Saturday, January 29, 2011

February 13, 1874 --- The Great Fire at the Pantechnicon

While Sir Garnet Wolseley is off subduing the vexing Ashantis, his furniture goes up in flames when the Pantechnicon, a sprawling five-story warehouse in Belgravia, burns to the ground.

For years, West-End Londoners had stored their valuables there, retrieving them when they returned to the capital for "the Season." The fire - started by a careless strike of a match - erupts in late afternoon and by 7:00 pm the roof falls in. The Times called it "as terrible as it was grand." A collapsing wall kills a 16 year old boy, the only death.

Built in 1830 primarily of iron and stone, the Pantechnicon was advertized as "the largest, the safest and the most fireproof warehouse in the metropolis." It burns for days. So many fire units are at the scene, it was said that only 3 engines and 80 men were left for the rest of London. Not until the 17th can salvage teams enter the rubble while owners of stored property are besieging the proprietors with anxious inquiries. Only a few items are retrieved undamaged; whole libraries are lost, sets of family silver are melted into shapeless form, the rubble includes countless charred pieces of furniture, pianos, carriages etc. Convinced of the indestructability of the Pantechnicon, many clients under-insured their property, if at all.   Others placed their plate and jewels inside luggage rather than pay extra for vault storage. The insurance losses are said to exceed £2,000,000.

The worst fears are for Sir Richard Wallace's art collection, valued at £60,000 but insured for half that amount. The losses, however, proved limited; in fact, a gilt-bronze chandelier left badly charred has been restored and hangs today with the rest of the Wallace collection in Hertford House.

Many MP's are victims of the fire since Parliament is not in session as normal in February due to a General Election called by Prime Minister Gladstone. After Disraeli's Tories swept the Liberals from power, Tory wags suggested that fire loss claims should be filed with Mr. Gladstone.

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