4. Spontaneous ignition.
As almost all fires arise from inattention in one shape or another, it is of the utmost importance that every master of a house or other establishment should persevere in rigidly enjoining and enforcing on those under him, the necessity of observing the utmost possible care in preventing such calamities, which, in nineteen cases out of twenty, are the result of remissness or inattention. Indeed, if any one will for a moment consider the fearful risk of life and property, which is often incurred from a very slight inattention, the necessity of vigilance and care will at once be apparent. Immense hazard is frequently incurred for the most trifling indulgences, and much property is annually destroyed, and valuable lives often lost, because a few thoughtless individuals cannot deny themselves the gratification of reading in bed with a candle beside them.
Some years ago, upwards of 100,000l. were lost, through the partner of a large establishment lighting gas with a piece of paper, which he threw away, and thus set fire to the premises, although it was a strict rule in the place that gas should only be lighted with tapers, which were provided for that purpose. In one department of a great public institution, it was, and is still, a rule that only covered lights should be carried about, and for that purpose four lanterns were provided; yet, on inquiry some time back, it was found that only one was entire, the other three being broken—one having lost two sides and the top; still they were all used as covered lights.
The opportunities for inattention to fires and lights are so various, that it is impossible to notice the whole.
One of the prevailing causes of fire is to be traced to persons locking their doors, and leaving their houses to the care of children. I believe one-half of the children whose deaths are occasioned by accident suffer from this cause alone: indeed, almost every week the newspapers contain some melancholy confirmation of what I have here stated. Intoxication is also a disgraceful and frequent cause of fire. The number of persons burned to death in this way is really incredible. It is true that it does not always happen that a fire takes place in the house, in either of the above cases, although the unfortunate beings whose clothes take fire, rarely escape with their lives; but the danger to the neighbourhood is at all times considerable, if persons in a state of inebriety are left in a house alone. When there is reason to apprehend that any member of a family will come home at night in that state, some one should always be appointed to receive him, and on no account to leave him till he is put to bed, and the light extinguished.
I do not mean to say that people must be actually drunk before danger is to be apprehended from them. Indeed, a very slight degree of inebriety is dangerous, as it always tends to blunt the perception, and to make a person careless and indifferent. I may also add, that no inconsiderable number of fires are occasioned by the thoughtless practice of throwing spirits into the fire. The dresses of females taking fire adds very much to the list of lives lost by fire, if it does not exceed all the other causes put together.
Another very general cause of fire is that of approaching with lighted candles too near bed or window curtains; these, being generally quite dry, are, from the way in which they are hung, easily set on fire, and, as the flames ascend rapidly, when once touched, they are in a blaze in a moment.
It is really astonishing to find that, with daily examples before their eyes, people should persist (whether insured or not seems to make little difference) in practices which, there is a hundred chances to one, may involve both themselves and the neighbourhood in one common ruin. Of this sort are the practices of looking under a bed with a lighted candle, and placing a screen full of clothes too near the fire.
Houses not unfrequently take fire from cinders falling between the joints of the outer and inner hearths. When smoke is observed to arise from the floor, the cause should be immediately ascertained, and the inmates ought on no account to retire to rest while there is the slightest smell of fire, or any grounds to suspect danger from that cause.
Occasional fires are caused by a very absurd method of extinguishing at night the fires kept in grates during the day. Instead of arranging the embers in the grate in such a way as to prevent their falling off, and thus allowing the fire to die out in its proper place, they are frequently taken off and laid on the hearth, where, should there be wood-work underneath, it becomes scorched, and the slightest spark falling through a joint in the stones sets it on fire.
A very frequent cause of fire in shops and warehouses arises from the carelessness of the person intrusted to lock them up. It is no uncommon practice with those to whom this duty is intrusted, to light themselves out, or to search for any little article which may have been mislaid, with a lighted paper, and then to throw it carelessly on the floor, imagining they have taken every necessary precaution, merely by setting their foot upon it, forgetting that the current of air occasioned by shutting the door frequently rekindles it, and produces the most serious consequences.
In warehouses and manufactories, fires are not unfrequently caused by the workmen being occasionally kept late at work. By the time their task is finished, the men are so tired and sleepy, that the extinguishing of fires and lights is done in a very careless manner. I recollect an instance of this sort, in which the flames were issuing from three upper windows, and observed by the neighbours, while the workmen engaged at their employment in the lower floors knew nothing of the destruction that was going on above.
A very serious annual loss is also caused by want of due care in handing up or removing the goods in linen-drapers' shop windows when the gas is burning.
Flues taking fire often result in mischief and it is believed that many serious fires have arisen from this cause, which can hardly be called accidental, as, if flues are properly constructed, kept moderately clean, and fairly used, they cannot take fire.
