Fire, I’ll take you to burn (1)

As you may already know, I am really head over heels with “The Date-Book of Remarkable Memorable Events Connected With Nottingham and Its Neighbourhood 1750-1879”, by John Frost Sutton. It records a world so similar and yet so different to our own. Fire, for example, was a very great concern when so many buildings were made of wood and the fire brigade arrived behind four horses.

First though, a couple of words of introduction. This is a bonnet front:

bonnet front

And so is this:

bbb onnet front

And this is Commerce Square, in the Lace Market area of the city. The letters “PW” indicate a “place of worship”, in this case, St Mary’s Church. The orange arrow indicates the exact location of the warehouse:

narow marsh

October 11 1866

Destruction by fire of the bonnet front warehouse of Mr. C. G. Hill, Commerce-square.”

“It appears that Mr Hill kept a large quantity of pigeons at the top of his warehouse and that after the workmen had left in the evening, he and some men went upstairs on some business to do with the birds.”

“While he was there Mr. Hill was surprised at a loud knocking at the warehouse door, and on going to the top of the stairs, he found that the lower portion of the premises was in flames, and that leaving by the stairs was impossible. Fortunately there was a trap door in the roof, through which they made their escape. The fire leaped upwards with fearful rapidity from floor to floor, and soon enveloped the whole of Mr. Hill’s premises in a glowing sheet of flame, which burst with great fury from the windows, lighting up a vast area, and presenting a spectacle of grandeur, particularly when viewed from the southern side of the town, which it overlooks”:

castle fire

“It was at one time feared that the burning building would fall into Narrow-marsh, and many of the inhabitants removed their goods, but beyond some falling pieces of burning timber, the massive roof of the building remained nearly intact. The interior, though, was completely burnt out, with nothing remaining but the shell. This building is eight stories high on the southern side. As the lower four stories in Narrow-marsh were occupied as houses, a fire-proof floor was inserted between the houses and the warehouse. This prevented the fire extending to the lower portions of the building, although they and their contents were much damaged by water. It was estimated that Mr. Hill’s stock was worth £10,000, he having from 10,000 to 15,000 boxes of bonnet fronts on hand. He was insured for £8,000, and the building, including the warehouses of Messrs. Hamel & Wright and Lottimer & Co, for £9,000. After Mr. Hill’s escape from the roof he climbed down into the building and turned off the gas, making his way out through the cellar grate.”

If Mr. Hill’s stock was worth £10,000, in today’s figures, that would be in the region of £1,140,000 nowadays. His insurance would have covered £912,000 by today’s reckoning,  with the insurance on  the warehouses of Messrs. Hamel & Wright and Lottimer & Co realising £1,026,000. Sounds like a job for Columbo to me:


Narrow Marsh, the area below the Lace Market area, with, originally, a sandstone cliff at its back, was notorious in Victorian times as containing the worst slums in the British Empire, bar none, and being a place where only a mad policeman would attempt to go.

This photograph shows the many, many floors of some of the buildings, constructed against the cliff face itself:

narrow marsh

Here is a very ‘film noir’ shot of the streets below the cliff:

malt mill lane m=rrrow marsh

And, at last, the slums are torn down in the 1950s:

slum clearance 50s



Filed under Criminology, History, Nottingham

10 responses to “Fire, I’ll take you to burn (1)

  1. Your posts are always interesting, John. I was in Nottinghamshire a couple times in my life and found the forests and fields beautiful. It’s a lovely part of England. I’d love to revisit one day.

    • Yes, it is very beautiful but it’s a great pity that not very much is made of Robin Hood or Nottingham Castle as tourist attractions. Everywhere in the world you go people have heard of Robin Hood, but you’ll find very little for the tourist about him in Nottinghamshire. I think we ought to start with building a huge mock-medieval castle and then holding an annual Errol Flynn Festival.

  2. Interesting history here , John. I like the idea of a trapdoor being thought of for escape!!

  3. Perhaps the fire was the silver lining ending the deplorable conditions of the slums.

    • Let’s hope so. Those particular slums were described by people who had travelled in the Empire, as being among the worst anywhere, including Calcutta. Certainly, no police officer would have dreamed of going in there.

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