February 12 1816: St John’s Newfoundland Burns!


“February 12, 1816, about eight o’clock, a fire broke out in a house in a part of the town [in St. John’s in Newfoundland] known by the name of the King’s Beach, and speedily communicated to the houses adjoining, and burnt with so much fury, that one hundred and twenty houses, the homes of about a thousand men, women, and children, were consumed before the conflagration was stayed. Thus in the very heart of the cold season, in a proverbially cold country (the whole coast at the time was blockaded with ice), this multitude of persons, in addition to the loss of nearly all their property, were destitute of the shelter of a roof except such as charity might previde. Fortunately the fire was prevented from communicating with serious effect with the south side of Water Street, where all the stores were kept, or the calamity which would have ensued must have equalled all that imagination can picture of a scene of woe. Amongst the buildings destroyed were the two Printing Offices, and the newly-erected Wesleyan Chapel. The Custom-House was on fire for some time, but happily was saved from much damage. The whole loss sustained was estimated at more than a. hundred thousand pounds. It is painful to quote the following extract from the letter containing a report of this disastrous event, but it points out a fact which has been too frequently exemplified on like occasions among the lowest orders of the ‘capital :—

Amidst this awful scene of confusion, so unavoidable on such occasions, it is a melancholy fact that too many of the populace were more intent on plundering the unfortunate sufferers, than in affording them aid and assistance for the preservation of property or the extinction of the flames, some of whom have been since tried, convicted and publicly punished for offences of this description. Still, however, property to a very considerable amount, which is known to have been rescued from the flames, is kept in concealment from the suffering owners by these unfeeling wretches.”

The History of Newfoundland By Charles Pedley (1863)

“Early in the same year, on the night of Monday, the 12th of February, the town of Saint John’s was nearly destroyed by a fire, which broke out between the hours of eight and nine, whilst a tremendous gale was blowing from the south-east. The conduct of the seamen from the King’s ships,and of the troops from the garrisons, under their respective officers, as well as of the respectable parts of the inhabitants, is represented, on this critical occasion, as beyond praise, while the bulk of the lower orders stood, with their arms folded, surveying this disastrous scene with an apathy disgraceful to the human character, and appearing to have no object but pillage. The aggregate pecuniary loss occasioned by this conflagration was estimated at upwards of one hundred thousand pounds sterling; and about fifteen hundred persons were driven to seek new abodes in February, themost inclement month of a Newfoundland winter. The distresses of these unfortunate sufferers were considerably aggravated by the depredations committed by the populace upon the property snatched from the flames.

 The rapidity with which the houses were consumed is almost inconceivable. Many of their inmates had barely time to escape without any covering except blankets, standing shivering in the storm and snow, while all they had in the world was perishing before their eyes, having no where to rest their heads and to shelter themselves from the rigorous inclemencies of the weather, and happy to find a refuge on board the shipping in the harbour. When every circumstance of that calamity is considered;—the season of the year when the inhabitants, hemmed in by vast barriers of ice and snow, had no interior to fly to but a frozen trackless wild;—the materials of which their houses were constructed, namely, wood, no brick but in their chimneys; and all irregularly built and huddled together, as suited the conveniency of their various owners, without any regard to order or safety:—every thing tended to complete the horrors of that night.And yet all this sinks in the scale of comparison when we carry our thoughts to the very narrow escape of the magazines and stores, the destructionof which must have reduced a population of twelve thousand souls to a complete state of starvation. It very providentially happened that these stores and magazines were saved, and that only one life was lost, that of a man who was in bed at the time, and was supposed to have perished in the flames.

The humane exertions of the principal officers of the army, of the navy, of the public departments, and of the mercantile houses and other respectable inhabitants of Saint John’s, were not confined to their own efforts to stop the progress of the flames, and to afford to the unfortunate sufferers such immediate assistance as the nature of their circumstances would permit; but a most liberal subscription was immediately entered upon and raised by them for their relief.”

A History of the Island of Newfoundland by Lewis Amadeus Anspach (1819)

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