THEY were ordinary working men, many of them migrants from Ireland and the Highlands. Home was a five-storey lodging-house off Gallowgate in Glasgow.

But early in the morning of November 19, 1905, fire broke out without warning. Blind panic ensued as men tried to flee. A one-legged man in desperation broke a thick fanlight, enabling him and some others, including a blind man, to escape on to the roof.

But many unfortunates were trapped on the upper floors. In the event, 39 men lost their lives, and another 24 were seriously injured.

The blaze, described by the Glasgow Herald as an “awful holocaust”, will be recalled in a radio programme tomorrow.

The Long View will explore “parallels” between the “landmark fires” of Watson Street and the recent Grenfell Tower blaze in London, in which at least 80 people were killed.

The lodging-house – known as “No 2 Home” – stood at 39 Watson Street. It was owned by Councillor William Nicol, who owned a similar establishment in the same street and who was in Manchester on Glasgow Corporation business on the day of the disaster.

About 360 people were asleep when the lodging-house caught fire. According to publicity for The Long View, the building was “densely populated, with men sleeping in wood-lined cubicles and with only one exit to the street through a turnstile”.

The fire “spread very rapidly, trapping those who couldn’t escape on the upper floors.” Public attention was swiftly drawn to fire and building regulations and the urgent need to improve them, and an Inquiry was quickly established.

The blaze was reported extensively by the Glasgow Herald in a report headlined “Appalling calamity in Glasgow”.

The report began: “A calamity appalling alike in its character and its consequences occurred in the city early yesterday morning”.

It added: “None of the survivors are able to give a clear, still less a graphic, description of the scene.

“Only the imagination can picture the despair and the panic, and the frantic rush for life of several hundreds of undisciplined men of all ages, from youth to senility, called in an instant to face death in its most appalling form.

“So fierce was the fire and so dense the smoke they had to fight that, for those who were unable to escape, the fatal struggle was mercifully brief – so brief that some of them perished apparently without an effort to leave their beds”.

The dead included many labourers. Others had been employed as bakers, brass-refiners or asphalt workers.

A one-legged survivor, Donald McNab, described as a “smart-looking young man”, saved several people by smashing a fanlight of thick glass with his crutch as the flames grew closer. Many survivors found themselves in the freezing street, naked or with very few clothes on. The owner’s son, William Nicol Jnr, who had helped manage the lodging-house, arranged for them to be clothed and fed.

As 130 of the men were later being driven from Central Police Station to Barnhill Poorhouse, members of the public came up and pressed gifts of money, food and clothing on them. Bystanders wept as the bodies of the dead were ferried to a nearby mortuary. Watson Street had been the scene of another tragedy a few years earlier, when 15 people were crushed to death in a stampede after a false alarm during a show at the Star music hall.

Among those taking part in the programme, hosted by Jonathan Freedland, is Neil Baxter, Secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Scottish Architects.

The Long View, BBC Radio Four,

tomorrow, 9am.