Great Yarmouth riverside businesses go to blazes
The embers are still smouldering on the Britannia Pier and at Palgrave Brown’s Southtown Road timber yard, figuratively speaking, after a recent column recalled that militant suffragettes allegedly claimed responsibility for the huge 1913 and 1914 blazes there.
The Great Yarmouth pier, built in 1858, was destined to be a victim of major destructive blazes no fewer than four times in just over a century: in 1909, 1914 (the alleged suffragette arson) and 1954 the pavilion was gutted, and in 1932 and the 1954 blaze, the ballroom was destroyed.
As for that so-called suffragette 1914 arson, two men were on duty on the pier at 4am and raised the alarm, otherwise the damage might have been even more extensive.
One was the night watchman named Turrell, the other a Trinity House employee who was regularly stationed there to look after the navigation lights helping vessels passing through Yarmouth Roads.
Turrell was on the angling platform at the end of the pier when he heard a loud report, but disregarded it, thinking it came from one of the lightships. Then he realised it was caused by the blazing pavilion.
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Palgrave Brown, badly damaged the previous year, hit the headlines again in 1955 when it was reduced to ashes by another destructive conflagration; as expected. its timber-filled Dutch barn style storage sheds blazed ferociously and again proved an exhausting and testing time for the fire crews.
The business was established here in 1850, occupying riverside land on Southtown Road roughly between Bollard Quay and Fellow’s dry dock and shipyard and, later, engineer Burrells.
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After a 1985 takeover by Meyer International, the company’s quayside yard closed.
From a passing bus, it is impossible to tell what the present owner uses the former timber storage site for because the Southtown Road frontage is now completely screened from public view.
I doubt any timber cargoes have been shipped into Yarmouth for decades, but for much of the 20th century and earlier, it was one of the port’s biggest businesses, a year-round activity as opposed to the seasonal autumn herring fishery.
Also along the Southtown quayside were two more long-gone timber businesses: Jewson’s, almost adjacent to our Haven Bridge, and Orfeur and Bellin nearby.
Jewson’s, founded here in 1836, was also the victim of a destructive blaze. In 1928 a major outbreak in R H Clarke’s flour mill spread to the vulnerable neighbouring timber mill, destroying both.
The alarm was raised that June Saturday evening by Yarmouth’s town clerk, Mr M B Bowles. Fire tenders linked up with water tanks sited on Southtown Road.
Their efforts were boosted by the Port and Haven Commissioners’ tug positioned in the river while jetting water at the blaze - which created a similar scenario to the Palgrave Brown drama 15 years earlier.
The fire-fighting lasted for several hours into Sunday, watched by dense crowds safely on South Quay opposite.
According to local photographer Clifford Temple, who captured the inferno on film: “It was well into Sunday before the last flames were extinguished, and one of the most modern and profitable flour mills in the area had been razed to the ground.
“Eighteen months later, a brand new four-storey mill was opened on the same site.”
In 1964, Clarke’s pasta mill became Pasta Foods.
Jewson’s too was the subject of a take-over, acquired in 1977 by Horsley Smith, but it was all short-lived because the yard closed only two years later.
After a while, the site was cleared of all traces of its timber past and developed as a small retail estate at the foot of the Haven Bridge, clothier Matalan being one of the original occupiers,
The well-known Norfolk name of Jewson still has a commercial presence in the borough; the company trades on Boundary Road as a builders’ merchant and tool hire specialist.
I am indebted to John McBride’s Diary of Great Yarmouth for pin-pointing the dates of these dramatic incidents.