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Did our suffragettes fire up the town?

PUBLISHED: 10:17 03 March 2018 | UPDATED: 10:17 03 March 2018

At the ready: Yarmouth Fire Brigade of old, poised to tackle blazes like the timber yard and Britannia Pier ones in 1913 and 1914. Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVE

At the ready: Yarmouth Fire Brigade of old, poised to tackle blazes like the timber yard and Britannia Pier ones in 1913 and 1914. Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVE

Archant

Nowadays, a tabloid newspaper’s eye-catching front page headline would scream something like: “Flamin’ Women!”

Seeking the right to vote: suffragettes campaigning on the Market Place before the First World War. Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVESeeking the right to vote: suffragettes campaigning on the Market Place before the First World War. Picture: MERCURY ARCHIVE

A century ago, suspected suffragette arson attacks on three Great Yarmouth targets causing huge damage were reported in detail by a local weekly paper, albeit tucked away under an insignificant headline on inside pages.

This year events nationwide mark the centenary of women receiving the right to vote.

In 1913 “one of the biggest fires in living memory” engulfed the Southtown Road timber yard of Palgrave Brown, the Yarmouth and Gorleston Times reported. Most of the huge stacks of deals in the riverside premises were destroyed.

The heat was so intense that river traffic was suspended. Impassable Southtown Road was closed. Nearby houses and business premises were in great danger. Berthed steamers delivering timber cargoes hastily cast off to seek fresh berths upriver.

Timber! Palgrave Brown's riverside Southtown Road yard in the 1990s. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARYTimber! Palgrave Brown's riverside Southtown Road yard in the 1990s. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

As high timber stacks fell, blazing deals pitched into the river, “floating like burning islands”. Some fell on to floating logs seasoning in the river, igniting them.

The Yare was crowded with the herring fleet in port. Quays were lined with vessels discharging cargoes, many of them flammable. A lightship was towed to safety. Two barges tried to pass but the heat caused their furled sails to smoke and their paintwork to be hugely blistered, but the port tug George Jewson, which was helping firemen, hosed the vessels down.

Efforts to prevent nearby homes catching fire succeeded, but some suffered cracked and broken windows. People using Boundary Road to bypass the inferno were peeved when a landowner imposed a charge!

Said the Press: “The origin of the fire is unknown and considerable mystery is attached to it as the outbreak originated in the very centre of the yard.”

The port tug George Jewson which helped tackle the timber yard blaze in 1913. Picture: PETER ALLARD COLLECTIONThe port tug George Jewson which helped tackle the timber yard blaze in 1913. Picture: PETER ALLARD COLLECTION

Anonymous postcards received by the town clerk, police and a local newspaper claimed that suffragettes were responsible. The following night three Yarmouth Golf Club greens were damaged, and numerous cards were found on the links bearing suffragette messages, including claims to have ignited the Palgrave Brown timber yard.

A suffragette newspaper plus seven cards were discovered, three declaring: “No vote, no sport, no peace, no property is safe. Give women the vote!”

Another confessed: “The timber yard was fired by us. There is no mystery about it. Oil was poured over the planks and a candle left burning in a celluloid soap-box.”

The local Press reported: “This is the first occasion Yarmouth has suffered any damage at the hands of the militant suffragettes and the incident has evoked considerably indignation. The cards were evidently written by some educated person, judging by the writing, grammar and punctuation.”

As for the Britannia Pier Pavilion, recently rebuilt after fire gutted it, the replacement was razed to the ground, six months after the timber-yard inferno.

The seaward end was well ablaze, flames fanned by strong winds, at 4am when the motor and horse fire engines arrived, summoned by two night workers on the pier. One employee had heard a loud bang, the other saw the new tea-room behind the pavilion a-flame.

Despite their prompt arrival, firemen quickly realised that extinguishing it was well-nigh impossible, and it was obvious to them that the pavilion was doomed.

Fanned by the strong breeze, flames licked the pavilion walls and swiftly became a raging furnace. Intense heat prevented firemen from getting within striking distance, so they concentrated on saving buildings nearer the pier entrance.

As the inferno spread rapidly towards the landward end, the pavilion was swiftly demolished.

In saving that landward end, firemen were fortunate because charred pieces of wood blown on to the Parade and adjacent roads threatened the two hotels at the bottom of Regent Road, but any danger was averted.

A postcard bearing a customary suffragette legend was found by a lad on the beach under the pier, but nothing suspicious was found on the structure itself.

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