West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History





Probably the fiercest fire ever seen in Pontefract occurred in the early hours of Thursday morning, at Town End, Pontefract, when the commodious premises owned by Messrs. R. Ewbank and Son., motor engineers, were completely gutted.

Several persons who passed the premises just before midnight on Wednesday observed nothing untoward, but at about 12-30 am Mr. Gurnie Holmes, son of Ald. O. Holmes, of the Priory, whose bedroom overlooks Messrs. Ewbanks’ garage at the extreme corner of the Priory grounds, 30 yards away, was disturbed by sounds of breaking glass. At first he attributed this to the activities of night soil men in the Mill Hill district, but as the sounds increased in volume he decided to investigate and, getting out of bed, was startled to see an ominous red glow issuing from the garage, and even as he was looking a column of flames burst through the upper windows of the main building.

Realising that a terrible conflagration must almost inevitably follow, he hastily roused the other members of the household, including his father, who is chairman of the Fire Brigade Committee, and then hastened to the telephone and reported the outbreak to the police office, from whence a constable was despatched to sound the fire alarm – which, however, had already commenced to toll.

Mr. Holmes junr., then having donned more adequate clothing, joined his brother, Mr. Conrad Holmes, and Mr. Willie Hargreaves, of Mayor’s Walk, who happened to be sleeping at the Priory, and who, with the assistance of Mr. Willie Heptinstall, of Southgate, who had been attracted by the glare, were already smashing in the plate glass windows of the main shop, with a view to salvaging the cars in the showroom on the ground floor. Having broken the whole of the glass away from the largest window, these volunteers, who now numbered six, having been joined by Mr. A. Ackroyd and another, whose identity has not been ascertained, succeeded in dragging out two new cars and also an A.J.S. sidecar combination but at this stage the fire, which until then had been confined to the upper floor – occupied by the Electrical Contracting and Motor Company – broke through into the ground floor, and the increasing heat and danger rendered their position too unhealthy for them to continue their activities here.

On leaving the main shop, the party, which was rapidly increasing in number, observed a motor bus in the yard separating the principal building from the newly-erected cycle department, and as the flames were now bursting through the windows on this side they broke down the wooden gates and rescued this vehicle also.

Backed up by P.C. Hall – the constable who had rung the fire alarm – the salvage party continued their policy of “destruction for preservation”, and smashing in the doors of the motor cycle department, were able to rescue from here another car, over twenty motor cycles, a large number of pedal cycles, and a mass of tyres and other articles before the increasing heat from the main building compelled them to beat a retreat.

Meanwhile, Ald. Holmes had hurried to the Fire Station, 450 yards away, en route warning P.C. Hall (at Ropergate corner) to sound the alarm, and, despatching another constable to warn firemen, and the Corporation scavenging motor for the Brigade Engineer (Mr. Vickers), completed his journey to the Fire Station, and, arriving there, proceeded to fasten his bootlaces and finish dressing whilst awaiting the arrival of the firemen.

Anxious moments passed in complete solitude, and the benighted chairman realised more pointedly than ever the effects of his Committee’s failure to convince the Town Council of the necessity for an efficient alarm-giver. Faintly in the near distance he could hear the tinkling of a solitary light-toned bell in the church tower, for it now seems that it’s companion had been placed out of action when pulled for the call to Whitley Bridge a month previously, and yet no one in authority had deemed it necessary to report the fact until the very day before the defect became so painfully evident.

Chafing at the delay, however, he presently wheeled out the small hose cart, and, unable to secure help from the deserted streets, himself dragged the cart to Ropergate End, where he was met by Mr. L. Towler, Mr. J. Asher and Mr. C.H. Maud, and together these four fixed a stand pipe to the main near Mr. Ackroyd’s shop, joined up four lengths of hose, and had a pipe ready for water just as the motor fire-engine, driven by Mr. Vickers, and with several firemen aboard, including the Vice-Captain (Mr. J.W. Gardiner), arrived on the scene and took charge.

By this time the premises had become a veritable inferno, and the heat from the blaze was so intense that one of the rescued cars, which had been left some thirty yards away from the building, actually caught fire, but this little outbreak was quickly extinguished and the car removed to a safer distance.

The Fire Brigade at once realised that nothing could save the burning building and they therefore concentrated their attention on the protection of the adjoining cycle department in Mill Hill, and the repair department in Wakefield Road.

At this stage the spectators, attracted by the glare and the alarum, who numbered something like a thousand, commenced to entertain grave apprehension for the safety of a large underground petrol tank, containing some 600 gallons of petrol, and as the volume of flames increased they edged further and further away, until the whole of Town End was vacated; all save the firemen and a few of the more venturesome onlookers, preferring to view the inspiring, yet terrible, sight from vantage points well up Wakefield Road and Mill Hill, and equally distant points in Southgate and Ropergate End.

Residents in the locality, many of then but lightly attired, acting on the warnings issued, evacuated their dwellings and retired to a safer distance.

