Smell the smoke; the fires which blazed over the decades

Britannia Pier 1954. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

Britannia Pier 1954. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

Perhaps it is just imagination, but I am sure that you can still smell the smoke and burnt timber permeating various parts of Great Yarmouth, nearly three weeks after that hugely disastrous blaze which gutted the bowling alley and indoor market in Regent Road, our main artery between town centre and seafront holiday areas.

Arnold's department store (later Debenhams) in 1919. Picture: COLIN TOOKE COLLECTION

Arnold's department store (later Debenhams) in 1919. Picture: COLIN TOOKE COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

Thankfully, nobody was hurt although uninsured businesses suffered severe problems. Happening just after the start of the peak summer season exacerbated the situation and there were fears for the tourist trade.

Everyone hopes fervently that all concerned can make the best of a bad job.

Despite stringent safety precautions and legislation reducing risks to a minimum, fires will always break out, and this area has experienced many down the decades, particularly during the two world wars.

On no fewer than four occasions within half a century the Britannia Pier was a victim: the pavilion was gutted in 1909 and 1914 (that one blamed on suffragettes who were also accused the previous year of burning down the premises and stock of timber merchant Palgrave Brown on Southtown Road), in 1932 when the Floral Hall and ballroom were burned to the ground, and 1954 when the pavilion and Ocean Ballroom were reduced to ashes.

Bradwell House in 1983. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

Bradwell House in 1983. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

John McBride’s invaluable A Diary of Great Yarmouth, published in 1998, lists our major fires, among them two within nine years in the 19th century destroying Grout’s silk factory (the Sainsbury supermarket site today); the premises were uninsured for the 1832 one.

Within the space of two years mills in Cobholm and on Nelson Road were burnt to the ground that same century. Also in the 1800s Hopton Church, Mautby Hall, Leach’s hardware shop in the Market Place, Gorleston’s King William IV pub, Palmer’s town centre store and Wenn’s Southgates Road sawmill were all blaze victims.

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The 20th century was only four years old when the Cliff Dairy Farm at Elmhurst in Gorleston was destroyed. A decade later came the well-documented Boxing Day conflagration that left Gorleston’s elegant Cliff Hotel in ruins.

Four years later another of our department stores – this time Arnolds, plus adjoining premises in Regent Street – was gutted. Lightning caused the destruction of the isolation hospital in Gorleston in 1925; Jewson’s timber yard and Clarke’s flour mill were ruined in 1928, as was Wolsey & Wolsey’s music shop in King Street five years later and Brant’s drapery shops in Market Row in 1938.

The Britannia Pier buildings wrecked in a 1932 fire. Picture: PETER ALLARD COLLECTION

The Britannia Pier buildings wrecked in a 1932 fire. Picture: PETER ALLARD COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

That same major retail row was hit badly again in 1995, the premises of furnisher Courts, Greenacres butcher’s shop, Hubble-Bubble and Hand-Made Crafts were destroyed; if memory serves me right, the row was disrupted for several years before the damage was repaired.

During the war, of course, there was widespread damage caused by bombing and fire, St Nicholas’ Parish Church and town centre shops and businesses in Yarmouth being major casualties. It required self-discipline for me to refrain from some jocular comment about a 1949 outbreak – described by John McBride as “the biggest postwar blaze” - when Norton’s cigarette warehouse on North Quay went up in smoke...

During the rest of the century premises razed by fire included Eastern Sack on the riverside in Gorleston; Watling’s Cobholm granary; Fritton Hall (being used as a girls’ boarding school); Bradwell’s Hobland Hall; Folkes’ Garage, Southgates Road, Yarmouth; the former Methodist Church in Nile Road, Gorleston, occupied by Repro Arts; Docwra’s sweet factory and Hartmann Fibre’s warehouse, South Denes; Fuller’s carpet shop, Gorleston High Street; the 17th century Gapton Hall at Burgh Castle, being used as offices by the retail estate’s developers; Watney’s Maltings in Southtown; Norfolk Motor Services coach garage on Fuller’s Hill, Yarmouth; the Savoy Restaurant in Yarmouth; Burgh Hall Country Club; and four shops in Market Row.

During my reporting years, one assignment I usually found distressing was interviewing people whose homes had just been damaged or destroyed by fire.

VULNERABLE: the Britannia Pier, four times a fire victim, a-blaze for the first time, in 1909. Pictu

VULNERABLE: the Britannia Pier, four times a fire victim, a-blaze for the first time, in 1909. Picture: PETER ALLARD COLLECTION - Credit: Archant

Often there was a common denominator: despite the obvious immediate problems about where they were going to spend the night and next few weeks, or find new accommodation, or acquire furniture, the major concern was the loss of irreplaceable family photographs, souvenirs and trinkets, the memorabilia so precious to us all.

That night-time 1954 Britannia blaze was just before I entered journalism, but office legend claimed that because there was no available technology for conveying staff photographer Les Gould’s pictures to Norwich in time to meet the small-hours deadline of the Mercury’s sister newspaper, Eastern Daily Press, they had to be delivered by hand.

So Les developed and printed his glass-plate negatives in the office dark-room in Regent Street before scampering to his Morris 8 car with a young colleague, clutching the still-wet pictures. As Les headed to Norwich, his companion somehow rigged up a make-shift “linen line” in the car and attached the photographs to dry.

But the car windows misted up, claimed that in-house story – and when they were wound down, the prints fluttered about in the draught, threatening to become spoiled. Nonetheless, the photographs were delivered to head office in time to catch the EDP editions. The reporter’s words had already been dictated by phone. I hope the story was true, for gullibility drastically reduces the career prospects of a raw trainee reporter.