The Georgetown Fires of 1913 – by Peter Halder

The Georgetown Fires of 1913

by Peter Halder

 The year 1913 was propitious for British Guiana.

Sir Walter Egerton was the British Governor.

For the first time, the head of the British Sovereign appeared on British Guiana Postage Stamps.

The first map showing the Corentyne River as the boundary between British Guiana and Dutch Guiana (Suriname) was published.

The population of the colony reached some 300,000 and the population of Georgetown was 57,500. The Amerindian population was 13,000.   

Sugar, known as Demerara Crystal, continued to be the major export. Some 70,000 acres of coastland were under sugar cane cultivation. Other exports included gold, diamond, timber and rice.   

The latter was cultivated on some 36,000 acres of land. Rice exports began in 1902 when just 5 tons were shipped but it gradually increased to 5,500 tons in 1913. Greenheart was the major timber export, followed by crabwood called “B.G. mahogany.” Production in the colony also included coconuts, limes, cacao, coffee, rubber and balata.

 In 1913, the first airplane flight was launched.

But the year was also one of mystery. In that year alone, there were two major, mysterious fires in Georgetown.

On March 7, the Brickdam Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the premier Brickdam Cathedral in the colony was burnt to the ground.

At the time, the Cathedral was highly regarded for its structural beauty and fine edifice.

There were two versions about the cause of the fire.

One was that a plumber was using a blowtorch near the top of the great tower of the Church when something went wrong and the building went up in flames.

Another version was that a workman, a Frenchman named Bencher Cornelle, innocently left a coalpot burning  in the tower while repairing it and the result was an inferno.

The fire was a great shock to the people of Georgetown since the Cathedral was regarded as a national landmark. It was also the main place of worship for Catholics. The Church was packed to capacity on Sundays.

The other fire occurred in December at a time when the people were deeply engaged in preparations for the Christmas Season.

On Monday, December 22, just three days before Christmas, at around 8.25 a.m., there was a loud and violent explosion in the western section of Georgetown.

The thunderous and deafening noise, so it was related, was heard not only in the Capital but on the East Coast, East Bank and West Bank Demerara.

The explosion took place at Chin-A-Yong’s shop on Lombard Street.

There, according to reports, fireworks were being manufactured in a vault. The “little bombs” were a delight for little boys to throw around on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The explosion blew Chin-A-Yong’s business place sky high and was followed by a massive conflagration.

It also killed 20 persons and injured many others.

The raging fire also almost destroyed all of Lombard Street.

A swift breeze from the northeast turned the raging fire into an inferno.

News reports stated that valiant work was done by the Fire Brigade, the Police, the Artillery, the Militia and Volunteers, but their efforts were retarded by low water pressure.

By the time the fire had vented its rage, Bugle Sawmill was no more. Psaila’s Store, Hope Sawmill, Bugle Building, Bettencourt’s Sawmill and the Demerara Company warehouse with 67,000 bags of sugar were all burnt.

Several days after, when the Police and Fire Brigade inspected what was left of Chin-A-Yong’s place of business, they found a secret underground cellar. The authorities believed it was an opium den. Opium smoking was a serious problem in British Guiana at that time.

The year 1913 turned out to be propitious, mysterious and maybe just another instance of the unlucky number 13.


(Source: Silvertorch; 1913 British Guiana Handbook)

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  • de castro  On July 21, 2013 at 8:13 am

    Wow wow WOW !
    With or without the “speculation” of what/who started the fire.

    I enjoyed history as a subject in my formal years at saints
    but it was all about British and European history….
    Wars et all….my favourite HENRY VIII and his many wives..ha ha !
    I also enjoyed Charles 1st V Cromwell politics….and Guy Fawkes
    who plotted to burn Parliament ….
    Education not unlike work must be places of enjoyment entertainment
    or they will become “repetitive and boring”
    Even cows produce more milk if music is played to them at milking time…

    For me “education” was a “social” event in the late 50 early 60 s
    as I able to hook up with boys from every corner of Guyana…
    I recently read an article wriiten by father KHAN ….inspirational
    writings/readings…and at 69 am still learning.
    Today our history is being re-written …updated.
    We learn from history by not repeating its mistakes…
    Wars of attrition et all…

  • Dmitri Allicock  On July 21, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    An invaluable piece of Guyana’s history exactly 100 years ago, efforts to rebuild the Cathedral started almost immediately.
    On 7 March 1913 the cathedral was destroyed by fire. On the next Sunday (9 March) Catholic Mayor of Georgetown, Francis Dias, called a meeting where it was decided to raise funds for a new cathedral.
    On 15 August 1915 Bishop CT Galton laid the foundation stone of the present cathedral. Construction took 10 years (1921–1931), using reinforced concrete. Granite stone came from the Dalli and Wolga quarries on the Essequibo River, and the sand came from Leguan Island.
    Read more:

  • Dmitri Allicock  On July 22, 2013 at 12:03 am

    “Bugle Sawmill was no more…” Family history remembered…
    “By the time the fire had vented its rage, “Bugle Sawmill was no more.” Psaila’s Store, Hope Sawmill, Bugle Building, Bettencourt’s Sawmill and the Demerara Company warehouse with 67,000 bags of sugar were all burnt.”
    This treasured piece of Guyana’s history reminded me of my paternal great grandfather John Daniel Van Lange, who was the general manager for the long defunct Bugle Timber Company.
    John Daniel Van Lange was born in 1834 to Colonel Van Lange, a former Dutch soldier, and Elisa Coey.
    John Daniel Van Lange was the last child of his middle age father whose prior family was decimated by black water fever resulting in the remaining survivors of one child and his mother returning to the Netherlands forever.
    John Daniel Van Lange’s father name may be Frederick Van Lange but I am unsure.
    He lived in Upper Demerara for most of his young life. He served in a legal capacity as the local Magistrate in Upper Demerara once and later moved into the Timber business. He married Mary Fiedtkou the granddaughter of Nancy Allicock of Robert Frederick Allicock. They had three children, including my grandmother, Catherine {1888-1940}, before moving to Kariya Essequibo in the 1890s. There he worked as a gold miner, woodcutter and was the general manager of Bugle Timber Company in Essequibo.
    He passed in 1906. His tomb still lies alongside his wife Mary in a church yard at Kariya, Essequibo.

  • Peter Halder  On July 22, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks very much for your update.

  • de castro  On July 24, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Its ironical as my devoted catholic mother had twin sons my brother
    and me in 1944.
    My twin was named THOMAS who believed a lot of what he read.
    I was named Compton Theodore and later the Galton and bishop was
    added by my friends and family ! jokingly !

    Thanks for that nostalgic memory of de father/mother land


  • Peter Halder  On July 24, 2013 at 10:56 am

    You’re welcome.

  • sgrft12  On July 30, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    wow 100 yrs later. Great History lesson. Thank you so much 🙂 Cheryl Pieters Chookang.

  • Peter Halder  On July 30, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    My pleasure.

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