A Fire in Charlton
At a quarter to ten on Friday night a fire was discovered have broken out in the hemp loft of Mrs. Eliza Ayles. ships' chandler and rope manufacturer, Charlton Wharf.
The mains from the Kent Waterworks being 1.000 yards distant the resources for extinguishing the fire were confined to a ditch at the back of the premises and the Thames in front which happened to be at low tide at this time. Engines were telegraphed for from London and messengers dispatched to the Arsenal, dockyard and police station at Woolwich. The flames burst forth and extended with fearful rapidity attacking the machine room, dwelling House attached to the ropery and also the Crown and Anchor Public House occupied by Mr. E.T. Phillips
A few minutes after 11 the Dockyard engine arrived at the scene of the conflagration with Superintendent Mark, Inspectors Gill and Payne and 25 constables, followed at a quarter past 11 by the Royal Arsenal engine drawn by 20 men who traversed the distance of nearly 3 miles in a little more than 20 minutes. Inspector Williamson had the charge of the Arsenal engine and brought with him 30 Sargents and constables.
The Thames police boat in charge of Inspector Hathaway and a body of police were also in attendance. At 2 o’clock the steam floating fire engine made its welcome appearance stationed in the middle of the river where it communicated with the fire through 24 lengths of hose each being 42 feet long. This engine was of considerably more service than any or all of the others.
Great credit is due to the Marine boys who with good earnestness worked with buckets from the ditch in a most laborious manner.
In an inconceivably short space of time after the telegraphic message had left Charlton for London the Duke of Sutherland in the uniform of a London fireman arrived at the scene of the fire and with courage and spirit unparalleled ascended to the top of the building as the flames continued to burst out
An altercation took place on the arrival of Mr. Henderson with the London Brigade engines, between that gentleman and Mr. Phillips. Mr. Henderson ordered the latter into custody Inspector Linvell however feeling able to make allowances to Mr. Philips whilst witnessing his property burning before his eyes did not taken him into custody upon which Mr. Henderson turned the hose on Mr. Philips and his son
The London engines placed on the mud of the beach and every available suction appliance used, but little or nothing but mud could be had and it took the united strength of 80 men to bring the vessels again on terra firma
The spirits which had fed the taps of the public house were entirely destroyed while the chief efforts of the fire float and bucket were directed to the saving about £300 worth of spirits which were in the cellar which was happily accomplished. Several casks of ale were destroyed together with the greater part of the furniture. Russian hemp valued at £42 per ton were entirely consumed which had only been delivered a few hours before the fire broke out.
The heat to which the steam boiler was subjected necessitated letting off steam to prevent an explosion otherwise water might have been pumped up by an engine. The engine house was saved in consequence of the wind blowing from it, as also a cottage occupied by Mr. Marchant, a lightermen, which is close to the ropery and built of wood. Two cottages occupied respectively by Mr. Mounser, employed at the dockyard, and Mr. Page, a waterman, partly took fire. The furniture being got out and laid in boats or on the beach.
Out of a large quantity of tar only four barrels wee destroyed. A number of fowls were burnt to death and Mrs. Ayles' Carmen, named W Harris, was much inured by a beam falling on him whilst attempting to save the pigs. Several acts of dishonesty were as usual on such occasions committed. Mrs. Ayles garden being thoroughly stripped of all the fruit and vegetables. Four men were found in one of Mr. Phillips rooms with no other object than pillage.
The ropewalk 170 fathoms long was threatened with total destruction but the greater part was saved by a portion being pulled down to prevent the flames spreading. The fire continued burning from a quarter to 10 until five the next morning the entire damage estimated at £15,000.
On Sunday the scene of the ruins was literally besieged with visitors and curious spectators whilst Mr. Phillips did a busy trade by converting the skittle alley into a bar. Mrs. Ayles premises have been a ropery from time immemorial and were occupied by her late husband over a period of 50 years and were held by his father before him.
The cause of the fire is unknown but it is supposed to have originated in the spontaneous combustion of the newly housed Russian hemp. Which might have been damp, the hot weather causing it to overheat
Kentish Mercury 18th of July 1863
This article first appeared in the GIHS Newsletter in April 1998