From what has been said, it will be seen that care and attention may do a very great deal towards the prevention of fire, and consequent loss of life. It is very easy to make good rules, and keep them for a time, after having been alarmed by some serious loss of property or life, but the difficulty is to maintain constant attention to the subject. The most evident plan for effecting this seems to be, for the masters thoroughly to examine and consider the subject at certain stated periods, not too far apart, and to constantly warn their domestics, workmen, or others, of the danger of the improper use of fires and lights.
One of the greatest preventives of carelessness in the use of fires and lights would be a legal inquiry in every case, as it would not only show the faults that had been committed, and thus warn others, but the idea of being exposed in the newspapers would be another motive for increased care. This plan has been adopted in New York, and the reports of the proceedings of Mr. Baker, the "Fire Marshal," show that the inquiries there made have led to most useful results. Mr.
Payne, the coroner, held inquests on fires in the City of London some years ago, but the authorities would not allow his expenses, and therefore they were given up, although believed to be highly advantageous in explaining accidental and others causes of fire.
The improper construction of buildings more generally assists the spread than is the original cause of fires, although laying hearths on timber, and placing timber too near flues, are constant causes of fire, and it is believed that many melancholy occurrences have arisen from these and similar sources.
One cause of danger from chimneys arises from the communication which they often have with each other in one gable. The divisions or partitions, being very often found in an imperfect state, the fire communicates to the adjoining chimney, and in this way sometimes wraps a whole tenement in flames. I know a division of a principal street in Edinburgh, in which there is scarcely a single chimney-head that is not more or less in this condition; and I have no doubt that this is not an uncommon case. There is also great danger from the ends of joists, safe-lintels, or other pieces of timber, being allowed to protrude into chimneys.
In one instance which came under my notice, a flue passing under the recess of a window had on the upper side no other covering than the wood of the floor; of course, when the chimney took fire the floor was immediately in a blaze: but there are many instances of such carelessness. It is a common practice amongst carpenters to drive small pieces of wood into walls for the purpose of fixing their work, not paying the least attention as to whether the points run into the flues or not.
In the repairs and alterations of old buildings, house-carpenters are, if possible, even more careless in this particular, than in the construction of new.
I know of two different buildings which underwent some alterations. In both of these, safe-lintels had been run into flues, and both of them, after the alterations, took fire; the one in consequence of a foul chimney, which set fire to the lintel; and although the other did not take fire from the same cause, the lintel was nevertheless very much scorched, and obliged to be removed.
Great carelessness is frequently exhibited by builders, when erecting at one time two or three houses connected by mutual gables, by not carrying up the gables, or party-walls, so as to divide the roofs. I have seen more than one instance where the adjoining house would have been quite safe, but for this culpable neglect. It is no uncommon thing, too, to find houses divided only by lath and standard partitions, without a single brick in them. When a fire occurs in houses divided in this manner, the vacuities in the middle of the partitions act like so many funnels to conduct the flame, thereby greatly adding to the danger from the fire, and infinitely increasing the difficulty of extinguishing it.
In London the Building Act forbids all such proceedings, but the District Surveyors do not seem to have sufficient power, or be able to pay sufficient attention to such matters, as they are constantly met with at fires. A very flagrant case of laying a hearth on timber was lately exposed by a fire in the City. Due notice was given of the circumstance, but no farther attention was paid to the matter than to make the proprietor construct the floor properly, although the Act gave power to fine for such neglect. The omission is to be regretted, as there could not have been a better case for warning others; it occurred in a very large establishment, and the work was done by one of the first builders in the City.
Had this fire taken place in the night and gained some head, it would have been very difficult to have ascertained the cause. As the premises were situated, a serious loss of life might have occurred, the apartment in which the fire originated being the only means of retreat which ten or twelve female servants had from their bedrooms.
The Metropolitan Building Acts, up to about the year 1825, by insisting upon party-walls and other precautions, were invaluable for the prevention of the spread of fires. By them no warehouse was permitted to exceed a certain area.
From the year 1842, the area has been exchanged for a specified number of cubic feet. But since 1825, a class of buildings has arisen of which there are now considerable numbers in the City, called Manchester or piece goods warehouses, which somehow have been exempted from the law restricting the extent of warehouses, on the plea that they are not warehouses, because "bulk is broken" in them, although it is thoroughly understood that the legislature intended by the Act to restrict the amassing such a quantity of goods under one roof as would be dangerous to the neighbourhood.
