Remembering Glasgow’s James Watt Street Fire, 18 November 1968

James (Jim) Smith joined Glasgow Fire Brigade as a firefighter in 1962 at the age of twenty, where he was assigned to one of the busiest city stations in Western Europe. Glasgow was known as ‘Tinderbox City’ at the time, and the brigade had a reputation for being well-equipped and trained in order to deal with industrial and residential fires. Jim attended many large fires over his career, including three occasions when firefighter colleagues were killed on duty. He retired in 1993, and is presently a voluntary archivist at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service library at West Service Delivery Headquarters in Hamilton, where he researches the history of the service. 

Jim Smith

Above: Firefighter James Smith receiving certificate of bravery from Firemaster Knowlton for rescue work at a building collapse. Source: Personal Collection.

 

 One of the deadliest fires Jim attended was at A. J. & S. Stern’s furniture factory on James Watt Street, on a frosty morning on 18 November 1968, some 50 years ago this week. Twenty-two people were killed by suffocating and poisonous smoke at this fire, caused by the burning of highly combustible polyurethane foam. Some also experienced extensive burns. The firm had recently moved its operations to a former whisky bonded warehouse, three-storeys high, with barred windows and wooden stairs and flooring, which it shared with a glassware manufacturer. The firm’s director, Julius Stern, locked the fire escape doors during working hours, supposedly to prevent theft from the premises, which impeded the fire brigade’s rescue attempts. Newspapers described the victims clawing at the hellish windows to try and escape. Days before the blaze, one employee, George Bennadetti (30), had warned his brother, “God help us if anything ever happens there.” Stern, along with 19 of his employees (Bennadetti included), and the director and employee of the glassware firm, died in the tragedy. Among the fatalities was a mother, May Taylor, and her fifteen year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who both worked in the factory. A small number of employees managed to escape, with assistance from firefighters.

Following a nine-day fatal-accident inquiry, various recommendations were made to improve workplace fire safety. The convener of the city’s police and fire committee, Bailie James Anderson, argued that ‘all iron bars on windows of bonded warehouses should be removed. With modern methods of burglar protection, it is simply an anachronism of the eighteenth century.’ A campaign by the Fire Brigades Union led to improved regulations concerning bars on windows, the provision of satisfactory means of escape in the event of fire, the storage and use of foam plastics in furniture, and the granting of powers of entry for qualified fire prevention officers into industrial premises to enforce better standards of safety. The owners of the firm, who were found guilty of serious breaches of worker safety under the Factory Acts, were fined the maximum sum of £600, but resumed business soon after the fire.

 

JW 1

Above: Cover to report by the Fire Brigades Union into the fire, 1969.

 

 The James Watt Street incident is one of a number of iconic fires that the Forged by Fire team have focused on for our research into fire and burns safety in the workplace. Improved worker safety in industrial premises has been forged by fire throughout the past 200 years, including large fires involving multiple fatalities such as this one, or individual accidents such as chemical burns or scalds from hot liquid spillages. Together, these had a cumulative effect on improved fire awareness from management as well as workers, and heralded tougher regulations and sanctions for employers who broke the law. In this post, Dr Shane Ewen (SE), Project Co-Investigator, interviews Jim (JS) about his recollections of this avoidable tragedy.

 

SE: What do you remember about the day before the call out?

JS: It was a cold, frosty morning and we were doing Breathing Apparatus drill in the Gymnasium in the Central Fire Station on Ingram Street. The morning break bell went at 10:15, but at the same time the fire bell was activated, with a call for the Turntable Ladder [SE: from the West fire station] to attend James Watt Street. Instead of heading up to the canteen I waited at the engine room to hear the first message back. It came back soon afterwards [SE: the first crew arrived within five minutes] – make pumps ten [SE: additional appliances required to take the total, including those already on site, to ten], factory well alight, persons reported “missing” [SE: indicating that persons were requiring urgent assistance and rescue]. I quickly climbed into the Deutz pump escape followed by the rest of the crew.

 

SE: What did you see when you arrived at the scene of the fire?

JS: Proceeding along Argyle Street we could see heavy smoke logging at the railway bridge, and nothing could be seen further ahead. Then, turning into James Watt Street we saw the serious involvement of fire with volumes of heavy smoke issuing from the building. When you saw how seriously involved the building was, every effort was channeled to deal with this horrific fire.

