L’Incendie des 14-15 Août 1910
L’Avenue des Nations
The Brussels International Exposition of 1910 was a World’s fair held in Brussels, Belgium, from 23 April to 1 November 1910. This was just thirteen years after Brussels’ previous World’s fair. It received 13 million visitors, covered 88 hectares (220 acres) and lost 100,000 Belgian Francs. . . . There was a big fire on 14 and 15 August which gutted several pavilions in the Solbosch part of the exhibition. Part of the Belgian and French sections were destroyed, but the worst hit was the English section. After the fire, some destroyed parts were rebuilt at a rapid pace. This event attracted the attention of the public and the organisers were able to successfully use it for the promotion of the exhibition.
The results of the fire were horrifying in the rapidity with which they followed upon a trifling cause. A chance spark from a watchman’s pipe or the hot glow from a fused electric wire. Some such trifle as this originated the trouble. Then, at about a quarter to 9 on Sunday evening, an attendant saw a curtain smouldering in the Needle work hall. He called a gendarme to help him and tried to pull the burning curtain down. But, within a few seconds the roof was ablaze and, five minutes later the Exhibition was itself illuminated by the fiery glow.
The British Commissioner-General, who was in the midst of it all describes the scene thus:-
“Portions of the roof fell quickly, and flames ran along the facade with extraordinary rapidity, as they were sure to do in a building made of lath and plaster and stocked with light inflammable materials. Near the heart of the fire–if not in it–there were wax mannequins of Brussels dressmakers and these aided the furnace, but on breaking into the British section at the other end, where the offices are, it looked for the moment as if the flames were not coming our way, but might pass along the facade, and leave us time to save at least the more valuable contents. Beyond the great arch at the end of the section, however, there was an unbroken sheet of flame and in the absence of firemen a quarter of an hour decided the fate of everything.
“A dozen members the staff either attracted by the fierce light or already in the grounds the grounds worked hard and without confusion to save the moneys and all valuable papers particularly the plans of the Turin Exhibition. Mr Balaam, the treasurer, Mr Harries, representing the Board of Agriculture, who were exhibítors and other members of the staff lent willing hands and nothing of value was left behind. But the work was hardly done when men were crying ‘Sauve qui peut’. Entering the hall one saw a great body of flame leap along above the Bradford and Huddersfield tableaux and the priceless loan collection of furniture, flash through the light velarium, and scattering brands upon the show-cases. A great gust of wind came through the falling roof, and all was over. One had to leave the masterpieces of Bernard Moore and Howson Taylor exposed to a greater fire than that of the potter’s furnace.”
The fire was not sated. Like a torrent it rushed on, catching the velarium, and making the roof appear like “one tongue of fire”. An onlooker states:- “The flames now reached the bridge which spans the Avenue Solbosch, between the French and British sections. With the sound of broken glass, tho roaring of the flames, the fall of girders, the bridge broke own into the avenue, and for a time it seemed as if the French section might be saved. There was, indeed, a kind of lull. Hero it may be said that the seeming incompetence of the Belgian firemen, the absence of any official with adequate common-sense, the multiplying of little jacks-in-office to bar the way were almost entirely to blame for the subsequent loss of the French Alimentation section, the Ville do Paris, and six houses on the Avenue Solbosch. Mr. Hotchkiss, the representative of the Underfeed Stoker Company, actually offered to lead a gang of men with axes and sledge-hammers to cut down the bridge three-quarters of an hour before the flames became too strong. To his offer the following reply was made: ‘We have no axes, no men, and no hammers.’ It was then proposed to blow up the bridge. ‘Dus aliter visum.’
“The bridge fell at about 10, but the French section had already caught. The fire ran along the Restaurant Duval incredibly fast. The French wines, the French chocolates, and other stalls for edible or potable wares disappeared like magic. The roof fell in, the walls collapsed, and the heat was so great that those who were on guard in the gardens below with articles rescued from the flames were forced to hide their faces behind the rose and apple trees. Taking, as it were, a second wind, the fire seemed to cross over and seize upon the brick houses of the Avenue Solbosch, and six were speedily tending heavenwards columns of smoke. In the French Industrial Hall, too, the flames began to make their way. The cases of jewellery were smashed and the valuable jewels conveyed across to a restaurant on the other side of the gardens. In the hurry and bustle amidst the red glow of the fires, the showers of sparks, and the clouds of smoke there was one found who endeavoured to steal from a showcase His fate was pitiable. Running at full speed, he was bought up by a cowboy with ‘punch’ on the jaw, and was seized by his infuriated pursuers. The police saved him with difficulty.”
Some of the most terrible scenes were witnessed in “Old Brussels,” where Bostock’s well-known wild-beast show was an attraction. The poor beasts were maddened with fear as the flames invaded the section. Someone fearing that they might escape and cause a panic in the now frightened crowd suggested shooting the creatures. Eight gendarmes were hurriedly sent for, and took their places with loaded rifles. Then it was remembered that the bullets would go beyond the open cages. A colony of monkeys were giv6n their liberty, but the rest were left to their fate. The charred remains of lions, bears, panthers, crocodiles, and the rest were found among the ruins next day.
“Old Brussels” itself was one of the most picturesque corners m the Exhibition. There were the narrow streets
twisting and turning with their courtyards and wooden bridges, which one instinctively associates with, old Flanders. The old wooden houses, with painted shutters, carved doorpost, and overhanging gables were fine fare for the fire fiends. Over the doorways of some were little niches with painted statue of the Virgin. These perished too. Within the leaded mullions and green panes one could see the benches set with tankards of Flemish beer. It was a picture such as the Brothers Grimm have made familiar to us all from childhood but all so substantial. When the flames came, they reduced everything to white cinders and black debris within a few minutes. The most dangerous moment from the human standpoint was when the fire reached Old Brussels and the crowds in the narrow streets were panic-stricken. Fortunately, beyond some serious cases of crushing all escaped.
The Mercury, 29 September 1910