The Church Street disaster, September 1913

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Volume 17

Church Street after the clean-up of the collapse of Nos 66 and 67 (opposite the Father Mathew Hall) on 2 September 1913.

Church Street after the clean-up of the collapse of Nos 66 and 67 (opposite the Father Mathew Hall) on 2 September 1913.

In 1891 the RSAI initiated a photographic collection, which today consists of over 20,000 photographs, negatives and lantern-slides. Perhaps the best-known images are from a relatively small collection known as the ‘Darkest Dublin’ photographs. These were submitted to Dublin Corporation’s housing inquiry of November 1913 by John Cooke, who gave evidence on behalf of the then National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Some were selected and reproduced in the resulting Report on Dublin Housing Conditions published in February 1914. Many more went unpublished, but had been preserved as a set of lantern-slides and were presented in January 1926 by Cooke to the RSAI, of which he had been an active member.
Cooke himself gave the collection the title ‘Darkest Dublin’. The photographs are not pretty or charming. There is no artistic licence taken to portray the subjects in anything other than the stark and dismal realities of slum life. In part this is due to the prevailing gloomy atmosphere and weather conditions of that autumn in Dublin. But for the most part it is due to the innocence of the amateur photographers who captured the appalling decrepitude and dilapidation of Dublin’s slums more realistically than any professional photographer.

The story begins in Church Street late on the evening of Tuesday 2 September 1913. At about 8.45pm, as dusk approached, two houses, Nos 66 and 67, collapsed. The rubble fell across the width of the street as far as the door of the Father Mathew Hall on the other side. Later evidence to the coroner’s inquiry stated that there had been a rumbling noise, after which No. 66 collapsed suddenly, followed soon afterwards by the fall of No. 67. All seven who died in the tragedy had lived in No. 66, a four-storey building in which 26 people had lived. One of the inhabitants, Mr Sammon, who survived the collapse, told reporters the heroic story of how his son Eugene had died:

‘Eugene took the youngest child (Josephine), aged one year and eight months, and brought her out safely. Then he went back for the other children, and got out with them alright, but it was when he was coming away with Elizabeth that they were struck by the falling masonry and killed’ (Evening Telegraph, 3 September 1913).

It appears that the chimney gave way, crashing through the house as it fell and pushing the front wall out into the street.
Immediately following the collapse of the two houses, a great cloud of dust enveloped the scene, and for some time it was not possible to see the magnitude of what had just occurred. Soon units of Dublin Fire Brigade arrived at the scene and took control of the rescue work. By now the street was dark, except for some dim street lamps. Numerous lighted lanterns and candles were held aloft by a body of willing assistants. Throughout the night rescue workers pulled the bodies of the injured and dead from the rubble. The next morning the sun shone brightly, and only then could the full magnitude of the damage be appreciated.

Beresford Street, showing Simpson’s Court and the backs of the collapsed houses on Church Street. The rose window of the Catholic St Michin’s is visible at the top left corner. The Father Mathew Hall is to it right. (RSAI)

Beresford Street, showing Simpson’s Court and the backs of the collapsed houses on Church Street. The rose window of the Catholic St Michin’s is visible at the top left corner. The Father Mathew Hall is to it right. (RSAI)

Those killed were Hugh Sammon (17), Elizabeth Sammon (4½), Nicholas Fitzpatrick (40), Elizabeth Fagan (50), John Shiels (3), Peter Crowley (6) and Margaret Rourke (55). Two days after the disaster, Mr Sammon, father of two of the children killed, wrote a letter to the Evening Telegraph, to thank publicly the Dublin Fire Brigade:

‘During all their arduous toil their only refreshment was cold water, but if earnest thanks and appreciation are any reward, I for one tender them to the fullest extent’ (Evening Telegraph, 4  September 1913).

Ironically, the letter was addressed from No. 66 Church Street.
The link between the housing problem and the labour crisis of that year is reflected in the fact that one of those killed, Eugene Salmon, was at the time out of work in connection with the dispute at Jacob’s. Only the day before the disaster Jacob’s had closed down part of its factory because of the strike action of members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). The lockout began to take effect on the day of the disaster itself, when the Dublin Coal Merchants’ Association locked out members of the ITGWU. The tension that had built up soon exploded onto the streets of Dublin. During a protest meeting on O’Connell Street on 30 August two young men were killed following a baton charge by the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
Many observers were divided in their reaction to the cause of the labour movement, but following the Church Street disaster all were united in their condemnation of the Dublin slums. The main newspapers, which had little sympathy for Larkin’s labour cause, now readily embraced the slum crisis as a more worthwhile one. The shifting of the spotlight from the labour to the housing issue was of course partly due to the conservatism of certain newspapers. In at least one case, however, this was done deliberately to undermine the labour movement. William Martin Murphy, owner of the Irish Independent, was the primary force driving the employers’ lockout.

Living conditions were no better across the river in Chancery Lane, off Bride Street. (RSAI)

Living conditions were no better across the river in Chancery Lane, off Bride Street. (RSAI)

In contrast, the labour leaders did not make use of the slums as a political weapon. In the summer months of 1913 Larkin had been setting the foundations for the conflict with employers about workers’ pay and conditions, and by the end of August the positions had become irreversibly entrenched. Perhaps Larkin thought that to rally to the universal call for improved housing might deflect attention from the battle at hand. If so, he miscalculated the potential of the housing crisis to strengthen his hand. With the middle classes united in their condemnation of the slums, Larkin had an opportunity to show how this was a direct result of poor working conditions. Instead, the employers, and none more so than William Martin Murphy, had a free rein to use the Church Street disaster and the housing crisis to show their own empathy with the working classes. The consequent public outcry refocused attention on the housing issue and resulted in November’s housing inquiry, at which Cooke’s pictures were presented.

Chris Corlett is an archaeologist with the Department of the Enviroment, Heritage and Local Goverment.

Further reading:

C. Corlett (ed.), Darkest Dublin: the story of the Church Street disaster and a pictorial account of the slums of Dublin in 1913 (Dublin, 2008).

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