Shortly before midnight on 4th June 1806, a heavily inebriated man stumbled through the door of the Key Hotel in Chandos Street and ordered a meal. He was a cheerful character in his late 30s, and he dressed in a refined if somewhat sombre fashion which led many casual observers to assume that he was a priest of some kind. Unfortunately, his dress was the only sober thing about him that evening, as member of staff at the Key would later attest that he had visited the establishment several times in the last few weeks and was always the worse for drink.
The guest washed his meal down with a bottle of wine and ordered a further two bottles to be taken up to his room. The historical sources are silent on the quality of the repast but it probably mattered little to our friend, as food, drink, and accommodation, were all incidental to the main service that The Key provided to its guests; it was one of the most notorious bagnios in all of early nineteenth-century London and allowed resident and strolling prostitutes alike to ply their trade openly within its walls.
At around 2.30am the guest retired to bed with a young lady. A chambermaid was dispatched to their room a few minutes later in order to help the prostitute undress, but she reported that the man had passed out in stupor on the bedroom floor and that his companion had gone to bed without him. Fearing that he might wake up in the night and not know where he was, she lit a candle and left it on the floor next to the man before returning downstairs. Fifteen minutes later, the hotel was filled with sound of a woman screaming. A waiter, who ran up from the dining hall, found the prostitute standing on the landing in her night gown in hysterics, thick smoke and the flicker of flames emanating from the open bedroom doorway next to her.
The room was already engulfed in flames and the waiter immediately concluded that any attempt to rescue the drunken guest would be folly. Instead, he calmed the young lady and they then ran from door to door, rousing the other guests and alerting them to the danger. Chaos ensued as half-dressed working girls and their unsuspecting punters scrambled to save themselves. Many panicked, being unaware that the fire had yet to properly take hold of the building, and clambered from first floor windows, dropping into the street below. Their desperation was such that one old man, whose clothing had become entangled as he tried to escape, was left dangling above the street in ignominy; until someone was eventually able to haul him back into the hotel and help him flee via another route.
Crowds assembled in Hanoverian London at the drop of a hat and the spectacle of the Key’s destruction provoked a large assembly of slack-jawed gawkers, who mingled indiscriminately with hard-pressed parish fire-fighters and stunned prostitutes, as the building collapsed in front of them. It seems likely that Thomas Rowlandson was amongst the crowd, as his apartment in the Adelphi Buildings was just a few minutes walk from Chandos Street and would surely have been within earshot of the commotion. He later produced this watercolour of the scene, which is it seems safe to assume was heavily embellished with some of his stock comic characters in order to add humour and vitality to the proceedings.
Thomas Rowlandson, pen, ink and wash, 14.5 x 24cm. Signed and titled ‘The Fire at The Key, Chandos Street’.
The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 49 pp. 480 – 1.
Morning Chronicle, Friday 6th & 7th June 1806
Caledonian Mercury, 15th August 1806