 

JW 2

Firefighters desperately battle the clouds of black smoke pouring out of Stern’s factory on James Watt Street. Source: Scottish Fire and Rescue Service library.

 

SE: What do you remember about the building involved in the fire?

JS: The basement and third level was a fancy goods warehouse, ground and first floor was the furniture factory, previously a bonded warehouse with custom security, bars on windows and steel escape doors leading to a stone staircase which led out onto the street.

The property had a direct link to the West fire station but the firm refused to continue the contract with the AFA alarm company. The line was disconnected to the West fire station approximately six months before the fire.

 

SE: What was your role at the fire?

JS: I was manning a jet of water from the street position at the front with Sub Officer Paraig McKay. Assistant Firemaster Peter McGill said that we were going to attempt to make an entry from the street up to the first floor with our jet. We donned our B.A. [SE: Breathing Apparatus] sets and climbed the stairway, which was heavily smoke logged and very hot. When we reached the first floor the escape door was hot to the touch and on attempting to open it, I realised it was padlocked from the inside. It was a steel door, installed by the previous occupiers. This was the door from which those trapped inside should have escaped from.

 

[SE: Approximately 70 firefighters, including members of the Glasgow Salvage Corps, attended the fire but rescue operations were hampered by the intense heat and the barred windows.]

 

JW 3

Above: Firefighters James Smith, closest to camera, and Paraig MacKay direct hose jet on the blaze at James Watt Street. Source: Scottish Fire and Rescue Service library.

 

Assistant Firemaster McGill tasked me to cut a panel out of the door using the brigade’s oxy acetylene back pack. A panel was cut out and entry was made and the casualties were discovered in various places throughout the first floor.

 

SE: What difficulties did the brigade encounter during operations?

JS: The difficulty confronting the fire brigade was that the fire involved polyurethane foam, which gave off toxic fumes and burned at a high temperature and at that time was used in the manufacturing of furniture. This stock of polyurethane foam was stored on the mezzanine floor between the ground and first floor. When fire broke out, the escape route from the first floor where most of the factory staff were working, was blocked by fire and the other emergency route out was via the steel door which was locked –  and the key couldn’t be found. Moreover, the windows had steel bars – and therefore there was no escape route available and the staff were trapped.

All sorts of observations were made about cutting the bars off the windows to gain access [SE: but the heat was too intense to do so safely].  At the stage the fire brigade was alerted you couldn’t see the property never mind the bars on the windows. There was no indication as to where the casualties might be, although before the fire brigade was alerted staff were seen at the various windows.

Every feasible effort – and at great personal risk – was attempted by the firefighters present. The best of fire service equipment, including the fireboat St. Mungo, was brought into use but to no avail other than at the cessation of firefighting the building was sufficiently intact to allow the firefighters to recover the casualties.

 

SE: The James Watt Street fire was the trigger for a national campaign by the Fire Brigades Union to introduce legislation regulating the safe manufacture, storage and sale of flammable furniture. However, it would take another multiple fatality fire, at Manchester’s Woolworths store in 1979, before the law was changed with the 1980 Upholstered Furniture (Safety) Regulations (amended 1988 and 1993), which introduced tougher controls over the use and storage of polyurethane foam as a filling material in upholstered furniture, as well as fire warning labels prominently displayed on products. The fire service also obtained stronger powers, in 1976, over fire safety in industrial and other workplace premises, which were now subject to periodic inspections of their means of escape in case of fire. Rogue employers would now receive more stringent penalties for failing to protect staff safety. Lessons were learned from these tragedies, and changes made to protect safety in the workplace.

 

JW 4

Above: Clearing up after the tragedy. The bars on the windows can be clearly seen on the first floor. Source: Scottish Fire and Rescue Service library.

 

Sources

Alan Forbes and James Smith, Tinderbox Heroes: Commemorating the Cheapside Street Disaster and the Extreme Challenges Faced by Glasgow’s Postwar Fire Service (Glasgow: Strathclyde Fire & Rescue Employees’ Association, 2010).

Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.346B/11/1, Without a Chance. Supplementary submission by the Fire Brigades Union to the Departmental Committee of enquiry into the Fire Service. Based on the proceedings of the nine-day fatal accident enquiry into the fire at James Watt Street, Glasgow, in November 1968 (London: Fire Brigades Union, 1969).

Glasgow City Archives D-TC/201, Proceedings of the Fatal Accident Inquiry into Fire at 17-25 James Watt Street.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Library, Fire cuttings, Book II, 1958-1968.

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