Glasgow as Tinderbox City
Sunday National, June 6th 2021
Glasgow has had another spate of fires. This week tragedy hit McCulloch Street, Pollokshields with one person found dead and fifteen families evacuated as a result of a fire in a tenement building; only one month ago The Old College Bar in the city centre – known as the oldest pub in Glasgow – was reduced to a shell by a fire that ripped through an area of long-established shops and other businesses.
The latest Pollokshields fire was the most recent of three within a few hundred yards of each other on the Southside of the city – with two previous fires at the junction of Kenmure Street and Albert Drive occurring in November 2019 and April 2020.
All of the above contribute to Glasgow’s reputation as “Tinderbox City” – because of the frequency of fires, alongside the suspicion that something is afoot and that the city is plagued by a pyrotechnic “Glasgow Effect”. But is this fair or even helpful?
There are mysterious fires in long derelict buildings; historic totems that have been left to decline and decay seem to suddenly burst into flames; places with absentee landlords are wrecked through uncontrollable blazes. And often it appears that the reasons why are never known. All these urban myths raise the question – does this happen in Glasgow more here than elsewhere? And what, if anything, can be done about the fires the city suffers from?
It is difficult to compare Glasgow’s record with other UK cities. The number of fires on its own is not the only factor in making comparisons to elsewhere. Other factors also have to be considered such as the type and age of buildings, and the proportion of vacant buildings and sites in the city. Glasgow can be compared in public health terms with Manchester and Liverpool and a measured judgement taken on the effect of poverty and inequality in each, and from this an assessment made about Glasgow. But it is much more difficult to do this with fires.
A study by Glasgow City Heritage Trust in 2019 in the aftermath of a number of high-profile fires found that the city had a problem. It identified that over the year 2017-18 there were 1,300 fires in homes and places in use in Glasgow and 2,300 “secondary fires” including in outdoor areas and derelict buildings. They found that “no data source exists in Glasgow or Scotland which systematically records fire incidents in historic buildings” and that a “relative risk fire database of historic buildings” for the city would be a useful resource in helping to maintain and preserve such buildings.
Glasgow’s history of fires
There has been a high incidence of fires in the city over many decades including high-profile fires in iconic buildings and places. At the Grafton store fire on Argyle Street on 4 May 1949 the inferno in the four-storey clothes shop saw thirteen women and girls die, most in their late teens or early twenties. Seven women escaped and survived by climbing from a top floor window, crawling along the ledge onto the Argyle Street Cinema roof and then onto an adjoining roof where they were rescued by firemen.
In the 1960s a number of incidents led to the term “Tinderbox City” coming into usage. The first was on 28 March 1960 at 130 Cheapside Street located in Anderson, and called in the official history of the fire service “the worst disaster in the peacetime history of the British fire service’. Fourteen members of the Glasgow Fire Service and five from the Glasgow Salvage Corps lost their lives in fighting the blaze. An explosion blew the building apart and the men were buried by falling masonry.
Such was its ferocity that the fire spread, engulfing surrounding properties including a tobacco warehouse, an ice cream factory, and the Harland and Wolff engine works – all fed by a huge lake of whisky with the fire taking a week to extinguish completely.
Eight years later – on 18 November 1968 – 22 people died in a fire in James Watt Street at a three-storey building not too far from Cheapside Street. Julius and Samuel Stern ran an upholstery business, B Stern Ltd., on the upper floors, while G. Bryce, a glass company had the basement and part of the ground floor.
The previous use of the building as a whisky bond – a place used for storage before duties were paid – meant that all the windows had been heavily barred to prevent break-ins but on this occasion they proved lethal: trapping employees in the building and preventing many from fleeing to safety. Only three employees managed to escape the building; some were trapped and died in a lift between floors, others trying desperately and in vain to breakout through a padlocked fire escape, with the building’s wooden staircases consumed by flames.
In more recent times the 2014 and 2018 Glasgow School of Art fires fortunately had no fatalities but twice saw the burning down of the legendary Mackintosh building off Sauchiehall Street. What was illuminating was the difference in feeling and response to the two tragedies. In the first, there was a sense of sadness and loss, but after the second, there was palpable anger and bewilderment at the attitude of the Glasgow School of Art senior management, including director Tom Inns and chair Muriel Gray – the former resigned while the latter took a leave of absence but returned.
The second fire not only undid the restoration work after the first, but caused much more surrounding damage, affecting businesses and residencies on Sauchiehall Street with the permanent closure of the O2 ABC music venue – and its loss to the city’s vibrant music scene.
The fires in the city, apart from the obvious – and there often shocking and tragic aftermaths, do though have commonalities. First, there are the poor building standards of much of the 19th century legacy of Glasgow. A corollary to this is that unlike many other large UK cities Glasgow survived relatively intact from the Second World War with much less bombing damage. Whereas London, Liverpool, Coventry and near to Glasgow, Clydebank and Greenock, all saw extensive damage and hence engaged in extensive rebuilding thus renewing a wider range of building than was an option in post-war Glasgow.
