Glasgow School of Art leaders were warned that the building “would rapidly be gutted” in the event of a fire, more than 100 years ago, "chilling" documents reveal.

Files dating from 1913–14 have been uncovered which show the school’s design and construction have long been considered a potential fire risk.

They state that the rate of insurance for loaning artworks to the school for educational purposes was doubled because the building was considered to be so hazardous.

The documents were discovered by Alison Brown, Curator for European Decorative Art and Design from 1800 at Glasgow Museums, while she was in London preparing for the 150th anniversary celebrations in 2018 of the architect’s birth.

Ms Brown, who is Vice Chair of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, was investigating the links between Glasgow and the South Kensington Museum, which later became the V&A.

The museum had a role over-seeing the UK’s art schools and part of this included loaning items for display and study and the school of art was a regular borrower.

Inspectors were employed to check the suitability of the requesting institutions.


In an article in the latest edition of the society’s latest journal, she reveals how three documents piqued her interest, including one at the end of April 1913, which was written three years and four months after the second part of the building opened in 1909. The first half of the building was completed in 1899.

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The inspector writes: “The building is heated on the Plenum system. There are hydrants on all floors, and a resident engineer takes charge of the heating. 

“I am however of opinion that if a fire once started the premises would rapidly be gutted.

“The rate of insurance for our objects in this School is I believe 10 per cent.”
Ms Brown said it was “chilling” to read the inspector’s conclusion give the twin fires of 2014 and 2018. 

“Particularly as these words were written so soon after the construction of  phase two of the School,” she said.


“Our emotional response is amplified when we realise that their concern was so severe that the 

V&A doubled the insurance premium payable by the GSA to cover the loss of loaned objects.”

The deploying of wood panelling within rooms, the use of timber in construction, poor construction methods and boarding up unused fireplaces whilst their chimney cavities remained unblocked were all diagnosed as causes of fire hazards in reports over that time.

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“More stringent recommendations for improvements in design and construction to mitigate against fire resulted in specific measures being included in The Glasgow Buildings Acts of 1892 and 1900,” write Ms Brown.


She suggests that it would interesting to examine the extent to which Mackintosh adhered to building fire regulations, set out in the Acts of 1892 and 1900 saying: “How far did Mackintosh pay attention to fire risk?”

The files also show that the inspectors was impressed by the additions to the world-renowned building.


"Since I was last in the School, extensive additions have been made to the premises, by the same architect who adopts a pseudo-GlaseoEgypto-Roman style – it must be seen to be appreciated.”

However he notes that "far much wood" is used for internal decoration and many of the rooms are too dark.

Ms Brown said: "It is illuminating to see their thoughts on overall light quality provided within the building — both daylight and electric — given how we now judge the architect’s expertise in this field.

READ MORE: Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh building to be 'faithfully re-instated' 

"(Maybe their inspection visit fell on a typically grey overcast Glasgow day, when low levels of daylight would have been exacerbated by the industrial city’s smoke pollution and little compensation gained through the dim, yellower glow from contemporary electric lamp bulbs.)"

An inquiry found the fire which tore through the Mackintosh building in 2014 began when a projector ignited gases from expanding foam used in a student project. There was no sprinkler system in place.

Four years later, as a restoration project was nearing completion, it was almost completely destroyed again in a second fire and again in the absence of a sprinkler system. A report into its cause is awaited.

The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, which is headed up by Stuart Roberston, has called for a public inquiry into the fires with "full judicial powers" and said the outcome of the latest fire report would allow knowledged to be shared across all Mackintosh built heritage sites including Queen's Cross Church, which it manages.

Rebuilding the Mackintosh building as a "faithful reinstatement" of the one destroyed by fire three years ago is the preferred option for its future, art school chiefs have said.