Fire at Christchurch

One of the most remarkable and awe-inspiring sites on our Jack the Ripper tour is the  soaring and majestic tower of Christchurch, Spitalfields.

It dominates its surroundings today, just as it did in 1888 and, as we say on the walk, it is a chilling thought that almost all the Whitechapel Murders victims would have looked up at the tower and spire of the church on an almost daily basis.

It really is a direct link between our age and the Victorian East End.

A view looking up at the white tower and spire of Christchurch Spitalfields.
The Soaring White Tower and Spire of Christchurch Spitalfields.

But, were it not for the actions of the locals, we would have lost this local landmark to fire on the 18th February 1836.

The following article comes from the Sunday 21st February 1836 edition of Bell’s Weekly Messenger:-


On Wednesday afternoon, between the hours of two and three o’clock, a fire was discovered in the spire or belfry of Spitalfields Church, which had nearly proved the destruction of that splendid edifice.


The alarm was first given by some persons in the immediate vicinity of the church perceiving a volume of smoke issuing from the windows of the belfry, over the clock; and it was discovered that the wood-work in the clock-room was on fire and the flames at the time had reached the loft above, over which the ponderous bells belonging to the church were hung.


A number of fire-engines in a very few minutes arrived on the spot, but, from the height at which the fire was situated in the belfry, the hose could not reach it; and though there appeared a plentiful supply of water, the efforts of the firemen were unavailing in checking the progress of the flames in ascending the spire, and they therefore, directed the whole of their attention to the roof, and used all their exertions in preventing the flames touching the body of the church; and in this they were, fortunately, successful.


On the alarm being given, Mr. Price, the superintendent of the H division of police, with a body of nearly one hundred of his men, arrived on the spot, and rendered the most efficient service’s.

The Hon. G. C. Norton & Mr. Hardwick, the magistrates of Lambeth-street, were also present, directing the firemen.


The wood work which supported the peal of bells having been consumed by the flames, the bells, which were twelve in number, and were considered the finest in the metropolis, fell one by one with a tremendous crash, particularly the tenor, which weighed no less than forty-four cwt. This bell, it was feared, would, from its ponderous weight, have caused much damage in its fall; but owing to a strong arch being formed under the floor of the belfry, this was prevented, and the large bell falling on the top of the others, split in two.

At seven o’clock the wood-work in the spire having been completely consumed, all further apprehension for the safety of the other part of the sacred structure was removed.


The cause of the fire is involved in considerable mystery.


While the flames were raging, a funeral arrived at the church-gates, and the Rev. Mr. Stone, the rector, amidst all the confusion, performed the solemn ceremony, and the corpse was interred.


At eight o’clock the flames were completely subdued, and all further apprehension for the safety of the church removed.

The fire-engine, however, still continued to play over the smouldering ruins.


The whole of the wood-work in the interior of the belfry, as also the steeple, is consumed; but the organ, which cost upwards of £1,800, is uninjured, although a portion of the loft has sustained considerable damage.


It is not known precisely how the conflagration originated, but it is imagined that it arose through the carelessness, or otherwise, of a man in the occasional employ of the steeple-keeper, and who, but a short time before the alarm of fire was given, had, for some purpose or other, gone into the belfry with a lighted candle in his hand. This man, who is one of the ringers, was taken into custody, but subsequently liberated on bail.


Thousands of persons were congregated in front of the edifice, and the whole neighbourhood was, as may be imagined, in a state of the greatest confusion.

The damage done to the church is estimated already at £4,000.