THE archives of Glasgow Fire Service record many instances of bravery and loss, but the fire at Cheapside Street is one of the most tragic events in the brigade’s and city’s history.

The fire broke out at a bonded warehouse owned by Arbuckle, Smith & Co during the night of March 28, 1960. The fire in the store, which was packed with millions of gallons of whisky and rum, quickly took hold, burning blue flames into the night sky which could be seen from miles away.

Glasgow Times: Cheapside Street fire, Glasgow, 1960. Pic: Glasgow City ArchivesCheapside Street fire, Glasgow, 1960. Pic: Glasgow City Archives (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

Cheapside Street, like many streets in Anderston and other areas in the city at the time, was crammed with industrial buildings close to residential dwellings. Anderston’s narrow streets and lanes, along with the fire’s ferocity, meant there was a real risk that the fire would spread to other buildings.

Glasgow Fire Service, along with Glasgow Salvage Corps, acted quickly. Local residents from the surroundings were evacuated for their safety, as the fire fighters tackled the intense blaze. Their efforts were not made easy by the narrow and cobbled streets which hindered access to equipment and gear. Water was drawn from the nearby River Clyde, and a dredger moored at Anderston Quay carried water hoses aimed towards the fire, shooting out jets of water.

Glasgow Times: A crushed fire engine, Cheapside Street, Glasgow, 1960. Pic: Glasgow City ArchivesA crushed fire engine, Cheapside Street, Glasgow, 1960. Pic: Glasgow City Archives (Image: Glasgow City Archives)

One immediate concern was the building on Warroch Street just behind the burning warehouse, which was used as a timber store by shipbuilders Harland & Wolff. Flames did reach the timber store several times over the night, but each time were put out by the determined fire officers.

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With fuel from some 21,000 casks of whisky and rum, the fire was larger and fiercer than any in Glasgow since the Second World War. Burning embers landed on the decks of ships docked at the opposite side of the river at Springfield Quay, such was the fire’s intensity. Fire officers from all Glasgow divisions were called up to fight the blaze, as well as men from Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire brigades. Even officers on leave arrived to help out. A total of 450 officers were involved in the effort.

Tragedy struck when unexpectedly an explosion ripped through the bonded warehouse, causing the walls to blow out and burying three fire engines. Sadly, fourteen fire officers and five men from the Salvage Corps lost their lives in the explosion.

Shocked by the deaths, the people of Glasgow lined the streets for the officers’ funeral a week later. After a public service at the cathedral, the men were buried in a vault donated by the Merchant House of Glasgow at the Necropolis. A public appeal by the Lord Provost raised more than £187,000 for the deceased officers' families.

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The fire took a week to extinguish, as its embers continued to burn within the rubble. The disaster is still remembered today, with services for those who died held on March 28 at their memorial in the Necropolis.