Manchester and piece goods warehouses have for some time past been built in London of unlimited size, sometimes equal to twenty average houses. This is pretty nearly the same as if that number of houses were built without party-walls, only that it is much worse, for the whole mass generally communicates by well holes and open staircases, and thus takes fire with great rapidity, and, from the quantity of fresh air within the building, the fire makes much greater progress before it is discovered. By this means the risk of fire in the City has been greatly increased, not only to such warehouses themselves, but to the surrounding neighbourhood, for it is impossible to say how far fires of such magnitude may extend their ravages under untoward circumstances, there being at present no preventive power in London capable of controlling them. To provide such a power would be a very costly business.
Such buildings are also against the generally received rule, that a man may burn himself and his own property, but he shall not unduly risk the lives and property of his neighbours.
The new Building Act is likely to repress, to a certain extent, this great evil, unless its meaning be subverted by some such subterfuge as destroyed the efficiency of the last one. But what is to be done with those which are already built? It may seem tedious to dwell so much on this subject, but it appears to be a risk which is not generally much thought of, though it is of the most vital importance to the safety of London. It is very desirable that the metropolis should take warning by the experience of Liverpool, without going through the fiery ordeal which the latter city did.
From 1838 to 1843, 776,762l. were lost in Liverpool by fire, almost entirely in the warehouse risks. The consequence was, that the mercantile rates of insurance gradually rose from about 8s. per cent. to 30s., 40s., and, it is said, in some cases, to 45s. per cent. Such premiums could not be paid on wholesale transactions, therefore the Liverpool people themselves obtained an Act of Parliament, 6 and 7 Vic., cap. 109, by which the size and height of warehouses were restricted, party walls were made imperative, and warehouses were not allowed to be erected within thirty-six feet of any other warehouse, unless the whole of the doors and window-shutters were made of wrought iron, with many similar restrictions. This Act applied to warehouses already built as well as to those to be built, and any tenant was at liberty, after notice to his landlord, to alter his warehouse according to the Act, and to stop his rent till the expense was paid. Another Act, 6 and 7 Vic., cap. 75, was also obtained, for bringing water into Liverpool for the purpose of extinguishing fires and watering the streets only. It is supposed that the works directed, or permitted, by these two Acts, cost the people of Liverpool from 200,000l. to 300,000l. Shortly after these alterations had been made, the mercantile premiums again fell to about 8s. per cent.
There is another very common cause of fire, which seems to come under the head of construction—viz., covering up a fireplace when not in use with wood or paper and canvas, &c. The soot falls into the fireplace, either from the flue itself, or from an adjoining one which communicates with it. A neighbouring chimney takes fire; a spark falls down the blocked-up flue, sets fire to the soot in the fireplace, which smoulders till the covering is burned through, and thus sets fire to the premises.
In theatres, that part of the house which includes the stage and scenery should be carefully divided from that where the spectators assemble by a solid wall carried up to, and through the roof. The opening in this wall for the stage should be arched over, and the other communications secured with iron doors, which would be kept shut while the audience was in the house. By this plan, there would be abundance of time for the spectators to retire, before fire could reach that part of the theatre which they occupy.
The danger from furnaces or close fires, whether for heating, cooking, or manufacturing purposes, is very great, and no flue should be permitted to be so used, unless it is prepared for the purpose. The reason is, that in a close fire the whole of the draught must pass through the fire. It thus becomes so heated that, unless the flue is properly built, it is dangerous throughout its whole course. In one instance of a heating furnace, the heat in the flue was found to be 300°, at a distance of from forty to fifty feet from the fire. In open fireplaces, the quantity of cold air carried up with the draught keeps the flue at a moderate heat, from the fire upwards, and, unless the flue is allowed to become foul, and take fire, this is the safest possible mode of heating.
Heating by hot air, steam, and hot water are objectionable. First, because there must be a furnace and furnace flue, and the flue used is generally that built for an open fire only; and second, the pipes are carried in every direction, to be as much out of sight as possible. By this means they are constantly liable to produce spontaneous ignition, for there appears to be some chemical action between heated iron and timber, by which fire is generated at a much lower temperature than is necessary to ignite timber under ordinary circumstances. No satisfactory explanation of this fact has yet been given, but there is abundant proof that such is the case. In heating by hot-water pipes, those hermetically sealed are by far the most dangerous, as the strength of the pipes to resist the pressure is the only limit of the heat to which the water, and of course the pipes, may be raised. In some cases a plug of metal which fuses at 400° is put into the pipes, but the heat to which the plug is exposed will depend very much on where it is placed, as, however great may be the heat of the exit pipe, the return pipe is comparatively cool. But even where the pipes are left open, the heat of the water at the furnace is not necessarily 212°. It is almost needless to say that 212° is the heat of boiling water under the pressure of one atmosphere only; but if the pipes are carried sixty or seventy feet high, the water in the furnace must be under the pressure of nearer three atmospheres than one, and therefore the heat will be proportionately increased. Fires from pipes for heating by hot water have been known to take place within twenty-four hours after first heating, and some after ten years of apparent safety.
