THE DESTRUCTION OF
PUBLIC BUILDINGS BY FIRE
TO THE EDITOR OF THE
Sir, the destruction which has of late years occured to our public buildings, and in particular the late conflagration in the Tower, has at length aroused public attention to the consideration of this subject, whether there is anything defective in the present mode of warming these buildings, which has lead to these disastrous consequences. Convinced as I am that this is really the case, and that there are many of our other public buildings, and many, very private ones, which are in imminent peril from the same cause, I consider it has now become a positive duty to lend my humble voice in calling attention to a subject on which the greatest ignorance prevails, not only among the public at large, but among those professional men to whom the public look to direct them in such matters.
But though Architects are generally but little informed on the scentific points connected with the warming and ventilation of buildings, it must be admitted that in by far the greater majority of instances where new modes of warming are applied to old buildings architects are never consulted at all, and are therefore not chargeable with the consequences of the mistakes which are frequently committed.
In general the charlatan who is the loudest in his vociferations that he has discovered the very best mode of warming that was ever invented is allowed to exercise his skill at his own discretion, his employer considering that he has made a most excellent bargain, if he has stipulated that nothing shall be paid for the experiment unless the promised effects are produced. It seldom occurs to such a person to consider whether he has not thus permitted the introduction into his house of a most dangerous and destructive engine and that he is perhaps in daily, nay hourly danger, both to life and property, by reason of the ignorance or the cupity of the party he has employed. It is now only necessary for a man to advertise that he can save a few pennies worth of feul a day, and forthwith he is employed to erect his machines, not only in our private houses, but in our public buildings.
A few additional fires occur, but the public know not the cause. It is pure accident perhaps or "spontaneous combustion" forsooth, or something else to divert attention from the real truth is of course, invented for the occasion and the thoughtless public, who will never profit by others' experience continue to delude themselves until some such public calamity as the destruction of our national buildings for a short time rouses their attention, presently again to sink into its former tupor.
Should anyone then presume to call the public attention to these consequences, he is forthwith considered to have some interested motives. He is perhaps a rival tradesman, or the patentee of some new plan, which he thinks will supersede the "old way" or is he envious perhaps of the success which has attended some person towars whom he entertains a dislike. That all these sentiments are far too often operative in the human mind is a truth not to be denied; and as it is scarcely possible in such a matter as the one now under consideration to obtain the advice of any person who is absolutely disinterested, both personally and relatively, as no others have probably sufficiently considered the subject, it is, I think a matter of the highest public importance that some competent tribunal should now be empowered to examine into the safety of the various modes of warming, more particularly with regard to our public buildings; but with the still further object that the evidence they obtain shall be published, in order that the public at large may benefit by the various scientific opinions and experimental researches which a public body alone is able to command. That such a commission would be of great public benefit will I think, scarcely be denied and still further to prove the necessity of some such step. I will proceed to show the results of some of the present modes of warming buildings as exhibited by a list of casualties which at present occur to me, there being no doubt many hundreds of cases of similar nature which have not fallen under my observation, or have not retained a place in my memory.
I will first however, premise a few general observations on the general modes of warming buildings at present principally in use. Next after the open fire-place, the national characteristic of an "Englishman's fire-side" no plan of warming was formally so general as that of heated flues. The antiquity of this plan is very great; it was well known and extensively practised in the early days of ancient Rome, and was introduced by the Romans into this country. Of late however, it has given place to three other modes; the cockle or hot air stove; the use of steam contained in iron pipes; and hot water applied in the same manner. To describe all these plans would require far too much space. The first two, the flues and the cockle stoves are both liable to become overheated under improper management. The use of steam appeared to accomplish the greatest improvement both in safety as well as salubrity; but this again has been still further improved by the greater simplicity and economy of the hot water apparatus. But here it must be remarked that under this title are classed two very different modes of applying hot water - the high pressure and the low pressure systems. The former of these was the invention of the very ingenious and scientific Mr Perkins well known for his experiments on high pressure steam, and the inventor of the steam gun; and though it is now erected in all parts of the country and by all sorts of persons, both scientific and non-scientific it is still called after the name of its inventor, "The Perkins high pressure hot-water apparatus." Of this apparatus I shall shortly show some of the results. But of the other system of hot water I have only here to remark I have never yet met with a single instance of accident which occurred from its use, and I believe it to be at once the most efficient, and the most economical, and the most wholesome mode of warming buildings that has ever yet been introduced.
