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December 2014 Item of the Month

The great fire of Pera, 1831

The following is an account of a fire that struck the Pera quarter of Constantinople in 1831, taken from the diary of Lieutenant-Colonel (later General) Charles Grey, a son of Charles 2nd Earl Grey, Prime Minister 1830-1834. Grey was visiting the city on board his brother Frederick’s newly-commissioned frigate H.M.S. Acteon. Pera (now Galata) was then the home of many European embassies, and the British Palace there was completely destroyed.

Fire was a common and much feared event in the city. Between 1618 and 1795 there occurred 19 major fires, and it was common for people to be burnt out of their homes several times in their own lifetimes. The British embassy would again be destroyed in the larger fire of June 1870.

Image of page from Grey's diary, 2 August 1831 (Ref: GRE/V/D1a)
Page from Grey's diary, 2 August 1831 (Ref: GRE/V/D1a)
Tuesday 2nd August
This day will be long remembered in the annals of Pera. The whole of that quarter, with a trifling exception, having been burnt down – and that too in little more than 6 hours! The extent of fire is estimated at nearly a mile square.
At 10, when I arrived in Pera with the intention of visiting Constantinople the fire had just begun in the valley n[ea]r St Dimitri & and tho’ even then, experienced Perotis were moving their furniture, no great alarm was felt, away from the immediate vicinity of the fire; & Cholera was much more in people’s minds. As we came in, we met an English sailor who had died this day of Cholera going to be buried. While waiting for Moustapha we go to the top of English Palace to try & get a view of fire. About ½ past 11, it began to show itself over the hill, & from that time, tho’ from the direction of the wind the Palace was still considered safe till near two, it’s [sic] advance was quick & perfectly irresistible – no attempts were made to stop the fire. If people could save their property before the fire came upon them they were lucky. We employed ourselves as well as we could at Palace, but to no purpose. No exertions were made to save it, the wind changed, & at 3 the English Palace no longer existed. At ½ past 3 I left Pera with Cumberbatch’s Horses & then the blaze was awful, extending from the barracks n[ea]r great burying pound over the whole of the top of the hill ½ way down Pera Street, & embracing French, Dutch, & Russian as well as the English Palace.
The Turks were shamefully inactive owing to the absence of their authorities. The firemen were to be seen sitting on the engines with their arms folded, or lighting their pipes with sparks from the burning houses. Crowds of Greek, Ionian, Maltese & Turkish robbers were intent on making as much of the opportunity as possible, & few of those even who got their property out of their houses in time succeeded in saving it. Latest news – The fire is said to be out, having extended on one side as far as Galata wall & on the other to Tophana.
Wednesday 3rd
Go into Pera today, or rather to where Pera was, with ambassador, my brother, & a party [illegible] frigate, to see if anything can be recovered from ruins of Palace. The destruction has been complete. The whole Xtian quarter excepting the lower part of the Street n[ea]r Galata being in ruins, & exhibiting the appearance of a forest of chimneys, which in most cases have been the only stone part of the houses. The fire has been tolerably impartial tho’ there are instances of caprice, viz one or two wooden houses belonging to Turks having been saved with every thing burnt round them. Mr Cartwright has also saved his house, tho’ nearly baked in the operation, his window shutters being red hot, & his front door broken open by opposite house falling in. Mr Roger’s house was also saved yesterday, but burnt today while we were there. And tho’ the sailors rescued every bit of property from the fire, it was only to enrich the robbers of all nations, but principally I believe [illegible] subjects, i.e. Ionians & Maltese, who with no visible means of living occupy in great numbers the valley & hill of St Dimitri. But the Turks also behaved infamously at the French Palace, having refused to work, tho’ 5000 piastres was offered for pulling down a small wooden house joining it.
The loss of property is immense from the rapidity of the fire & little or nothing being saved owing to all the Ambassadors <&c.> & many of the principal merchants being in the Country.

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