1841 Fire

Here is a published 1841 account of the fire which destroyed St Giles’ Church. Allport’s book went to print before a competition was held to find an architect to design the new church.

Collections, Illustrative of the Geology, History Antiquities, and Associations of Camberwell, and the Neighbourhood

By Mr Douglas Allport


On the night of Sunday the 7th of February, 1841, a fire broke out in the church, by which it was completely destroyed.

It appears to have burst forth in the neighbourhood of the organ-loft, and to have first excited the notice of the policeman on duty, who instantly communicating with his superiors, the necessary measures were promptly put in execution. The Rev. the Vicar was immediately on the spot, and succeeded, at considerable risk, in rescuing the books and documents deposited in that edifice.

The venerable structure was soon completely enveloped in the flames; and from the time that elapsed before any effectual measures could be taken to suppress their ravages, it became evident, that nothing of consequence could be saved.

The destruction was mournfully complete. The turret, even, fell a prey to the devouring element, and the bells were so melted, that when washed from, the ashes, the metal was found in granulated fragments, scarcely larger than peas. The brasses were saved; but the mural monuments, with the exception of the figure of Lady Hunt, fell from their places, and were entirely consumed, or rendered so friable, by the action of the fire, as to be reduced to powder on the slightest touch. The magnificent chancel window, with the exception of three cherubs’ heads in the upper lights; and, in fact, all the stained glass in the church was melted, and ran together into nearly colourless masses. All the fittings up and fixtures, including the organ, the pulpit, reading-desk, and clerk’s desk, were reduced to one blackened mass; and the roof falling in, nothing but the bare and scorched walls remained when day broke upon the melancholy spectacle. The hands of the clock stood at half-past eleven, indicating the time at which the fire reached that part of the building.

Burnt Church

The destroyed church of St Giles’, 1841.

This engraving will convey a sufficiently correct idea of the appearance presented by this interesting structure after the fire. The view was taken from the south-west, near the gate leading to the ‘Grove’, expressly for this work. The untimely devastation of this venerated building, occasioned, as might be expected, a great sensation in the neighbourhood, and for some days after the catastrophe, carriages were seen in unusual numbers rolling towards the ruins, amongst which a few of the more sentimental visitors were allowed under proper restrictions to remain.

So promptly were the necessary arrangements made for carrying on the duties connected with the church, that on the Monday morning, whilst the fire was still preying on the remains of the fallen rafters, two weddings were celebrated in the robing-room, which remained untouched; and notices were soon after posted throughout the parish, stating that baptisms, marriages, and churchings, would be performed as usual. After the lapse of a few days, it was announced by handbills that divine service would be conducted every Sunday in the morning, at the Collegiate, and in the afternoon, at the Green Coat School.

A vestry was subsequently called for Friday evening, the 19th February, to consider and determine upon the proper steps to be taken for rebuilding and reinstating the parish church. So large a meeting assembled, that it was found necessary to adjourn it to the dining-hall of the Workhouse, and a great deal of unnecessary excitement prevailed with regard to the circumstances connected with the fire. The Reverend the Vicar presided, and by his usual firmness and candour, preserved sufficient order to allow the business of the evening to be gone through with general satisfaction.

It appeared that the sum of £3,600 had been for some time insured upon the property; and this gave rise to the enquiry why, after the considerable outlay which had lately taken place, the amount had not been increased. It was also insinuated by another parishioner, that a sort of gun- powder-plot had been concocted for the destruction of the church: that on the night of the Thursday evening preceding the fire, lights had been seen in the vault: that the church- wardens apprised of the fact, had knocked for admittance, and had at last succeeded in obtaining it, when they found a very Guy Fawkes in the act of firing the building.

Mr. Churchwarden Pew condescended to answer the inuendo, stating, that having accidentally met Mr. Thomas, one of the other churchwardens, on the night in question, he accompanied him to church, and found the man employed to superintend the flues just where he ought to have been, in the act of attending to them. He further stated, that it was quite clear the fire originated in these flues, which were very crooked; and accessible with great difficulty: that a beam actually came in contact with the part where the fire originated; and that the directors of the office in which they were insured, were so satisfied that the calamity was purely accidental, that the loss would be paid on the day following.

It was then resolved that a new church should be built; but when a grant of £.20,000 for the purpose was proposed, an amendment moved by Mr. Brett, was put, and carried after a stormy discussion, to this effect-

That in futherance of the foregoing resolution, a Committee be appointed to consider-

  1. The amount of money necessary to be raised;
  2. As to the best mode of raising the same;
  3. As to the best mode of appropriating the sittings after the church shall have been built;

And to report severally on such matters connected with the subject as may be deemed expedient.”

After a vote of thanks to the chairman, the meeting broke up at ten o’clock. The Committee appointed under this resolution, proceeded expeditiously with their labours, and a second vestry was called for Friday the 26th March, to receive their report, when a resolution was moved by Henry Kemble, Esq., M.P. tending to set aside all that had been done, thanking them for the trouble they had taken, but intimating that the reference of the former vestry did not embrace the whole object contemplated.

To this Mr. Brett moved an amendment, the main object of which was to place the new church upon the same footing as dissenting places of worship, thus ceding the question of a rate, and bringing it at once under the voluntary system. A poll of the parish was demanded and allowed, on these two questions; and the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday following, were fixed upon for recording the votes of the parishioners. The result shewed a very large majority in favour of Mr. Kemble’s motion, arising principally from the wealthier residents each possessing a multiplicity of votes: the individual minority being very insignificant.