the almost innumerable small fires were omitted. The analysis first revealed that half of all fires were in workshops and factories, with residential premises surprisingly under-represented. The paper then considers long-term trends, showing that the increase in the number of fires closely matched that of the population between 1720 and 1820, but then far outstripped population growth for thirty years. Seasonal and diurnal patterns are investigated. The next section deals with the main fire risks, looking at factors such as lack of safety regulation, careless industrial practices, the physical overcrowding of the urban fabric, and the widespread uncontrolled use of hazardous materials and processes. The final section considers responses to these problems, and the arguments over the provision of public fire-fighting services the role of insurance, and the involvement of the private sector.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2-13
JournalThe Local Historian
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013


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