1909 Douglas Street Fire

On Sunday, 7th November 1909, a terrible fire took place at 6 Douglas Street, burning down a tenement building and taking the lives of 2 people. The sensational commentary was told in some detail in local newspapers and is retold here. Attached also to illustrate, from 1910 -1915 is this remarkable photo showing the timbers of the very attic room burned out.

Janet McLean (nee Russell) was a 70 year old woman living at Douglas Street, near Kirkton at High Blantyre in the winter of 1909. Originally from Auchentibber, she lived alone but on the night of the fire, her nephew was with her, who was also the second victim. Janet was the mother of the McLean Brothers who owned nearby Springfield Mineral Water Company on Main Street.

The Building

6 Douglas Street was a former tenement building comprising of 2 storeys with upper attics. The address was not far from the High Blantyre Cross, and faced over to the kirkyard cemetery. The block measured 40foot by 30 foot and was divided in the attic into three single apartments and in the top and bottom storeys into two apartment houses. In all 7 houses, each with one room and kitchen. The attic rooms however each only had 1 room. Tenements of similar descriptions adjoined either gable.

The Fire

Around 3am on the morning of Sunday 7th November 1909, a Mrs Sneddon, one of the tenants of the attic rooms awoke smelling burning. It was her who first discovered the fire and when she raised the alarm, it was found that the adjacent attic room, belonging to Janet mcLean (70) was engulfed in flames. It was known that her nephew Harry Taylor (28) had been staying with her.

The flames were spreading rapidly and an evacuation of the other residents quickly took place.  Mrs Gibson, Alex Watt, Hugh Gibson, Alex Johnston and Alex McKay had sufficient time to not only escape but to save some of their furniture too. A considerable effort then started to try to save the rest of the furniture as some crude efforts to fight the fire were made by evacuated residents and neighbours. However, by this time the flames were fierce, especially so in the roof attic rooms and to everybody’s horror, it was around that time, that it was noticed that Mrs McLean and Harry Taylor were not standing outside on the pavement. It was considered impossible by everybody to reach Janet’s room which was described as “blazing like a furnace”.

Fighting the Fire

Decision was made to call the fire brigade. Now, this was not a simple matter as it is today. The fire was particularly notable for the engine called to eventually dowse the flames, came all the way from Glasgow, an unusual circumstance as there were no nearby engines or appliances.

The police were sent for and a detachment of 8 constables from Stonefield arrived on the scene but had little to do. The police were led by Sergeants McCallum and Swanson. As they awaited the appliance arriving, people resorted to pouring buckets of water on to the parts of the building they could safely reach, but were up against it. This technique had been used in a fire previously in Blantyre in recent weeks and again demonstrated the need for apparatus that could fight fires properly. Though the supply of water was plentiful, a hosepipe obtained from the gasworks on Stonefield Road was found to be far too short.

With the surrounding area being quite populated at Kirkton, the blaze and the glare from the fire was apparent in the dark winter night sky from far off. It attracted the attention of crowds of people coming from their houses in the dead of night to witness the alarm. By the middle of the night, Main Street around the vicinity of the tenement surged with a horrified mob, excited by the spectacle of the morbid sight. They were unable to take their eyes of the blazing attic room, where each person knew two lives were quickly being extinguished.The personal effects of five families were littered over Douglas Street, the only consolation being some neighbours quickly offering them shelter.

Two constables later gave an account to the Daily Record to explain why they found it difficult to get near the room. The wooden staircase at the back of the property leading to the attics was so badly damaged it was in danger of complete collapse. The apartment itself was in such a blaze, it was known already that people could not have survived it. Attention turned to Mrs Sneddon, who when asked what happened, said she could first smell burning. She confirmed the officers report that there was simply no way of getting to them and Janet McLean and her nephew Harry Taylor had only been discovered as missing when the residents evacuated. The fire likely started in the attic of Janet mcLean and we can only assume they were quickly overcome by smoke in such a small space, perhaps even dead from smoke inhalation by the time flame got to their bodies.

Reporters told at the time how sad it was to have a village with no fireman or ability to attend a fire in such emergencies. Those words would stick with County Councillors prompting later action. The incident was described as being enough in itself to make sure a County Fire Brigade was established.

Although Blantyre had no claim for Glasgow assistance to fires, a compliment of 10 firemen and a pump were dispatched from Glasgow to help. The call to them was made at 4am and it was of a surprise as to how quickly they travelled the 8 miles to Blantyre. The water was plentiful being nearby at the Kirkton Cross as the firemen got to work. The flames had spread from the attic to the first floor below and by the time they dowsed the fire, the upper portion of the building was completely gutted, the lower parts quite destroyed by water.

No sooner than the fire had been put out, the gruesome search for 2 bodies was started. The firemen searched from one end of the building to another turning over debris until the bodies were found. Each of the two bodies were lying in their respective beds, again fuelling speculation they had died from smoke or not woken. It was clear they had made no attempt to escape. One body was in four portions, the other just the ‘trunk’ remaining. A gruesome sight for the firemen. In such a bad state, only a few distinguishable features of them remained. A coffin was fashioned and the remains were quickly transferred to the house of the relatives. (This is assumed is must have been the McLean Brothers who lived only a minute or so away in Main Street). The firemen continued their task until it was complete and did not return to Glasgow until well into the daytime. Damage to the building was estimated as being around £500- £600

Throughout the day, onlookers trooped by the scene to witness the devastation, coming in from all around. There were many references to the lack of firefighting resources in Blantyre. Mr Thomson, procurator fiscal visited the scene the next day as did Captain Despard, the Chief Constable.

How horrific this must have been for the McLean family, for surely they must have stepped out their doors and ran through Main Street to the scene where their mother was trapped.

In the weeks to follow, local meetings were held nearby in the Masonic Buildings to discuss the raising of funds for a modern appliance for the Blantyre area and for primarily rehousing of helping the 5 families who had been ‘burned out’ losing everything. Attended by Councillors, William Jolly and Andra McAnulty, a subscription fund of 1s each was launched to those people who wanted to contribute. It would be Blantyre Miners who rallied to the cause and it was them who contributed most to the fund.

There are a couple of discrepancies in the reports. Some say 5 families were homeless, others say 6. Some reports say Harry was Janet’s grandson, others say her nephew.

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