It was late afternoon on Saturday 20th December 1873 when the flames were first spotted from the windows of the calendering department halfway down Sugarhouse Wynd in Dundee’s Cowgate. By the time they had been seen, the fire had already caused significant damage. The Fire Brigade were called, but despite their attendance and protracted efforts, the building suffered greatly, the gable wall collapsing under the strain.
Before you think this was a building that dealt with calendars, we should clear this up. Calendering is a process of finishing fabrics; smoothing or coating them and then subjecting them to stress by the use of pressured heated rollers (thanks, Wikipedia). For some more info on the building, check out this link. Calendering has moved on significantly over the decades, and includes plastics and various other materials too (but we digress).
Back to the fire; rumours quickly spread that one of the firemen had died in the resulting gable wall accident, but, this time, nobody died. When the wall collapsed, it was very close to a team of firefighters, but everyone was unharmed. Folk love a good rumour and a gossip so it’s easy to see why stories spread almost as quickly as the flames did. With people also piling into the streets for a good look (probably because this was the most exciting thing going on in the centre at that time), the firefighting efforts were said to have been severely hampered.
Despite this, the men fought for hours to control the blaze, under the ever-darkening December skies. A news report in the Dundee Courier and Argus a few days after the fire stated that “the flames lit up the Eastern sky with a deep crimson glow, magnificently contrasting with the surrounding darkness, and which was distinctly visible for miles around. The buildings destroyed were two storeys in height and occupied almost a square, extending in the one way from Sugarhouse Wynd to Queen Street and in the other almost from the Cowgate to the Seagate.”
The origin of the fire remained entirely unknown. When the works stopped for the day at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon, all the workers left the building, with only the 2 foremen in charge remaining. After determining that everything was in good order, the foremen left an hour after clocking-off time, at 3pm. Whilst the fire must have started sometime after they left, and before it was noticed around 4:30pm, the fire was of such an intensity that it must have burned for a good half an hour at least before it had been noticed – and continued to burn for hours afterwards.
The other buildings in the area remained relatively unscathed, thanks to the small streets dividing properties. Whilst the Dundee Calendering Company had been dealt a heavy blow (the damage to the building were estimated at around £20000, which is roughly around £1.5million in today’s money), there were no fatalities…and some of the building remained untouched. Silver lining, and all that…
Fires were prevalent in mills and factories – it was just accepted as part of the everyday hazards of industrial living. Between hot machinery, straw or hay-covered floors and the ever-present risk of flammable materials and substances (and no health and safety to speak of), it’s a small wonder any of us managed to survive. Homes weren’t free from the threat either; there are a whole host of stories about fires we may one day get round to tackling. If you’ve not read the burning of the city churches post, you can read it here or you can read about another fiery tragedy here.
www.archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk, Dundee Courier and Argus, City Library archives, Wikipedia