The Arnott's stoves are too well known to need any description. They are a modern invention, of which I will shortly show some of the results. The apparent success of these stoves on their first introduction soon brought into existence a numerous progeny of a hybrid race, and the Vestas, the Chunks, and many other productions evince the greediness with which the public swallow the book when lured by the tempting bait of economy.
Before proceeding further with these remarks I will show by reference to a few of the accidents which have occurred, the nature of the danger to be apprehended from some of these inventions.
ACCIDENTS FROM ARNOTT'S STOVES.
Marquis of Ailesbury Grosvenor Square - stove became red hot and burst. the heat became so intense that water was obliged to be applied to prevent the woodwork catching fire.
Sir G Rose Hyde-park Gardens - stove exploded from acclumilation of gas and scattered the burning fuel a distance of several feet across the hall.
Lady Dysart Ham House - stove exploded, and did considerable damage in the hall.
Messrs Kepp, Chandos Street - stove exploded during the night, and blew the different parts of the stove across the room, scattering the burning fuel all over the floor.
Mr W G Brougham, Grosvenor Square - gas exploded in the stove, and the flame was blown to a distance of five or six feet.
Mr T Barnes, Soho Square - stove exploded and burst, breaking the windows and door of the hall.
Mr S B -------, Herne Hill - stove became red hot, owing to a small cinder sticking in the air-valve.
ACCIDENTS FROM THE HIGH PRESSURE HOT WATER APPARATUS
Wilson.Casey and Phillips, Spitalfields - Warehouse set on fire by pipes becoming red hot
Sir Hussey Vivian. Glynn House -ditto-
Mr Barbour Manchester -ditto-
Craft and Steel, Manchester - Manufactory destroyed by fire in consequence of bursting of the apparatus and the fire being scattered; the damage estimated at £20,000
Museum of Natural History Manchester. Set on fire in several places by the pipes becoming overheated.
Birch chapel Manchester matting and cushions burnt by pipes becoming too hot
Unitarian Chapel Manchester -ditto-
Williams, Deacon & Co Pipes set fire to joist of building; speedily extinguished without damage.
Lothbury Church Expansion pipe burst and scolded the charity children.
apparatus burst twice during the
night and caused great alarm and
Sir T Cullum Bury apparatus burst twice and destroyed much glass in the house.
Mr Ingliss Dulwich burst in furnace with damage.
Camberell Workhouse burst with much damage.
Timothy Smith & Co Birmingham -ditto-
Horticultural Gardens Chiswick -ditto-
Mr Hemming Dulwich -ditto-
Sir J Lubbock Mitcham Grove -ditto-
Mr Debouverie Englefield -ditto-
Lord Beresford Bedgebury -ditto-
Inner Temple Hall -ditto
Duke of Wellington Strathfieldsays -ditto-
ACCIDENTS FROM OVERHEATED FLUES
Houses of Parliament - totally destroyed
Royal Exchange - -ditto-
Camberwell Church - -ditto-
Marquis of Londonderry's Wynyard Park -ditto-
Preston Church near Brighton greatly damaged
These lists might be extended by some hundreds of examples. The above though sufficiently show the nature of the danger to be apprehended; and when we remember that the Custom House in London is heated by Arnott's stoves, and that the British Museum is heated by Perkins high pressure hot water pipes, we cannot I think say that these buildings are perfectly safe from the fate which has just befallen the Tower of London, and that some means of satisfying the public respecting their security is not imperitively demanded. In addition to our public buildings it must be bourne in mind that there are hundreds - nay thousands, of private homes which are heated by one or the other of these modes of distributing artificial heat. It is a subject which alike concerns the fire insurance companies as well as individuals; and it is a well known fact, since the commencement of the present year in consequence of the fires which occurred in Manchester, as already stated, many insurance companies, both in London and in the country, have refused to insure at any premium whatever buildings heated by some of the plans which have here been described. If this be the case, and I believe it is not without good grounds that they do so, and it behoves the public to look to themselves in a matter of so much importance.
