On the dark, Winter afternoon of Wednesday 25th January 1928, a Burns Supper at Waterloo Row, Low Blantyre had catastrophic and terrible consequences for many local people.
The dilapidated row of seventeen two apartment Miner’s houses situated on the banks of the River Clyde was entirely and quickly wiped out by raging fires rendering 108 people homeless, including many children.
Almost everybody was uninsured. The village hall was however crammed full of furniture, bedding, pots and pans, clothes and other effects rescued from the fire meaning at least some possessions were saved. Two men narrowly escaped death when a Blantyre fireman entered a room to rescue an old man and the roof collapsed in on them, imprisoning them between burning wooden beams. Thankfully other firemen were on hand and quickly hacked a way through the flames, quickly and bravely pulling them out to safety, and to much applause.
Intrigued, I’ve been investigating this story in some depth and uncovered a lot more detail, with thanks to some descriptive reporting of the event.
Reports vary between 18 to 20 families ending up homeless. The fire apparently broke out at around 11am in just one of them, whilst a Burns Supper was being prepared. The fire lasted much of the afternoon. Near the housing was an extensive oil works, and as such, there was great danger involved. Ultimately, the homes of 45 families had been at risk, although less than half that number ended up homeless.
The row of houses called Waterloo Row, was situated on the banks of the River Clyde, just one street away from the famous birthplace of David Livingstone, the Explorer. The homes were owned by colliery owners Messrs William Baird & Co. The fire originated in the Cassidy family home, which was no more than one room. It was only spotted when the afternoon got dark and during a downpour. Fanned by a heavy wind, the fire spread rapidly, unfortunately in the exact direction of the remaining homes. It is reported that the tenants in the homes adjacent had to leave quickly, some of them not being able to make any attempt to save any of their possessions. Despite the calls for safety, many people ignored this and rushed back into their homes in vain attempts to save clothing and bedding. When the fire brigade arrived, it was immediately seen that the fire had a firm grip on most of the buildings, so they concentrated on saving the nearest intact buildings. The fire brigade of Larkhall, Cambuslang and Bellshill were all summoned.
A fireman named Nicolson, had a marvelous escape from death. Whilst entering a room to rescue an old man, a wooden roof fell in, trapping them both under the beams and by account, within a circle of fire. Further blazing props of the house prevented their exit and to many watching, death seemed imminent. Other fireman, without fear of their own safety, immediately hacked into the building, and saved their colleague and the old man. They then turned their attention back to the fire.
Great volumes of smoke filled the air as volunteers tried to rescue items of furniture in adjacent homes. Quite the spectacle. Soon the street was filled with stacks of furniture, carpets, pots, pans and other articles. Even these items became at risk as the fire, sparks and embers edged closer to the stacks of furniture. Onlookers began moving them to a safer area in the nearby old Village hall, which was soon filled.Some women and children huddled in the street in the gloomy afternoon watching the event, tears streaming from their face.
Unfortunately, as the afternoon turned to early evening, the winds strengthened to almost gale force. The rain had stopped hindering attempts to put out the fire. Throughout the afternoon, men and women foolishly entered the inferno to try to save as many belongings as possible, sometime brushing with death. Many people were driven back by heat and flame. However, it quickly became apparent by early evening that nothing much could be done to save the property. Waterloo Row was lost.
Great volumes of smoke filled the air and handicapped the hundreds of willing helpers as they strove to remove household effects. Soon, the street was filled with stacks of furniture, carpets, pots, pans and other articles as gradually the fire ate it’s way fiercely to the end of the row. Meanwhile, the wind carried showers of sparks and debris in the direction of the stacks of furniture and piles of household goods. To prevent them from being engulfed too, the residents then manhandled them away to the village hall, which soon filled. With the exception of the fireman and the aged tenant, so other person suffered physical injury.
The plight of the homeless occupants of the row was pitiful. Women, men and children were huddled by the roadside in countless families watching the complete and utter destruction of their homes and in many cases unable to save anything. Many people were in tears.
During the next few days, efforts were made all through the town to find temporary accommodation for the homeless, but in this area in particular, houses were extremely scarce and in very poor condition. Many other miners however arranged to take in families until they could make alternative arrangements. By Friday 27th January, some families had been re-housed in the new housing estate situated next to the row. Some families however found this greatly difficult and 1928 was the year lots of them left the town for good.
It is recorded that some of the homeless families who took up temporary residence with other miners included – Thomas Dolan, John Liddle, David McAdam, Peter Nelson, James McCue, John Campbell, Michael Cassidy, James Mohan, Robert Fisher, Edward Boyd, Peter Daws, Michael Higgins, John Gormley, William McIntyre, Alfred Wilson, Alexander McKenzie and John Cassidy.
Their plight was distressing in the short term, for although some had accommodation, they did not have beds, furniture, clothes or any household goods.
The story was told to the press by a Mrs Brown, whose house was situated near the scene. She was the one who raised the initial alarm. She said, “Nobody seems to know how it started. The flames seemed to take an awful hold on the house and the wind rising suddenly, fanned them into a blazing mass, which seemed to sweep the street all at once. Women and children ran screaming from the house next to the burning dwelling and for a time they were panic stricken. Great clouds of smoke filled the air and made the work of the volunteers disagreeable but they pluckily continued their efforts to remove the furniture. “
Deputy Chief Constable Syme and Super-indendent Pedan of Lanarkshire County Constabulary, superintended the work of the firemen. The Cambuslang, Larkhall and Bellshill fire brigades were all summoned. The Houses were owned by Messrs William Baird and Co, coalmasters.
A few days later, local Councillors were quick to act. Mr AB Maxwell and Mr E Daly along with James Muir and George Buttle, the local sanitary inspectors met on the 27th January with 18 of the families to discuss re-housing. In the neighborhood, a series of new 1930 houses were scheduled but were still being built. Some of the families were allocated these houses nearby in the Village, but had to wait almost 2 years before they were ready. Councillor Daly announced a relief fund was to be opened in Blantyre to help accommodate people in the interim and to assist those who were left with only the clothes they had on. People of Blantyre were asked to donate beds, bedclothes and furniture to help. Mr Jarvie, a General Manager of William Baird & Co, coalmasters who owned Waterloo Row, announced that the families would receive free coal until such a time they moved to their new homes.
Interestingly, these Blantyre houses and those at David Livingstone’s Shuttle Row were very much in mind at the time. The houses had all been condemned (including Shuttle Row) and were due for demolition the following year. At the same time of the fire, a committee was frantically trying to raise money to save the mill buildings, houses and David Livingstone’s birthplace. It was only through the efforts of that Committee that the following year, they managed to save the adjacent Shuttle Row and open it as a tourist attraction. Not enough money had been raised to save Waterloo Row, and if I had a suspicious mind, I would think something amiss here.
An old firm football match was held at the end of February 1928 between Rangers and Celtic, with funds raised for the homeless people of this fire.
From “Blantyre Explained” by Paul Veverka (c) 2016