The Great Smith Street Fire
Thursday 4/5th September 1884
On the evening of 4th September 1884, a fire, described in a contemporary newspaper report, as the ‘greatest fire from which Natal has had yet to suffer’ destroyed part of the central business district of Durban in the colony of Natal.
At about 6 o’clock on Thursday 4th September 1884, the alarm was raised by an Indian employee, when he discovered a fire at the rear of the large store, in a two storey building belonging to the Adler Bros. This was one of three two-storied buildings situated opposite the Durban Club and forming the south-west corner of a large block of commercial properties, bounded on the west by Mercury Lane, on the south by Smith Street, to the north by West Street, and eastwards by Gardiner Street. These buildings were only a few years old. Many more properties would have been destroyed without the efforts of the three Fire Brigades in attendance, and fortuitously, there was very little wind that night.
On hearing the alarm willing volunteers began removing stores and goods into the street from the Adler’s building already on fire. Kaffirs, coolies and whites, ran in and out of the storerooms carrying goods of all descriptions, which were hurriedly piled outside, before returning for another load. At about 6.15 the Corporation Fire Brigade under Captain Virco arrived in front of the building in Smith Street, and at 6.22 the first hose was directed onto the roof, although by 6.30 the main part of the building was also well ablaze.
When the alarm was first raised, the steam whistle at the Natal Government Railway (N.G.R.) Locomotive Works sounded, and the Railway Volunteer Fire Brigade assembled. By the time Captain Milne and Lieutenant Simpson arrived at the fire station, at about 6.30, the brigade were ready, with steam pressure on the fire engine boiler already partially up. They arrived at the fire at 6.35 and reported to Captain Virco, the Corporation Fire Brigade Superintendent, and were set to work in West Street on the opposite side of the road, facing the Wesleyan Church.
The hose was laid running past the Wesleyan Church and pumping began at 6.52 and continued from this steam engine for the rest of the night, without pause, with a constant steam of water attempting to confine the fire to the block with the Adler Bros. stores. This helped to control the fire, preventing a further spread in the direction of Gardiner Street. A second hose from the N.G.R engine was played onto the burning buildings to contain the fire and prevent it spreading towards West Street.
The Harbour Board fire engine, under Capt. McConnell arrived in Smith Street at 6.55, ready to start work. Capt. Virco did not want this engine to be attached to Currie’s Fountain water supply, he feared there was insufficient pressure available to keep the Railway and Corporation appliances going. The Harbour Board engine went into West Street and then at 8.15 moved down Field Street, to the Bay edge to pump water from there. 1155 feet of hose was attached to the engine, and a jet began to play on the fire at 9.15.
Once it was seen that nothing could save Adler’s store attention moved to the adjacent offices, occupied by Escombes, the solicitors. Volunteers helped move books and papers from their offices into the street, before that building too was consumed by the flames.
For a third time, a flow of goods and stores were carried from the next building occupied by trading company, Monhaupt, Lehmann & Co. They occupied the ground floor of the building, which also housed the ‘Durban Institute’ on the upper floor. Within an hour this building also began to burn.
By 8 o’clock all three buildings formed a vast burning shell. The fire, fed by the liquors, fuels and the many flammable goods stored in the burning warehouses, raged inside the buildings. It was then discovered the fire had taken hold the rear corner of the next block, and once again willing helpers rescued the contents of Mr. Hoffmann’s offices, and Mr. Kisch’s photographic studio. The spread of fire was eventually halted at Mr. Kisch’s studio, but sadly the latter was totally ruined by the water used to save the building. Any further advance of the fire would have resulted in the destruction of property between Mr. Kisch’s premises and Mr. Adams’s store in West Street, comprising The Standard Bank, Mercury office, Pardy’s Building and all intermediate buildings.
It was soon evident that the building occupied by Monhaupt, Lehmann & Co. and the Durban Institute would not escape destruction, and the Railway hose was then directed at the end wall of the Congregational Church, now in imminent danger from the fire and only separated from the flames by the narrow Mercury Lane.
Volunteers, under Captain Virco were manually pumping water, conveyed in buckets, passed from hand to hand a distance of 30 or 40 yards, onto the eastern walls of Church. The heat destroyed the church’s east transept glass windows and Mr. Young of the Union Co. was injured by bricks falling on his head. Drs. Addison and Gordon attended to the injured gentleman, who received a severe scalp wound. Blankets, were spread over the roof of the Congregational Schoolroom, and soaked by water hose. The Congregational Church although damaged by the heat and water, was saved by these combined efforts.
The attempts to halt the fire’s progress towards West Street were also successful. The Railway Fire Brigade poured water on the wall separating the Durban Institute building from the other properties, while the Harbour Board and Corporation Brigades under Captain Virco, continued working from the front of the Congregational Schoolroom.
At one period the largest church in Durban, the Wesleyan Chapel was also under threat from the flames. The Railway brigade’s ladders and a bucket chain, under Lieut. Simpson, kept the Wesleyan Chapel well-watered, and helped to save the building from damage. It was midnight before the immediate danger from any further spread of the fire was over
Once the fire was confined, fireman could then attempted to extinguish the blazing contents of the destroyed buildings. The Railway Brigade were directed to play upon the burning embers, and continued to do so with great success for the rest of the night
The police,18 white and 50 black constables under Supt, Alexander, were present to control the crowds and to protect the goods salvaged from the buildings. The Royal Durban Rifles were also present in force to assist in the maintenance of public order. By 9 o’clock the quantity of rescued goods was so great, that a detachment of 30 men of Artillery arrived under the command of Major Dugdale and Lieutenant Smith to assist in guarding the salvage. They were relieved 3 am by a full company of the Royal Durban Rifles under Captain King.
A crowd of at least 3,000 people watched the three Fire Brigades battle the fire. All three Brigades were highly praised for their efforts made in preventing the spread of the flames, and the Railway Fire Brigade under the command of Captain William Milne, was especially complimented for their smart and professional work. An initial estimate of the total damage caused by the greatest fire which the colony had yet witnessed, was around £50,000. (very approximately £2,500,000 today)
The N.G.R engine stopped pumping one hose because of a water shortage at about 3.30 am on Friday the 5th September, and all three Brigades stopped work around 5.00 am. With daylight and the absence of wind, further assistance was unnecessary. At 6.00 am, a hose was attached to the town’s fire main, to play on the ruins until 4.00 pm, to contain the masses of soft goods still smouldering in Adler’s bonded stores. Heavy rains which fell during the Sunday night virtually put an end to the fire, although during Monday afternoon smoke could still be seen, issuing from a heap of rubble and stores in Adler’s store.
His Excellency the Governor of the Colony sent a telegram of sympathy to the Mayor and the community.
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