One great source of the danger arises from the supposed security which attaches to these modes of warming. People never imagine that the Arnott's stoves, which are stated to retain a permanently low temperature, can become red-hot; and they consequently place them actually in contact with wood or other combustible materials; and the same occurs with the high-pressure hot-water pipes, as no one dreams that pipes can become red-hot while filled with water. Both these suppositions we find in practise are erroneous; although as regards pipes containing water becoming red-hot, which appears the most impractical of the two, this result can only happen in pipes that are hermetically sealed, which is the principal feature of the high-pressure apparatus, and the absence of which from the other system of hot-water apparatus renders it so perculiarly safe.
If these remarks have the effect of calling public attention to this important subject, they may perhaps, be the means of preventing in some measure the recurrence of such disastrous fires as we have lately had reason to deplore.
I am Sir, your obedient servant
November 18th 1841
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir, The report of the committee appointed to inquire into the cause of the recent destruction of part of the Tower of London by fire having now been made public, I am induced to offer some remarks on the document which I think may not be uninteresting at the present time, nor undeserving of public attention, even though the opinion I have to offer upon the subject is at variance with that expressed by the committee. In a former letter of mine which was published in your newspaper of the 20th November I showed what were the consequences which frequently resulted from some of the modes of warming buildings at present in use. In my present letter I propose showing the causes of these results, some of which will be applicable to elucidate the mystery at present that appears to shroud the subject of the inquiry above alluded to. Before proceding to this subject however, I feel it incumbent upon me to reply to some observations of Mr Perkins published in your Newspaper of the 24th December, by which some of the statements in my former letter have been called into question; for however little it may concern the public to reconcile adverse public statements by persons holding different opinions on matters of science, if a writer can be shown to be erroneous in his facts in one case he may possibly be equally be erroneous in others , and therefore less deserving of public confidence.
The only statement however, which Mr perkins has positively negatived is that of an explosion of the high pressure hot water apparatus at Marlborough house; and to prove this negative statement a certificate from the clerk of works has been given. The circumstances of the case were these. In the early part of the year 1838 (I believe in the month of February). Marlborough house being then under repair, and at the time in question full of tradesmen and workpeople, the apparatus (which had been erected a short time before) suddenly exploded with frightful violence. One of the persons present on the occasion thus writes respecting it :- "As regards Perkins hot water apparatus, my opinion is that they got the steam up too high, for it went off like a cannon, filling all the avenues with steam and hot water. Had any person been near they might have been severely scalded. I was up stairs and heard the report, and I ran down to see it." The report was so loud that some persons thought the guns in the park were firing and went out to see what was going forward. Mr Morris the clerk of works was either on the spot at the identical moment of the explosion, or arrived there very shortly afterwards and was well aquainted with the circumstances. The motive for its denial I am at a loss to understand unless it is in some way connected with another explosion which occurred with another similar apparatus erected under the same superintendance, in the temporary building attached to the palace, used on the occasion of the Queen's marriage, which burst immediately after its erection and on the day previous to the ceremony on which it was to have been used. The explosion previously mentioned is however, a matter of fact, to which numerous witnesses could attest. I forbear any remarks on its denial by Mr Perkins and Mr Morris. Not only certificates but affidavits could be procured in confirmation of my statement from persons who were present at the occasion; and I enclose for your inspection two letters confirming my statement, one being that from which the preceding extract is taken, the other from the person of the highest respectability, who is wekk aquainted with the circumstances of the case.
In denial of another case of accident a letter from Mr Keys of the guardian Fire Office is given in which however, he confirms the fact of its occurrence but says "it was of a trifling nature producing only a slit not more than an inch long in the weld of the pipe, doing no damage whatever." Different persons no doubt entertain different notions of the nature and extent of accidents . But an accident arising from the expansion of steam of sufficient force to make a slit in a pipe which had been proved equal (as all these pipes are) to bear a pressure of 2000 pounds per square inch is certainly one which few persons would call "trifling" It may be necessary to state the this pressure is 40 times the amount which the most daring engineer in a high pressure steam engine, and nearly 400 times the amount of pressure used for steam boats and other ordinary purposes.
Mr Perkins considers I have been wanting in candour in not stating that several of the apparatus named as having caused accidents have been repaired and are now in use . I know that several that have caused accidents are not now in existence, but I am not aware whether the particular ones alluded to by Mr Perkins are so or not.. I should have considered it an unfair argument against this system in particular to mention cases in which the apparatus has been removed in consequence of failure of action; because many causes of failure from want of knowledge in the erection have occurred with the low pressure or large pipe system, though none can be adduced of danger from its use.