Mr. R. Ewbank and his son, Mr. R.W. Ewbank, who, strange to say, had not been made aware of the calamity until about half an hour after the alarm was raised, now arrived on the scene, followed soon afterwards by the manager of the cycle department (Mr. G.W. Shepherd), and the foreman of the repair department (Mr. Owen Clarke), all of whom at once assured the anxious throng that the tank was absolutely fireproof, and could not possibly explode. This assurance was sufficient for many, but a large number of the spectators still preferred to be on the safe side, and to keep well out of the danger zone.

Considerable excitement was caused at this stage (12-55) by an explosion – probably the ignition of the petrol in the tank of a motor car which had of necessity been left in the centre of the building – which blew out a large portion of the wall on the Wakefield Road side of the building, fortunately without causing personal injury to the firemen gallantly at work, though the Vice–Captain (Mr. J.W. Gardiner) had an exceedingly narrow escape. This outstanding detonation was both preceded and followed by a number of smaller explosions, probably due to the ignition of tins of petrol, carbide, etc.

During the whole of this time the Brigade had been working admirably, having laid hoses from the nearest stand pipes, and brought into play four more jets – two each side of the building – with which they minimised the danger by checking the fire in the neighbourhood of the petrol tank, and successfully prevented the fire from gaining further ground. A little later, the whole of the Mill Hill frontage collapsed, and from then onwards the Brigade began to master the outbreak.

It was not until nearly nine o’clock on Thursday morning however, that they were able to pack up and return to a well-earned rest, after having worked most strenuously for eight solid hours.

The only case of personal injury reported – although there were many narrow escapes to firemen and helpers from falling masonry and glass – occurred to one of the energetic party of salvers already referred to – Mr. Conrad Holmes, third son of Ald. Holmes – who, in pushing one of the cars through the smashed window levered his foot on the framework, in which, unfortunately, a piece of glass still remained. This cut completely through the sole of his boot, and inflicted a deep gash in the foot. Blood flowed freely, but first-aid was applied in a neighbouring house, followed by further treatment at home, and although the wound is now healing nicely, it will be some days before a boot will be worn with comfort.

On Thursday the ruins were visited by hundreds of people who, in many cases, had first been made aware of the conflagration when perusing their morning papers, and many of whom found it difficult to realise that the twisted and charred mass now on the site represented all that remained of what but a few hours previously had been an imposing and almost palatial building.

Standing upright, in the midst of the ruins are two iron pillars, which supported the ends of what was once the main girder supporting the upper floor, and these bear striking testimony to the intensity of the heat, the latter having been bent into what is almost a semi-circle.

Another criterion of the heat generated was that the bricks and blocks of concrete which fell on to the road, melted the tarred surface and so attached themselves that later, when they had cooled, in many cases picks were necessary to detach even small pieces.

At the height of the blaze the heat was so great that large blisters were raised in the paint of the door of Mr. T. Ward’s house, 35 yards away across the road, where a window was also cracked.

Another noticeable feature of the ruins is that one of the two wooden wireless aerial masts, although badly charred, still stands erect on the rear wall of the building.

All the salvaged cars, motor cycles, etc., were temporarily stored in the gardens of Friarwood House (the residence of Dr. E.B. Osmond) and the Priory, and in the New Inn Yard, and in the morning they were removed to the repair department, which was undamaged save in one place, where one of the main beams of the roof had fallen, damaging two cars which were undergoing repairs.

The damage is estimated at about £10,000 and is covered by insurance.

A special word of commendation is due to the Borough Fire Brigade. Though several valuable minutes were lost through the absurdly ineffective nature of the call, they were on the scene, with the motor engine, in command of the Vice-captain, within 12 or 15 minutes of the alarm being raised. The hose already laid was instantly brought into action, more pipes were speedily connected to other hydrants, the pressure from which was sufficient without resort to the motor-engine, and in double-quick time the Brigade, now joined by the Captain (Mr. Francis Wharldall), had a couple of additional jets at work from either side of the building. So far as the main building was concerned, their task was hopeless from the start, and accordingly their efforts were directed to the effort of preventing the flames spreading to the workshop in Wakefield Road and the motor-cycle shop and Ford depot in Mill Hill Road, for it was realised that if the latter also got hold there would be grave danger to the adjoining printing work of Mr. J.T. Turner. Indeed, had there been a breeze blowing from the north, it is more than probable that not only Mr. Turner’s works, but also the villas which extend thence up the road, would have been involved as well; but fortunately the wind was in the one line of safety; and the showers of sparks and enormous clouds of fire and volumes of smoke poured harmlessly over the valley between the Valley Café block and Dr. Osmond’s residence. So obvious was the danger, however, that the residents in Mill Hill were all prepared for instant flight in case of necessity, which luckily did not arise. Pontefract may well congratulate itself on the possession of a Brigade of the highest efficiency, and with the more effective alarm which must now surely be provided, the town may feel as secure as modern appliances and willing skill can ensure.

Several amusing incidents have come to light in connection with the fire, but one which “takes the cake” occurred in a certain bedroom in Wakefield Road, where one lady, disturbed by the commotion, but only partially conscious, observing the glow in the sky, drowsily remarked to her husband, “Oh what a glorious sunset.”

The above account, reproduced from the Pontefract Advertiser, Saturday 22nd September 1923, was kindly loaned to us by Mr. John O.E. Holmes.


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