The world’s first organised Fire Brigade was founded in Edinburgh by James Braidwood in 1824. Little did they know just a few months later the new recruits would tackle a catastrophe beyond what they were trained for when the city would suffered one of the most devastating fires.
It’s the evening of the 15th of November in 1824. The Edinburgh winter skies are dark as the night draws in. Around 10pm, the cry of “fire” was heard down the High Street. Clouds of smoke could be seen billowing from the second floor of a seven-storey printing house on Old Assembly Close just a stones throw from our own Mary King’s Close.
In the workshop of engraver James Kirkwood a pot of linseed oil had overheated, spilled and set fire to a stack of paper. The fire quickly spread, within two hours the south side of the High Street was up in flames. The blaze destroyed the tenement at Old Assembly Close before taking over three neighbouring tenements.
Overnight the fire destroyed the offices of the Edinburgh Courant newspaper, and the following day some flying embers caused the Tron Church to catch fire. The terrible fire then made its way through Parliament Square and St Giles’ Cathedral.
The newly founded Fire Brigade struggled to gain control of the fire, as the firefighters had not yet received full training and the flames were relentless. Conflicting orders from city leaders just added confusion to the situation. The Great Fire raged for two days and took another two to fully extinguish. 400 homes were destroyed, businesses were ruined. 13 people were killed, with hundreds of others injured or made homeless. Building damage amounted to over £200,000, and the fire was responsible for the loss of some of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh.
As a result of the inquiry that followed The Great Fire of Edinburgh, city fire masters were given full command of firefighting incidents – a structure which exists to this day.
To discover more of Edinburgh’s history check out our one hour fully guided tour. Explore through the hidden streets beneath Edinburgh’s bustling Royal Mile and learn the real life stories of those who lived, worked and died on Mary King’s Close: www.realmarykingsclose.com