The Four Courts on Fire, 1805-1922

From the Freeman’s Journal, 21 December 1867:

“Great excitement was occasioned yesterday by the announcement that the north-eastern wing of the Four Courts was on fire, and that a large quantity of valuable documents had been consumed.

At twenty-five minutes past seven o’clock, Mr James Reid and Mr Matthew Kennedy, and Police Constable 20D, observed smoke breaking from the building at the north angle, near the recently erected Bankruptcy Court. They proceeded at once to Winetavern Street and gave the alarm to the Fire Brigade. In the meantime, Mr Mordon of the Board of Works got the men employed on the premises together, and by means of water obtained with much difficulty, owing to the volume of pungent smoke issuing from burning papers, they succeeded in keeping the flames in check unti the Fire Brigade came up. No time was lost in getting the steam and No 3 engines to work, with water supplied under the direction of Mr Crofton.

It was found that the fire had originated in the office of Master Gibson at the fireplace, and had extended into the Chancery General Taxing Office and through the flooring into Master Litton’s office. After much hard work the flames were got under at twenty minutes past eight o’clock , and were finally extinguished soon after, but not until all the furniture in the three apartments, as well as a vast quantity of valuable documents, were destroyed… a brief bag filled with title deeds left yesterday by a gentleman has been consumed and nothing remains of its contents but the iron framework, lock and clasp.”

The writer went on to suggest that the fire might have been caused by the housekeeper having permitted some of the cinders to fall under the hearth rug when raking out the grate in Master Gibson’s office the previous day. This was flatly contradicted by none other than the housekeeper herself, who stated, in the Dublin Evening Mail of the following day, that she had gone round all the offices at six o’clock that day with several other women under her charge and made quite sure all the fires were extinguished!

The cause of the fire therefore remained a mystery, as the room in question was too high to be approachable by the only other suggested cause: incendiaries. What was clear was that the fire had been exacerbated by the partitions in the offices having been constructed of lath and plaster, with sods of turf in between for the purposes of deadening sound – a highly flammable fit-out!

This was only one of many 19th century fires to threaten the Four Courts. The first, which broke out between nine and ten o’clock on the 30th August 1805, in the stables of the New White Cross Inn (the current Law Library site), could have destroyed Gandon’s Four Courts almost as soon as it was constructed. The flames of this fire, which initially raged with the greatest violence, were fortunately extinguished by officers of the Pipe Water department and detachments of the 28th and Royal Tyrone Regiments without half the damage apprehended actually occurring.

In February 1823 another fire broke out on a Saturday night in the Offices of the Common Pleas in the eastern quadrangle; the damage was trifling and the court officers and clerks working during the weekend were commended for their prompt action in extinguishing it.

A more serious scare occurred on the 19th March 1828, when a stable at the rear of Gandon’s building, appropriated some time previously by the Master of the Rolls for stabling his horse, went up in unexplained smoke. High winds were prevailing at the time, and the difficulty of procuring water added much to the alarm, since none could be obtained from the pipes in the street, or through the paving-carts. Eventually the fire was got under by local inhabitants (the much maligned occupiers of Pill Lane), using water from pumps and cellars in the neighbourhood.

These 1805 and 1828 fires contributed to the subsequent decision of the Wide Streets Commissioners and the Benchers of the King’s Inns to appropriate the western side of Pill Lane into the Four Courts with a view to insulating it from the surrounding neighbourhood.

The potential carelessness of Four Courts’ housekeepers with regard to fire was discussed in the Dublin Evening Post of the 21st March 1843, which asked readers to reflect on the consequence of millions of pounds of property being left in the nighttime care and keeping of women. It seems that by 1867 a more enlightened attitude prevailed and the fire of that year did not lead to the end of the housekeeping system in the Four Courts, which continued for a few decades thereafter.

There was another fire in 1887, in the Vice-Chancellor’s Court, which resulted in the destruction of its interior. An interesting feature of this fire was that, although the flames were first observed about 2 o’clock in the morning, the hands of the stopped clock in the court pointed to 9 p.m., which led some to speculate it might have started at this time. Of course, timekeeping in the Four Courts was never very regular! Again, the cause of this fire went unascertained.

By 1867, the new Records Building in the Four Courts was under contemplation and, following the December fire, attention was drawn to the proposed status of this building as a ‘vast fireproof receptable’ and consequent need for it to be completed as soon as possible.

Proof against the usual sort of fires the Records Building may have been, but that did not stop it being destroyed in the Great Four Courts Fire of 1922 of which the above events were but a mere foreshadowing. To be fair, the fire experts who constructed the Record Building could hardly be expected to foresee that it might one day be filled with munitions booby-trapped with firebombs, while large shells rained down at intervals from across the river! Not much that even the most committed fire brigade could do in that situation!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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