Eye Spy Glasgow: The brave firefighters who perished in the city centre

On January 7, 1898, a massive fire raged at the top of Renfield Street, close to where the Evening Times building now stands.

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It erupted in premises owned Messrs W. & R. Hatrick & Co, wholesale and export chemists and druggists.

The three storeys above the commercial buildings were flats and the occupants had fled to safety in the middle of the night.

Fire crews at that time reached the scene in horse-drawn vehicles. It was a difficult and dangerous fire but after tackling the blaze for almost two hours, firefighters felt it was safe to enter the building.

As they did a huge explosion tore through the building, causing the roof to collapse and the entire building became a mass of flames.

When the dust had cleared and the rescue efforts were exhausted, four firemen were found to have perished.

Three had been standing on the roof and one had been crushed when masonry landed on him.

The men, John Battersby, James Hastie, Charles Orr and David Smith, all left behind wives and children. In the case of Mr Battersby, he was survived by a wife Jane and eight children.

A flagstone in the pavement at the main entrance to the Herald and Times building in Renfield Street, pays tribute to the victims

It reads: "Renfield Street. Friday 7th January 1898. A disastrous explosion and fire occurred here at the premises of W & R Hatricks chemical works whereat the following firemen of the Glasgow Fire Brigade were killed. Fireman James Hastie. Fireman John Battersby. Fireman David Smith. Fireman Charles Orr ."

The plaque forms part of the Glasgow Firefighters' Heritage Trail which we have highlighted before in this column.

Newspaper reports of the tragedy were detailed and mournful.

The Glasgow Herald, in a special edition, reported: "As is the case with all the members of the fire brigade, the deceased were steady, hard working men, and each of their surviving comrades feels that he has lost a personal friend.

"Visiting the stations one was saddened by the sight of little children weeping for their fathers whom they will see no more on earth."

At a special ceremony in Glasgow Cathedral in 1999, a poem was read out by deputy firemaster David Kennedy.

It had been written by John Battersby's father, also John, a Glasgow councillor and magistrate, and had only come to light 100 years after the disaster.

Part of the poem reads:

"...brave hearts, they thought the danger past

The flames grew dim, subdued at last.

When lo! regardless of the hissing sound,

The Firemen nobly stood their ground.

Hark, The loud thunder burst, the shattered wall,

The choking cloud, the crashing fall,

The piercing shriek, the smothered groan,

The mattered prayer, the dying moan

Think of the dead, for ever gone,

Leaving wives and weans to mourn."


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