Barbers Company Crest
The Barbers' Company

On this Day – 19 November 1897

On this day in 1897 just before 1pm, a fire broke out in the premises of Messrs. Waller and Brown, mantle manufacturers. They were located on what was Hamsell Street, close to Barber-Surgeons’ Hall and where the City of London School for Girls now stands. The Great Fire of Cripplegate quickly spread to become what was one of the largest conflagrations in the City since the Great Fire of 1666, swiftly burning out buildings and causing walls and glazing to fall suddenly and dangerously. By nightfall hundreds of firefighters and police from stations across London were battling to control the blaze, their work hampered both by large crowds of onlookers and a stiff wind spreading the flames.

The area around the Hall had during the course of the nineteenth century become densely packed with large commercial warehouses bringing with them the constant threat of fire and concern to the Company, given that many were in the textile and drapery trades and full of flammable materials.

The cover of the City Press Supplement November 27th 1897 shows the area affected by the Cripplegate fire, and just how close it came to Barber-Surgeons’ Hall. The Supplement reported damage to St Giles Cripplegate Church, mitigated by “the presence of mind of a well-known parishioner” while of the Hall itself it stated:

“Alarm of quite as serious a character was felt by lovers of the City Companies in general when it was known that the Barbers’ Hall in Monkwell Street stood in jeopardy. As it was, the famous old building was scorched, but happily, the flames got no further. When the Hall was known to be in danger scores of willing hands rendered willing help. The Holbein picture…was placed in a position of safety close by. The picture is a most valuable possession of the Barbers’ Company, and its loss would have been irreparable.” 

Image courtesy of Grace's Guide to British Industrial History
Image courtesy of Grace's Guide to British Industrial History

The Beadle Edward Lawless assisted by his nephew, the Beadles of the Armourers & Brasiers’ and Coachmakers’, Master Robert Hovendon, Company members and workers from nearby warehouses rallied to help firefighters save the Hall and its treasures, tearing down blinds and curtains and moving paintings to the courtyard.  The Court Minutes record the subsequent statement made by Richard Sonnenthal (Master 1913):

“Sir, when I was passing Falcon Square last Friday the awful fire threatened to attack our Hall and on going there at 1.30 (where I remained until 4.30). I gave orders to have the principal pictures removed when the building was in imminent danger, in fact when the windows had caught fire. Fortunately one of the Sergeants of the Salvage Corps passed by and on my representing to him the unique pictures of great value being in danger he sent ten men into the building and thanks to their exertions the Hall escaped with very slight damage…I left the place when I considered it out of danger. I may mention that I only gave instruction to remove the pictures when the outlook was so grave that the officers did not think the building could be saved.”