Saturday 18 May 2024

Fire at the Ardgowan Distillery - river of burning whisky

The fire at the Ardgowan Distillery in Greenock in June1903 was one of the worse fires Greenock had ever experienced and resulted in the deaths of seven people. 

The Ardgowan Distillery had only been in existence for five years.  It stood at the top of Baker Street in Greenock and was opened in 1898.  It was a large building with a Coffey’s patent still, one of the largest of its kind at the time, capable of dealing with 8000 gallons of wash per hour.  The mash-house contained mash and maize tuns (casks) which held over 60 gallons.  Much of the grain for the works was brought into the James Watt Dock from the Black Sea ports such as Sulina.  There was also a six storey bonded warehouse attached, Russell & Spence were the consulting engineers for the building which was added in 1899.  The Ardgowan Distillery and the Adelphi Distillery in Glasgow were taken over by Distillers Company Ltd in June 1902. 

On Friday 12 June 1903 just after six o’clock, the police were notified that a fire had broken out in the Ardgowan Distillery’s store where the barrels of whisky were kept.  The Fire Brigade, under their chief William Taylor, rushed to the scene.  Bluejackets and marines from HMS Benbow (Clyde guardship) quickly arrived to aid the firefighters.  Within a very short space of time flames broke through the roof of the building and could be seen for miles around.  People gathered in Wellington Park and other vantage points to watch proceedings and the local Volunteers added their assistance in fighting the fire.  It was said that the heat from the fire could be felt as far away as the Wellpark.

The Distillery was in a densely populated part of Greenock and soon local householders in Ingleston and Baker Streets started moving their furniture and valuables outside, afraid that the fire would spread to their homes.  A river of burning whisky from the stores ran down Baker Street setting alight any furniture which had been left out in the street – “The burning torrent poured down Baker Street several inches in depth, and with the flames mounting into the air to a distance of about seven feet the crowd saw the imminent danger not a moment too soon … fortunately no person in the crowd was caught.” 

The Greenock Telegraph describes the scene – “About forty families in this neighbourhood took leave of their homes, and many pathetic scenes were witnessed as little children ran here and there looking for their parents, and equally anxious mothers bustled about with tearful faces looking for missing little ones.

However, as the burning whisky ran downhill it also got into the water system which fed the local foundries and mills.  An explosion took place at Muir & Sons Grain Mill at (Deerpark Mill) on the corner of East Stewart and Springkell Streets and the building collapsed.  This was where most of the casualties occurred.  Flames spread through what was left of the building.   Several people had been in this area when the building collapsed, and rescuers spent many hours clearing away the rubble in the hope of finding survivors.  One hundred bluejackets from HMS Benbow were marched to the scene to assist.  Nine people were rescued and sent to the Infirmary in Duncan Street.  Seven people, including women and children died that night. Among the dead were Archibald Nicol (15), Agnes Dunlop or Purcel (48), William Sloan (16), David Collins (8), Chrissie Buchanan (4), William Richardson (50) and an unknown boy.  Many more were injured.

The burning liquor, once in the water system got as far as Stanners Street to the east of the town and there was some panic there with people taking their belongings out into the street.  But there was little damage there.

As night fell, the fire continued to blaze, lighting up the sky and was visible for miles around.  Many people travelled to the area to view the scene and the police were kept busy containing the spectators.  The building collapsed and firefighters had a difficult job trying to stop the flames spreading from the store to the distillery itself. It was three o’clock in the morning before the fire was eventually contained.  It was estimated that a million gallons of whisky were destroyed.

During the blitz blitz of May 1941 the Ardgowan Distillery was once again set on fire during the heavy bombing by the Germans during WWII.

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