Second, there are numerous derelict buildings in the city’s boundaries – along with brownfield sites – reflecting the post-war decline in city centre population. There are many at-risk buildings – often iconic and which attract national debates and campaigns, the long running scandal of the Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson-designed Egyptian Halls on Union Street being an obvious example.
The perils of neglect
There is a history of neglect of treasured places and buildings in the city – which has a connection to fires but translates into other issues. Take the number of public disasters with fatalities in the city. There was the Great Storm of 15 January 1968 which swept up the Clyde with 20 people losing their lives, nine in Glasgow; and another 30 people lost their lives repairing damage of which eleven were undertaking roof repairs. The Clarkston gas explosion of 21 October 1971 that occurred at Clarkston Toll shopping centre saw twenty people killed and more than 100 injured.
One of the most tragic is the 1971 Ibrox disaster in which 66 people died and more than 200 injured. This happened on 2 January at the now infamous Stairway 13 – the same place at which a host of other incidents occurred. In 1961 two people died and 70 were injured, in 1967 11 people were injured, and in 1967 twenty-nine were injured.
In the run up to the January 1971 disaster Tommy Craig, the club physiotherapist was asked by manager Willie Waddell to address stadium development and in a note said he “thought the stadium was a death-trap” and before any action could be taken the Ibrox disaster occurred. Thirty years later Craig recounted to football commentator Archie Macpherson that immediately after the disaster: “Waddell and I agreed afterwards that it would be better if we never mentioned that the subject had ever arisen in our conversations.” What links this tragedy to many of the fires in times past was the general contempt for working people and safety standards which were sadly held by too many of the institutions and authorities in the city.
The historic role of the Glasgow Fire Service in dealing with so many fires has to be recognised and their record of bravery and call to public duty in difficult, life threatening circumstances. In the Cheapside Street fire of 1960 a total of nineteen deaths were related to fire and emergency services. Over the period 1898 to Glasgow Fire Service becoming part of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue in 1975 – 40 firefighters were killed in fires in the city (excluding National Fire Service casualties caused by enemy action) the highest number in the UK outside London.
There was even the story of Wallace the fire dog – who was employed by the fire service and who would rush ahead to fires leading the way. Campbell Steven described this scene in the history of the fire service: “He would lie quietly in the watch room, then, at the first sound of the alarm bell, he would be up and away to the fire, running some twenty to thirty yards in front of the horses drawing the appliances.”
His career began in 1894 and he was present at a host of big fires including the Trongate Waxworks fire of 1896. He became the station mascot at Central Fire Station on Calton Street and in 1900 Glasgow Corporation paid for his dog licence in recognition of his service. Special boots were made to protect his paws from fire, and he passed away in 1902.
Wider costs to the city
All of this comes at a cultural cost in terms of the loss of buildings and key reference points in the city’s make-up; historically – as the city’s landscape loses defining landmarks; aesthetically – as gap sites are often left unfilled for years; and to the very fabric and well-being of the city. Then there is the personal cost to some: the individual who lost their life in McCulloch Street and the effect on family and friends.
Then there are the wider effects. Take the first Pollokshields fire in November 2019. Not only have the people who saw their flats lost in the fire and subsequently demolished lost their homes, those in the adjacent tenement of six homes – 165 Kenmure Street – are also directly affected. This is a tenement I know well – having lived there for four years in the 1990s – and its residents (some who where my neighbours then) have been decanted into temporary accommodation for over one and a half years – with all the resulting discomforts and anxieties this entails.
People affected by such fires have to deal with major difficulties like the loss of their home and possessions, alongside a host of secondary problems relating to insurers, mortgage companies and landlords, and there is for every fire a much wider human and community cost which goes on for years long after the original incident. Those who survive fires may well have lost family members in the event, have been physically affected themselves, and trauma including PTSD is fairly common.
What can be done about this long running blight on the city and its people with all its negative consequences? Firstly, city authorities have to have a wider understanding and care for the implications of a city having so much 19th century building. One of the contributory factors in three recent fires in Pollokshields East is the age and state of the tenement stock – with it representing some of the oldest tenement stock in the city. There is a future timebomb waiting to explode in the city about the state of the tenement stock – and the need for repair and remedial work.
Secondly, there has to be a national programme and funds for the amount of derelict buildings and at-risk buildings within Glasgow and beyond. An entire legacy of iconic buildings and treasures are increasingly at risk of being lost or seriously degraded – from the infamous example of the Egyptian Halls to Lion Chambers on Hope Street and the British Linen Company on the High Street (next to the Old College Bar).
There are bigger concerns about Glasgow here. The incidence of fire cannot be talked about in isolation. Rather there has to be a wider awareness of the perilous finances of Glasgow City Council – and the unsustainable nature of them now and in the future. In the past two months, the city has witnessed plans to close or offload a plethora of some of its most noteworthy libraries, museums and public buildings. This is only the beginning of such a process of public retrenchment and withdrawal such is the corset tightening around local government finances.
Glasgow will require politicians locally and nationally, civic leaders and businesses, to step up and make the case for the protection and renewal of the city’s 19th century built environment, heritage and conservation. More than that it will require funding and recognition of what is precious in the city, and the unique contribution it makes to Glasgow and its people.