The inferno which raged through 48 Sunderland businesses

The men of the time survey the scene of the disaster.
The men of the time survey the scene of the disaster.
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Everyone has heard of the Great Fire of London of 1666.

But few Wearsiders realise that Sunderland had its own mini Great Fire in 1898.

The rebuilt Havelock House store.

The rebuilt Havelock House store.

The scene of devastation ended with 48 businesses being destroyed, gutted or seriously damaged.

In 1898, the town of Sunderland had no properly organised fire brigade, no steam fire engines and there seemed no rush for either.

All that was to change, however, following one of the largest fires to be seen in England since the Great Fire of London.

Chris Cordner reports with the excellent help of Philip Curtis and the team at the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

It was a very windy night and this caused the fire to quickly progress into a raging inferno and spread to adjoining buildings. Once the alarm was raised, panic broke out and the Royal Theatre in Bedford Street had to be quickly evacuated

Philip Curtis, Sunderland Antiquarian Society

It was just after 10pm on Monday, July 18, 1898, when it started.

It happened in the extensive premises of the Havelock House store, on the corner of Fawcett Street and High Street West across the road from Mackie’s Corner.

The conditions were pretty much perfect for a blaze.

It was a very windy night and this caused the fire to quickly progress into a raging inferno and spread to adjoining buildings.

Inquisitive children take a look at the fire-hit scene.

Inquisitive children take a look at the fire-hit scene.

Once the alarm was raised, panic broke out and the Royal Theatre in Bedford Street had to be quickly evacuated.

Crowds gathered to watch the futile efforts made to contain the flames.

The town had no real fire brigade or modern steam fire engines and there were no fire hydrants.

A vain attempt was made to use the Fire Queen, a boat that was moored at Panns Ferry landing, but it was not possible to connect sufficient hose to reach the blaze.

Havelock House fire the morning after.

Havelock House fire the morning after.

The fire was finally brought under control in the early hours of the Tuesday morning and it was then that the full extent of the damage was seen.

The whole corner of Fawcett Street had been completely destroyed along with a large section of High Street West and the north end of John Street.

The damage count showed 11 premises in Fawcett Street, 22 shops and offices in John Street, 12 business premises in High Street West and 3 shops in John Street were all completely gutted.

Somehow, Mackie’s Corner had survived whilst all around its neighbouring premises were burning

The damage was estimated at £400,000 at the time when the total rateable value of the town was around £500,000. A large portion was covered by insurance but there was a severe general loss.

Rebuilding swiftly took place and a new Havelock House store was reconstructed.

Locals gather among the rubble.

Locals gather among the rubble.

Risdons, on the corner of John Street was also included in the rebuilding and the drapers, Caslaw, Hayter and Tate opened in premises between the store and Risdons.

The rebuilt Havelock House department store remained in business until 1915 when the premises were altered to become a cinema which was appropriately named ‘The Havelock’.

The Council also moved quickly and modern steam fire engines were brought into the town – all too late.

Surveying the scene of the fire.

Surveying the scene of the fire.

Fighting the fire in 1898.

Fighting the fire in 1898.

Word gets out and the crowds find out more for themselves.

Word gets out and the crowds find out more for themselves.

Havelock fire from the north end of John Street.

Havelock fire from the north end of John Street.

The Edwardian Havelock House fire.

The Edwardian Havelock House fire.