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Book of the Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead

A portrayal of Newcastle and Gateshead during the conflagration; Newcastle is across the river, Gateshead in the foreground. Handcoloured woodblock engraving
Handcoloured woodblock engraving from the Illustrated London News, 14 October 1854

James Rewcastle’s book of the Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead in 1854.

I chanced across a copy of ‘A Record of the Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead’ for sale online and, wanting to find out a bit more about this, bought it. The Book was published in 1855 and the preface is dated 1854, which was the year of the Great Fire so it is, potentially, a useful contemporary account and source. The Great Fire started on the Quayside in Gateshead and, when a warehouse blew up, large chunks of burning debris spread the fire over a large area, including across the river into Newcastle. It raged for three or four days with major loss of life and extensive destruction of closely packed properties on both sides of the river. The existence of the recently built railways meant that it was now possible for the railway companies to put on extra trains, from Sunderland, Hexham, and elsewhere, to bring in sight seers who packed the High Level Bridge to watch the conflagration. In turn, pickpockets were able to do good business among the huge crowd.

The book has no author on the titlepage, but the preface is signed J.R.  Although it is a scarce book, there are several copies in libraries in different parts of the country. Most refer to the author simply as Anonymous or, like the British Library, ascribe it to J.R. One library, The Bodleian, presumes that J.R. is James Rewcastle, but I cannot find the basis for their attribution. There were copies in the Lit & Phil and Newcastle’s Central Library, but these have disappeared, presumed stolen.

Local biographies and directories provide a little information about James Rewcastle who was probably born in 1802 and died in 1867. He was a local printer and bookseller, but is now remembered largely as a founding member of the temperance movement in Newcastle and as a writer of hymns. It is this latter activity that provides the basis for his brief mention in the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. This entry also notes that it is assumed that J.R., the author of A Record of the Great Fire, and James Rewcastle are the same person. I imagine the source for this is probably the Bodleian catalogue.

When this book arrived in the post I was, therefore, delighted to find that, on the page following the title page, there was a clear inscription: To Aunt Jane with the kind love of the writer, James Rewcastle. On the flyleaf is an owner’s signature, Jane Glover. A quick online genealogical search established that James Rewcastle’s mother’s maiden name was Glover. So, in terms of confirming authorship, it seems that this is as good as the proverbial ‘smoking gun.’

This little book contains much interesting detail about the Great Fire of 1854 and its aftermath. Why Rewcastle chose to publish anonymously I do not know. He was, of course, a member of the Lit & Phil and maybe it was well-known locally that he was the author. Perhaps the, now missing, copy of his book in the Lit & Phil was presented with a suitable inscription from the author. The Lit & Phil has two copies of his book and they are both available to members.

About the author

Paul Smith

Paul Smith is a bookbinder and regular member of the Lit & Phil

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