In less than twenty-four hours, the fire of November 18, 1740, destroyed more than three hundred dwellings and commercial buildings, along with countless outbuildings and several wharves. Breaking out at two o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, the fast-moving blaze obliterated the section of Charleston from Granville's Bastion (at today's 40 East Bay Street) northwest to the corner of Broad and Church streets, including all the houses on the west side of Church Street. The South-Carolina Gazette reported that "the wind blowing pretty fresh at northwest carried the flakes of fire so far, and by that means set houses on fire at such a distance, that it was not possible to prevent the spreading of it."
Urban firefighters relied on demolition to limit the spread of a fire. As flames leapt from house to house, buildings, especially those of frame construction, were leveled to create firebreaks. Charleston's elected firemasters were authorized take whatever measures were necessary to stop a fire, and their orders had the force of law. Nevertheless, very often they found themselves relying on military men to carry out their directives. In 1740, although residents poured into the endangered area to help with bucket brigades, the "assistance given by the Commanders of His Majesty's ships was very considerable, in pulling down and blowing up houses."
On November 19, Lt. Governor William Bull issued a proclamation: "Whereas it may be of the utmost consequence to the preservation of the remaining part of Charles-Town, that all possible means should be used for the speedy extinguishing of the fire, which still continues burning, I have therefore by and with the advice and consent of his Majesty's Council, thought fit to issue this my proclamation, hereby enjoining all the inhabitants of the said town, and others, by themselves and slaves, to give all possible assistance for the speedy extinguishing the said fire." The militia was ordered under arms, to prevent pilfering and theft, and together with detachments from the royal ships Phenix, Tartar and Spence, a party of troopers patrolled up Charleston Neck as far as the Quarter House.
In a separate notice, Lt. Gov. Bull appealed to "all Christian and well disposed people" to contribute to the support of families who would not survive without charitable assistance. These donations were administered through the vestry of St. Philip's Parish, in the form of loans or grants to small businesspeople and direct handouts to the very poor, especially women with dependent children. The Crown also promised £20,000 sterling for those "most affected." Granted according to the losses of the claimants, these funds mostly distributed among the wealthy men and merchant houses whose financial losses were significant. Together, the private and public efforts shored up Charleston's commercial sector and alleviated the hardships of those left homeless in late autumn.
Newspaper advertisements beginning the week after the fire show merchants and craftsmen scrambling to reorganize their businesses. Hill & Guerard moved their store to Col. Samuel Prioleau's in Church Street, "where they sell the goods they have saved from the fire at reasonable rates." Thomas Gates moved into Mr. Withers's house near the French Church, where he continued to sell rum, sugar, wine and other goods; John McCall moved from Tradd Street to Mr. Hutchinson's corner house in Union Street, where he sold ready-made clothes and other goods. John Scott, gunmaker, being burnt out from the corner of Broad Street, moved a few blocks away; Henry Williams, burnt out of his house on the Bay, moved to Mr. Vaughan's, where he continued "keeping a house of entertainment as usual."
Women were part of Charleston's commercial landscape, and part of the diaspora from the burned district. Mary Hext's house was lost, so she rented a "convenient airy house … [where] any person in the country may have their daughters boarded and taught in a true and faithful manner, at a reasonable cost." Innkeeper Mary Bedon, who had three children, "took the house where Mr. Carr lately kept tavern, where all gentlemen that will be so kind as to be her customers shall meet with the best reception and entertainment in her power," and Catharine Joor, shopkeeper, moved to Mr. Packerow's house at the west end of Tradd Street, where she sold "most sorts of dry goods as usual." Neither Ms. Bedon nor Ms. Joor managed to support themselves through the winter. In February 1741 both of them received aid from St. Philip's Parish.
Crooks, Daniel J., Jr. Charleston is Burning. Two Centuries of Fire and Flames. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.
Mulcahy, Matthew. "The Great Fire of 1740 and the Politics of Disaster Relief in Colonial Charleston." South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 99, No. 2 (1998).
South-Carolina Gazette, November 13-20, November 20-27, November 27-December 4, 1740.