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The Great Fire

The ruins, February 8th, 1893

On the 7th February 1893 the Society was 100 years old, so a fitting occasion for great celebrations. “Never before had there been so brilliant a gathering, never before had the suite of fine rooms been so admirably decorated or looked so beautiful. As you lounged beneath tall and graceful palms or wandered in groves of richly fruited orange tees, and the sweet strains of music stole through the air, it was difficult to believe that you were in “canny Newcassel”. The refreshments purveyed in the new reading room were quite recherche, and well served. Mr.J.H. Amers’ orchestral band discoursed from the galleries overhead; a double quartet party from York Minster rendered with cultured effect in the Hall many fine songs; and then, in other rooms, something of the inventive genius of the age was demonstrated - in one place, Edison’s latest phonograph, and at another quite a large number of telephonic communications with the opera at the Art Gallery, by which a succession of hearers, although a quarter of a mile away, seemed to be too near, so loud and resounding were the choruses and orchestration heard, the flute always coming out most distinctively.”1

That evening, Robert Spence Watson LL.D., a Vice-President of the Society, caught the train to London and reading the Times the following morning his eye “fell speedily upon a short paragraph which stated, without note or comment, that during the night the Society’s building had been burned to the ground.”.

The fire had been spotted by a telegraph clerk who was on his way home from his shift at the nearby General Post Office at about a quarter to six in the morning of the 8th February.  The Fire Brigade succeeded in extinguishing the flames but a great deal of damage was caused. The roof was destroyed, the floor partially collapsed and many many books were burned or damaged by the water. In 1893 the library was heated by hot water which was provided by various fires and an overheated beam under one of them was thought to be the cause of the conflagration.

The occasion of the fire was seen as an opportunity to make some structural changes to the library and electric light was provided by a dynamo driven by a gas engine in the basement. All open fire-places were removed! By dint of great efforts by members and staff the library was once again to members on October 1st 1894.

The bicentenary celebrations in 1993 passed without incident, or at least damage to the building.

Yesterday morning, at a quarter to 6, the premises of the Literary and Philosophical Society at Newcastle-on-Tyne were discovered to be in flames. The building is situated in the centre of the city, between the Central Railway Station and the post-office, and the outbreak was first noticed by a telegraph clerk, who communicated by telephone with the fire brigade. The society was founded in 1793, and the foundation-stone of the present building, which cost £14,500, was laid by the Duke of Sussex in 1822. On Tuesday evening the centenary of the society was celebrated by a conversazione, which was attended by Lord Armstrong (president), Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, the Bishop of Newcastle, and about 1,500 ladies and gentlemen. The building includes an amphitheatre partly beneath the street level, over which stands the principal library. From the latter, entrance is obtained to a recently-added wing, used as the reference department. The building had been locked up at midnight, there being no caretaker living on the premises. The fire broke out at the end of the large library furthest away from the street, and the interior, containing many thousands of books, was very much damaged. Half of it was completely destroyed, and the flames swept round the entire library and scorched all the books and the furniture, which were not destroyed. The roof was consumed. Various small rooms in the front of the building, containing valuable portraits, fortunately escaped much damage, and the new wing was only injured by water and smoke. At the end of the main library, where the fire broke out, the floor fell through into the amphitheatre beneath. Though flooded with water in some parts, the amphitheatre itself did not suffer further. The fire brigade succeeded in quenching the flames by 8 o'clock. Lord Armstrong and Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell visited the scene of the disaster soon after 9. The building was heated by hot-water pipes and lighted by electricity. The cause of the fire is not known. There were 35,000 volumes in the library. Two-thirds have been damaged or destroyed. The: building and its contents were insured for £30,000. A florist and an upholsterer, who supplied the decorations and furniture for the conversazione, have sustained serious loss. 

The Times, 8th February 1893


1 "The History of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, Robert Spence Watson, London: Walter Scott Ltd, Paternoster Square 1897. A copy is available in The Lit & Phil’s library.

About the author

Andrew Harvey

Andrew Harvey is a composer and arranger, is a member of the Board of the Lit & Phil and chair of the Marketing Committee.

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