James Watt Street blaze: How 22 died in Glasgow 50 years ago

By Reevel Alderson
BBC Scotland's social affairs correspondent

Published
media captionThere is no memorial to those who died in the James Watt Street blaze.

The James Watt Street blaze was the most deadly in Glasgow since World War Two - yet 50 years on there is no memorial to the 22 people who perished.

The fire broke out at about 10:30 on 18 November 1968 in a building, which housed an upholstery business and a glass company.

Eyewitnesses watched, unable to do anything as people trapped behind barred windows of the burning three-storey building screamed for help.

image captionMore than 100 firefighters were deployed, along with the city's fire boat which pumped water from the River Clyde

Other workers were unable to escape because fire doors were padlocked.

Joyce Davies was eight when her father Henry Brown, a master upholsterer at Stern's furniture factory, died in the blaze at the building, yards from the River Clyde in Glasgow city centre.

Over the years, she has struggled with her loss, particularly because 50 years on there has been no official recognition of the tragedy.

"There's never been a memorial, there's never been an event, there's never been a plaque," she says.

image copyrightJoyce Davies
image captionHenry Brown was 36 when he died in the furniture factory fire which claimed 21 other lives

"There's never been anything.

"But there has been for other events like the big Cheapside fire, the Kilbirnie Street fire, disasters more recently that have happened, there have been special yearly events."

This year there will be prayers offered at Glasgow's Catholic cathedral and the city council has said it has offered assistance to help find a site for a physical memorial.

Post-war Glasgow was blighted by tragic fires, so much so that it became known as the Tinderbox City.

In 1960, a blaze at a whisky bond in Cheapside Street, just a few hundred yards from James Watt Street, resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen firemen.

Fourteen firemen and five members of the Salvage Corps were killed after an explosion caused the bond's 20m high (60ft) walls to crash onto the street below.

The James Watt Street building was also a former whisky bond, which had its windows barred for security.

image captionFirefighters were unable to get into the building because fire doors were padlocked on the inside

Within four minutes of the 999 call, the first crews found the building well alight.

At its height, 10 fire appliances were deployed, along with the fire boat which was capable of delivering 35 tons of river water onto the blaze each minute.

Who were the victims?

  • Thomas Whyte Turner, 20
  • Henry Fulton Brown, 36 (father of Joyce Davies)
  • James Monaghan, 25
  • Joseph Greig, 23
  • Thomas Daly, 24
  • Elizabeth Taylor, 15
  • Mary Legham Taylor, 29 (Elizabeth's mother)
  • Harry Ure, 64
  • Janet Taggart, 22
  • Freda Mcculloch, 24
  • Christopher Kelly Duffy, 17
  • Elizabeth Doyle Grant, 50
  • Lewis Judah Radnor, 57
  • James McArthur McDonald, 20
  • John McCarroll, 20
  • Alexander Goldberg, 51, foreman
  • Julius Stern, 60, director
  • William McGeachy, 18
  • John Joseph Walker, 16
  • George Bendetti, aged 30
  • Laurence Ward Fleming, 64
  • George Jesner, 53
image copyrightScottish Fire and Rescue Service
image captionJim Smith (nearest the camera) was one of the first firefighters on the scene

Jim Smith, one of the first firefighters to arrive on the scene, told the BBC that by the time crews got there no-one could be seen inside the building.

They could not access the building because fire doors were padlocked on the inside, he said.

image captionFormer firefighter Jim Smith said the doors of the building were locked

"There were two routes for them to escape. One was blocked by the fire, and the other two doors, on the two floors were steel doors.

"And they were padlocked from the inside, and they couldn't find the keys."

A Fatal Accident Inquiry into the tragedy heard the door leading from the escape stair onto the street was also padlocked - from the outside.

The fire alarm in the premises had been disconnected for six months, because the firm which operated the premises had failed to pay its bills.

Wires leading to internal fire hooters had been disconnected so an electric clock could be installed.

One of the directors of the company, 60-year-old Julius Stern, was among the 17 men and five women who died.

His firm was convicted on three criminal charges, with fines totalling £600 - less than £10,000 in today's values.

It is thought the blaze was caused by a dropped cigarette.

image captionJoyce Davies was eight when her father Henry died in the fire

Joyce Davies, who lives on Shetland, said half a century on, she is glad that finally the loss of her father and 21 other workers could now be recognised.

"It is Glasgow as a city saying it happened; it's important.

"The fire happened very close to Cheapside Street where there was a fire, and there's a lovely plaque there, and I'd like to see something like that.

"I'd like to see the names of all of these 22 people remembered. I will remember them, but I would like the city of Glasgow to remember them too."

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