The Tooley Street fire

22/06/1861 London, UK

The Tooley Street fire

Type of Fire


Ignition Source

Spontaneous combustion


3 days to control, 2 weeks to extinguish


1 fatality


Estimated £2m

What happened at Tooley Street in 1861?

On 22 June 1861, a fire broke out in Cotton’s Wharf, Tooley Street. The warehouse in which it started was used to store products such as tea, coffee and spices.

The fire may have been contained if the large metal fire doors dividing the warehouse were closed, as recommended by the Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment, James Braidwood. However, they were left open.

Firefighters were unable to get water to the flames for more than an hour, allowing the fire to take hold. As they battled the blaze they became increasingly tired. Braidwood instructed them to rest while he continued to fight the fire, but tragically the ceiling collapsed while he was inside - he was killed instantly.

The fire continued for three days, at which point the firefighters were able to recover Braidwood’s body. It took a further two weeks to extinguish the flames.


How did the Great Fire of Tooley Street start?

The fire is believed to have started by spontaneous combustion, spreading quickly through the warehouse and consuming all combustible items.


What can the industry learn from the Tooley Street fire?

The warehouse was a complete loss along with its contents at an estimated cost of £2m. Following the fire, insurance companies raised their premiums and insisted on better storage of products in warehouses.

In 1862, insurance companies wrote to the Home Secretary stating that they could no longer be responsible for fire safety in London. They had often put out fires without charge, but were now insisting that something should be done as a public authority.

The Home secretary responded by establishing the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act, which was passed in 1865. It stated that from 1 January 1866 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade would commence as a public service. 

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