120 years ago today (18 July 1898) a catastrophic fire broke out in the commercial heart of Sunderland.
The city in the North East of England’s historic high streets are currently one of our Heritage Action Zones. Lucy Jessop, Senior Investigator at Historic England tells the story of the fire and considers its architectural aftermath for this part of the city.
Sunderland was booming in the late 19th century. The waterfront of the River Wear and the port was the focus of activity: ship-building, the export of coal from the Durham coal fields and glass-making were important industries for the city. Shops and businesses clustered around both parts of the High Street and Fawcett Street, and these once-residential streets were now the city’s commercial heart. Havelock House, a vast purpose-built drapery, stood on the corner of Fawcett Street, High Street West and Bridge Street; opposite was the grand development of shops built in 1850 known as Hutchinson’s Buildings, with their grand classical façade.
Fire at the drapers
At around 10 o’clock on the morning of 18 July 1898, a fire started in Havelock House. The highly flammable drapers’ wares and strong winds fed the flames which soon affected neighbouring properties. The fire was virulent enough to cross both Fawcett Street and High Street West. In total, 50 buildings were damaged but fortunately no lives were lost. Huge crowds gathered to watch the fire and afterwards to marvel at the damage it had caused.
The scale of the damage became evident over the next few days. Havelock House and the Queen’s Hotel next door were completely destroyed, as were the buildings to the east on the High Street and John Street. The exuberant Elephant Tea Rooms opposite Havelock House had a lucky escape but Hutchinson’s Buildings on the north side of the High Street was badly damaged. Its domed corner, known as Mackie’s Corner, was relatively unscathed but the rest of the High Street part was burnt out. The badly-cracked stonework and destruction of roof and internal floors led to the demolition of the affected part within a few days of the fire.
Luckily, many of the affected businesses were insured and their buildings were consequently swiftly rebuilt in the year after the fire, contributing a number of significant structures to the area. Havelock House was completely redesigned in a neo-Jacobean style with stone mullioned windows, while the two plots to the east on the High Street between the lane behind Havelock House and John Street were reconstructed with shaped gables, also inspired by the architecture of the early 17th century.
Hutchinson’s Buildings – long one of the most prestigious shop locations in Sunderland – was half destroyed. Local architect Henry Miller Potts designed the new High Street elevation and because it would be joined to Mackie’s Corner (the surviving nearly 50-year-old domed and pilastered part) he maintained the classical design of the original building. However, he completely redesigned the internal layout, with larger shop units on the ground and first floors all heated by gas. The second floor was used for chambers, or rentable office space; previously, the upper floors had been accommodation for shop tenants and their staff. A photographic studio was housed in one of the two attics.
Potts’ rebuilt portion of Hutchinson’s Buildings was finished in 1899. Some of its splendid interiors survive, notably the tiled hallway and the ‘Tudorbethan’ staircase up to the chambers. Generations of locals may remember them from the use of this part of the Buildings as Chambers Nightclub. The entire complex, both the 1850 and 1899 parts, is listed at Grade II.
The fire of 1898 has now been consigned to history but its legacy was a group of high-quality commercial buildings which were built alongside and opposite the surviving Mackie’s Corner. They make a significant contribution to the handsome streetscape of 19th-century Sunderland, an architectural celebration of this important moment in the city’s story.
Header image: The ruins of Havelock House immediately after the fire, showing the remains of its cast-iron colonnade, and the effects of the fire on Hutchinson’s Buildings and Mackie’s Corner opposite. © Sunderland Antiquarian Society
Dr Lucy Jessop is a senior architectural investigator at Historic England. She is currently researching and writing about our Heritage Action Zones in Sunderland and Elsecar, South Yorkshire. Research Reports will be available soon on Hutchinson’s Buildings and other key buildings within the Sunderland HAZ.