The New Metropolitan Building Act prescribes rules for the placing steam, hotair, and hot-water pipes at a certain distance from timber; but as it must be extremely difficult for the District Surveyors to watch such minute proceedings, it becomes every one who is anxious for safety to see that the District Surveyors have due notice of any operation of this kind.
Another cause of fire which may come under this head is the use of pipes for conveying away the products of combustion. Every one is acquainted with the danger of stove pipes, but all are not perhaps aware that pipes for conveying away the heat and effluvia from gas-burners are also very dangerous when placed near timber. It is not an uncommon practice to convey such pipes between the ceiling and the flooring of the floor above. This is highly dangerous. Gasburners are also dangerous when placed near a ceiling. A remarkable instance of this took place lately, where a gas-burner set fire to a ceiling 28-1/2 inches from it.
Another evil of furnaces is, that the original fireplace is sometimes not large enough to contain the apparatus, and the party wall is cut into. Perhaps it may be necessary to notice at this point the use of gas, as it is becoming so very general.
Gas, if carefully laid on, and properly used, is safer than any other light, so far as actually setting fire to anything goes, but the greater heat given out so dries up any combustibles within its reach, that it prepares them for burning, and when a fire does take place, the destruction is much more rapid than in a building lighted by other means. Gas-stoves, also, from the great heat given out, sometimes cause serious accidents; in one instance, a gas-stove set fire to a beam through a twoand- half inch York landing, well bedded in mortar, although the lights were five or six inches above the stone. This is mentioned to show that gas-stoves require quite as much care as common fires.
Spontaneous ignition is believed to be a very fruitful cause of fires; but, unless the fire is discovered almost at the commencement, it is difficult to ascertain positively that this has been the cause. Spontaneous ignition is generally accelerated by natural or artificial heat. For instance, where substances liable to spontaneous ignition are exposed to the heat of the sun, to furnace flues, heated pipes, or are placed over apartments lighted by gas, the process of ignition proceeds much more rapidly than when in a cooler atmosphere. Sawdust in contact with vegetable oil is very likely to take fire. Cotton, cotton waste, hemp, and most other vegetable substances are alike dangerous. In one case oil and sawdust took fire within sixteen hours; in others, the same materials have lain for years, until some external heat has been applied to them. The greater number of the serious fires which have taken place in railroad stations in and near London have commenced in the paint stores. In a very large fire in an oil warehouse, a quantity of oil was spilt the day before and wiped up, the wipings being thrown aside. This was believed to have been the cause of the fire, but direct proof could not be obtained. Dust-bins also very often cause serious accidents. In one instance, 30,000l. to 40,000l. were lost, apparently from hot ashes being thrown into a dust-bin.
These accidents may in a great measure be avoided by constant care and attention to cleanliness, and where paints and oils are necessary, by keeping them in some place outside the principal buildings. Dust-bins should, as much as possible, be placed in the open air, and where that cannot be done, they should be emptied once a day. No collection of rubbish or lumber of any sort should be allowed to be made in any building of value.
Mr. Wyatt Papworth, architect, has published some very interesting notes on spontaneous ignition, giving several well-authenticated instances.
Incendiarism may be divided into three sorts—malicious, fraudulent, and monomaniac. Of the former there has been very little in London for many years.
The second, however, is rather prevalent. The insurance offices, which are the victims, protect themselves as well as they can, but an inquest on each fire is the true mode of lessening the evil. This is much more the interest of the public than at first seems to be the case. In several instances where the criminals were brought to punishment by Mr. Payne's inquests, people were asleep in the upper parts of the houses set fire to, and in one case there were as many as twelve or fifteen persons. This, however, is seldom stated in the indictment, as, if it is, the punishment is still death by the law, and it is supposed that a conviction is more easily obtained, by the capital charge being waived. Monomania is a rare cause of incendiarism, but still several well-certified cases have occurred in which no possible motive could be given. In one instance a youth of fifteen set fire to his father's premises seven times within a few hours. In another, a young female on a visit set fire to her friend's furniture, &c., ten or eleven times in the course of one or two days. In neither case could anything like disagreement or harshness be elicited, but the reverse. In other instances, it has been strongly suspected that this disease was the cause of repeated fires, but there was no positive proof. In all these cases, known or suspected, the parties were generally from fourteen to twenty years of age.
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