17 June 1652 - Great Fire of Glasgow

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17 June 1652 - Great Fire of Glasgow

On Thursday 17 June 1652, a fire broke out in Glasgow which destroyed almost a third of the town and left around one thousand families without a home. 

Starting in the house of Mr James Hamilton above the Cross, the breezy conditions helped the fire to spread to dwellings, shops and warehouses throughout the Saltmarket, Briggait, Gallowgate and Trongate. 

This partial devastation of Glasgow was enabled by the flammable material of the buildings themselves. Buildings of this period were roofed with thatch and had wooden fronts, which provided convenient and plentiful fuel to the flames. The town’s primary means of extinguishing fires – leather buckets to carry water from wells and burns – was ineffective against such a large-scale disaster. 

In the days and months which followed, Glasgow needed help to rebuild.

DTC13.3 Glasgow [detail] - Web.jpg
​​​​​Map showing the town of Glasgow in 1650, (ref: D-TC13/3)​
​This map of Glasgow was prepared for an 1897 publication on the history of the city. It shows the layout of Glasgow as it would have looked around 1650. The detail shows the area around the Cross, which was affected by the fire. 
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​Fairburn lithograph of medieval buildings before the fire, 1849 (ref: TD791) 

This view shows one of the few buildings from the medieval period which survived the fires of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It shows the wooden fronts and thatch roofing which would have fuelled the blaze as it travelled south-west. This view is one of seventeen entitled Relics of Ancient Architecture and other Picturesque Scenes in Glasgow. These views were lithographed from water colours by Thomas Fairburn. 
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​Glasgow Town Council minutes, 22 June 1652 (ref: C1/1/12)

In the aftermath of the fire, the magistrates and councillors of Glasgow met to discuss how to provide for those who had been left homeless and destitute. This is the annotated heading (Suddent Fyre) introducing the minute which records that they appointed quartermasters for every street in the town. These officials had the authority to inventory the houses and goods of those unaffected by the fire and use them for the benefit of those who needed help. But the minute also reveals how crucial outside help was to the town: unless speedy remedy be used and help sought out from such as have power and whose hearts God shall move, it is likely the town shall come to utter ruin. 
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Glasgow Town Council minutes, 28 June 1652 (ref: C1/1/12)

The burgh turned to the church for help. It authorised one of its baillies, John Anderson, to meet with representatives from nearby churches and request them to open their doors as they wont to be of befoire. This was to provide for the temporary relief of many honest people. Glasgow also applied for financial assistance from the English Parliament and the burghs of Scotland receiving a substantial sum from both.    
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19th century extract from Glasgow Town Council minutes of 28 February 1653 (ref: D-TC6/380)

In this extracted minute, only eight months after the fire, it is recorded that all the leather buckets owned by Glasgow are either stoline away or brockine. In order to ensure that more buckets could be purchased, the council arranged for every new burgess of Glasgow to make an additional payment of five pounds upon entry. This tradition continued into the nineteenth century and was split equally between the Merchants and Trades Houses. 
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