On March 28, Glasgow Cathedral was full to capacity for a service to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cheapside Street disaster. Families of the 14 firemen and five salvagemen killed when a whisky bond exploded in Glasgow were joined by survivors of the disaster, serving personnel of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue and civic heads including the Lord Provost of Glasgow.
The ceremony - to mark the biggest loss of life in the peacetime history of the UK Fire and Rescue Service - marked the culmination of almost two years of planning by Strathclyde FRS. Preparations began in July 2008 when Chief Officer Brian Sweeney hosted a lunch for Cheapside veterans. Sadly, some of those veterans had passed on by the time that gathering of over 700 people filed into the Cathedral for the memorial service. Among the veterans were James Dunlop, who was awarded the George Medal for his gallantry in ensuring that his colleague was brought safely down from his turntable ladder while whisky barrels were tumbling out of the bond and exploding in flames beside Dunlop's TL. Others in the gathering included ex-fireman Raymond Ferrari and former salvageman Joe Smith, who narrowly avoided losing their lives when they were hit by the blast from the explosion. The disaster was also commemorated by a ceremony at the Cheapside Street Memorial at the Necropolis overlooking Glasgow Cathedral, and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque, viewed by a large crowd at George Square in the centre of Glasgow.
Chief Officer Sweeney gave a moving address at the Cathedral. He told the congregation: "To many Glaswegians born after Cheapside Street, the disaster may seem a remote piece of Glasgow's history. To many of you who are among us here, however, Cheapside Street is a part of your own personal and family story. You may have lost a father, a brother, an uncle or a friend in that tragedy. "People living in Glasgow at the time still remember where they were and what they were doing when they learnt of the disaster. They saw the impact of the disaster on their television screens or by watching the flames and the glare of the blaze in the night sky from the safety of their homes. "Glasgow Fire Service was called to Cheapside Street at quarter past seven in the evening. An employee of a neighbouring business had seen smoke coming from a window in a bonded warehouse belonging to Arbuckle, Smith and Company.
"The building contained more than a million gallons of proof whisky in vats and barrels and over 31,000 gallons of rum. Firemen entered the warehouse and made a determined search for the seat of the fire - to no avail. Meanwhile in Warroch Street, at the rear of the warehouse, firemen had spotted flames through a barred ground floor window.
"The firemen in Warroch Street set a ladder against the window and were about to train a hose on the flames when, at 1948, the Cheapside Street disaster took place. Suddenly, the 60 foot-high walls of the centre section of the warehouse blew out onto Cheapside Street and Warroch Street. "In Cheapside Street, Firemen John Allan, Gordon Chapman and George McIntyre were killed instantly by falling rubble. The Central Fire Station's brand new turntable ladder was also destroyed. "In Warroch Street the death toll was even higher. The collapse of the wall onto that street claimed the lives of Sub Officer James Calder, Sub Officer John McPherson and Firemen Christopher Boyle, Alexander Grassie, Edward McMillan, Iain Mcmillan, William Watson, William Crocket, Archibald Darroch, Daniel Davidson and Alfred Dickinson.
"The explosion was also a devastating blow for Glasgow Salvage Corps which lost five members in Warroch Street. They were Deputy Chief Salvage Officer Edward Murray, Leading Salvageman James Mclellan and Salvagemen Gordon Mcmillan, James Mungall and William Oliver. "This death toll was the highest in the peacetime history of the British Fire Service. A tragedy that would shock the country and would lead to messages of condolence being sent by fire services around the world. "The scale of the event was not, however, confined to the number of people killed. Glasgow Fire Service was faced with a massive blaze as whisky barrels rolled out into the streets and smashed, creating rivers of burning alcohol. "The firemen managed to contain the blaze, preventing its spread to neighbouring bonds. They were greatly assisted by the St Mungo, the new fire boat which fed thousands of gallons of water to fire engines at the scene. "The fire was brought under control at just after six in the morning. According to Firemaster Martin Chadwick this was thanks to 'the most tenacious and resourceful response by all ranks'."
A book, Tinderbox Heroes, which commemorates Cheapside Street and other major postwar Glasgow fires, is available from Strathclyde Fire and Rescue's Retired Employees Association, Headquarters, Bothwell Road, Hamilton, ML3 0EA, price £12.99. The book is written by Alan Forbes, public affairs manager of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, and James Smith, a former staff officer of Strathclyde Fire Brigade.