The 1837 Fire

I was walking down the High Street recently and stopped to look at Holyrood Church. I’ve been inside many times, but have never really stopped to look at the details on the outer walls of the bombed out ruins, upon which are displayed two memorial tablets dedicated to the memory of twenty two men who died during a fire which raged on a cold Tuesday night in 1837.

All details are from the Hampshire Advertiser, 18th of November 1837.

It was Tuesday the 7th of November 1837. The night was fine and clear, with scarecly any wind stirring. It was about ten past eleven and John Wren was getting ready for bed in his house on the corner of Gloucester Square and the High Street. In an upstairs room, through an open window, Wren thought he could smell smoke and so he peered out into the night and saw a column rising up above the houses. To another window he ran, and what greeted him there was the sight of flames. He called the alarm of fire.


How Southampton High Street looked two years later, in 1839. There aren’t any images of the fire, so this will have to do! The fire occurred further down the street behind the perspective of the artist, towards Town Quay.

The origin of the fire was a building a few doors down, a large warehouse belonging to King, Witt and Co. The building was brick fronted, and stood twenty yards back from the pavement of the High Street behind a small wall. Above its basement were four storeys. What with King Witt and Co. being merchants, all manner of goods were stored inside the building, from vast amounts of lead in both sheet and pipe form, to combustible articles such as gunpowder, oil, and turpentine.

By the time Wren arrived at the scene, a crowd had gathered, and the fire seemed to be coming from the stables at the back of the warehouse. After about an hour, the first fire engine had arrived, and at intervals of ten minutes a second and third engine appeared. Still, the engines were ill-equipped, lacking the amount of water needed to tame the flames. People in the ever-growing crowd helped pass along buckets of water from neighbouring houses to the firemen, whilst other men entered the warehouse to retrieve documents and papers. Volunteers then began removing some of the goods from the warehouse, including the gunpowder, so that it might not cause further damage. This remained the scene until around one in the morning.

Those endeavouring to remove as much as possible may not have been aware of the fire spreading throughout the building. The firemen laboured to extinguish the flames, but they found their jobs increasingly difficult with a less than sufficient water supply.

All of the gunpowder was eventually removed from the premises. Next, the men tried to remove the turpentine, lowering the glass bottles through trapdoors in the floor. When one of the handles on one of the bottles broke, the rope slipped, and the bottle smashed, spreading its flammable contents everywhere. Witnesses would later state their shoes were deep in the spilled turpentine.

It was shortly after this, the first in a series of violent explosions rocked the building. Burning matter had reached the turpentine and set it alight in an instant, causing a huge blast that threw men into walls and through doors and windows. The second explosion followed a minute later, one that lit up the entire ground floor. To their horror, witnesses outside could see men writhing in agony on the inside. The third explosion caused the entire front of the building to burst out and collapse. For a while, the floors remained propped up, but after a short while, they too collapsed, leaving nothing but a glowing tangle of ruins.

For days after, volunteers helped clear the wreckage, and the good people of Southampton came together to discuss how they would help the families of the victims. Tragically, the death toll continued to rise as more bodies were pulled from the building, and men died from injuries sustained in the explosions.

The two memorial tablets placed on the front of Holyrood Church read:

Sacred to the memory of twenty two brave and disinterested men commemorated by name in a corresonding tablet who in attempting to check the ravages of a calamitous fire in this parish on the night of November the 7th 1837 either perished in the flames or survived but a short time the injuries they received. The sympathizing public who have protected the widows and orphans of those who had families. Erect this grateful but melancholy memorial of their intrepidity, their sufferings, and their awfully sudden removal in to an eternal state. Prepare to meet thy God. Amos. 4. 12.

This tablet is a memorial of the names of the sufferers.

  • Henry Ball aged 21
  • George Bell – 16
  • John Budden – 21
  • Robert Cheater – 22
  • George Diaper – 27
  • Charles Edney – 19
  • William Ford – 27
  • James Gosney – 28
  • Thomas Hapgood – 21
  • John Harley – 50
  • Joseph Hawkins – 39
  • Thomas Henwood – 32
  • William Jones – 26
  • Edward Ludford – 36
  • William Marshall – 25
  • George Maton – 21
  • William Oakley – 29
  • William Powell – 30
  • Richard Rose – 34
  • Robert Ransom 46
  • Thomas Sellwood – 23
  • Charles Tanner 22

Boast not thyself of tomorrow: For thou knowest not what a day may bring forth. Proverbs. 27. 1.

The deaths of the above men had a profound effect on the town. The Mayor, who was in the crowd when the fire was raging, led the efforts to help the families. A town meeting was called where ‘all religious and political differences were merged in the desire to bind up the wounds of the sufferers, and to heal the sorrows of the widow and orphan’. Thousands of pounds were eventually raised, including a £100 donation from a young Queen Victoria.

The survivors and victims alike were hailed as heroes for removing so much of the flammable material, as it was believed that had they not done so, the fire could have been so much worse and destroyed the entire neighbourhood. The fact it was restricted to such a small area was put down to the actions of these brave men.



3 thoughts on “The 1837 Fire

  1. Am descended from the Wrens who originated in Michelmersh and then Southampton, so thought I’d look up John Wren.

    Not sure if he is connected to them, but in the 1841 census, John Wren is listed as living in the High Street, age 40, a dyer, with his wife Mary and six children.

    In the 1851 census, living in 2 Gloucester Square, (presume this is the same house on the corner of the High St) John Wren is 49 and now a Master Dyer, living with three of his children.

    I did find his marriage – John Wren, of Holy Rhood, dyer, age 21, married Mary Langford of Fawley, age 22, at Exbury on 10 May 1822.

    Liked by 2 people

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