Eye Spy Glasgow: Plaque marking the "melancholy end of poor Harrison"

Glasgow has been blighted over the years by fire tragedies - not for nothing was it once known as the Tinderbox City.

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Cheapside Street in Anderston, Kilbirnie Street in Tradeston and James Watt Street near the Broomielaw have all been the scene of fire disasters.

In many cases those who lost their lives were the brave firefighters battling the blazes.

And the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has established a heritage trail - with 12 memorial plaques dotted throughout the city.

One of the least known almost caused the destruction of a major part of Glasgow's city centre - and cost the life of one 27-year old fireman.

The plaque commemorating the event is built into the paving stones in Royal Exchange Square, in front of a close entrance beside Di Maggio's Italian restaurant.

It reads: "Royal Exchange Square. Friday 5th December 1856. A disastrous and destructive fire took place at numerous properties at the above location. Fireman John Harrison of the Glasgow Fire Brigade died as a result of injuries received while firefighting."

At that time the buildings in the Square and facing on to nearby Buchanan Street were occupied by high end stores and warehouses.

The Glasgow Herald of the time summed up the tragedy in exceedingly gloomy tones.

The report stated: "We have given details of the calamitous fire which took place...in the neighbourhood of the Exchange and which was rendered still more disastrous by the melancholy end of Harrison, the poor fireman who lost his life in the discharge of his duty, and whose fate has excited very general sympathy in the city."

It noted that Harrison was 27 and that his widow and two children had been left "destitute by the death of the breadwinner".

Harrison's end came when he and three colleagues were fighting the fire in the packing room of Messrs Black & Co.

Suddenly the floor gave way "with a tremendous crash" and Harrison was struck by falling joists. His body was recovered five hours later.

The newspaper didn't just limit itself to reporting the tragedy, it was very content to apportion blame.

It noted that the tenement building was on the beat of two policemen and stated: "That this fire

progressed to such an extent through the carelessness of these men there can be little doubt."

Dismissal should follow, it said, and, just in case the police weren't paying attention, "constables (should) attend to their respective beats, and not slumber on stairs or in closes".

Would the paper get away with that now? I think not.


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