West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History





For several nights this week the skies have glowed with the reflected blaze of light from the whirligigs and stalls in the streets and in the Fair Ground, but on Thursday evening, when the brilliance from all points was at its height during the full glory of the Statutes Fair, a more sinister light came into being between Corn Market and the Fair Ground.  Many who observed this new light, even in the immediate neighbourhood, passed it over with no second thought but that it emanated from the mass of “shows” in the height of their passing pride, but to those who possessed real knowledge of what was afoot, the occurrence was one of very real alarm, because they saw that, for a considerable time, a great mass of valuable property in the very centre of the town was in imminent danger of destruction.

The glare of which we speak emanated from an outbreak of fire inside the shop on the ground floor of premises in Rochford Court occupied by Mr. J. Corfield, photographer and picture-frame maker. The fire was first discovered by members of the Liberal Club, whose quarters occupy the front of Rochford Court and overlook the quadrangle in the rear, of which Mr. Corfield’s place occupies the end nearest to Corn Market. The rooms adjoining in the same block are occupied first by Messrs. W. Ryder, Ltd., as furniture store-rooms, then come the premises of the Comrades of the Great War Club, and beyond that the cleaning rooms of Messrs. Gardiner Brothers and the garage of Messrs. Bullock and Sons. Motor proprietors, who only recently purchased from the Liberal Club Company the whole block, the opposite side of which is occupied as dwelling houses by Mrs Raymond Perry and Mr. Corfield and their respective families.

The first indication of anything untoward was a strong smell of burning observable to the members of the Club whilst playing their games if cards and billiards and investigation quickly led to the discovery that Mr. Corfield’s premises, behind, were on fire. This was about 9-20, and an alarm was at once raised. The fire bells at the Parish Church were quickly set a-ringing, and in less than ten minutes members of the Fire Brigade, most of whom had been enjoying the sights of the Fair, were on the spot with the hose-cart and already had a jet attached to a street hydrant, pouring water into the blazing shop.

The flames, even in that short time, had attained a substantial hold, for the contents of the premises were of an exceptionally inflammable nature, whilst an open wooden staircase unfortunately provided a funnel by which the fire was speedily carried to the upper rooms, where the studio, with its photographic compounds and flimsy fabrics, provided ready material for the blaze. Within five minutes flames had burst through the roof and, although a second jet was quickly brought into service, the gravest fears were entertained that the premises immediately behind – Messrs. Barker and Jowitt’s furniture warehouses and offices – must inevitably be involved.

Accordingly, a third jet was taken on to the roof of these premises, from the Green Dragon Yard, and, attacked thus from three sides, the outbreak quickly yielded to the cold water treatment, and all danger of spreading was soon over, though so fierce had been the fire that Mr. Corfield’s premises were absolutely gutted, and the whole of the contents destroyed. These included an unusually heavy stock of picture frame mouldings and made up pictures, amongst which were £110 worth of framed photos, King’s War Service Certificates, etc., made up for customers, but held back until the termination of the miners strike for delivery against cash. All Mr. Corfield’s tools and effects completely disappeared, amongst the articles destroyed being, in addition to his own photographic materials and apparatus, a camera borrowed from Mr. R. Cleave, alone valued at £45. Mr. Corfield’s loss is estimated at close upon £1,000 of which only £400 is covered by insurance, so the result is almost calamitous. Indeed, a few sympathetic tradesmen are already making a collection to enable him to carry on until matters are settled up and he can recover from the blow sufficiently to restart in business. The damage to the buildings, including the whole of the floors, roof timbers, doors and window frames, is fully covered.

Mr. Corfield, it may be said, only left the premises a few minutes after nine o’clock, along with a friend, with whom he was just emerging from one of the “shows” when the alarming news reached him. He at once hurried home and, staggered by the misfortune confronting him, ran down the yard towards his home, and was picked up in a state of collapse.

It only remains to pay a tribute to the efficient work and promptitude of the Fire Brigade. On the spot within a very few minutes of the discovery of the outbreak, and working with intelligence, skill and muscle, their efforts to save the adjoining property were entirely successful, under the guidance of Captain F. Whardale and Vice-Captain J.W. Gardiner. True, their movements in the actual laying of hose-pipes in the street were hampered somewhat by the enormous crowd which flocked to the scene, but the crush was effectually kept in check by the police under Supt. Fairbairn, notably P.C. Rilett, who, like most of the firemen, was wet through by water from the hose-pipes. The members of the St. John Ambulance Brigade, under Supt. Amery, were also in attendance in case of need, but the only casualty reported was to Mr. Tom Gardiner, whose ankle was sprained whilst giving assistance. Yesterday he was reported to be almost recovered.

Although all danger of further trouble was over by 10-30 and the flames were completely suppressed by 11-10, it was not until 2-0 that the Brigade, having turned everything over, were satisfied that it was safe to finally retire. Subsequent examination showed that the flames had actually penetrated into the premises both of Messrs. Ryder and Messrs Barker and Jowitt, and it was thus abundantly evident that had the outbreak occurred a few hours later, when its so speedy discovery would have been much more unlikely, a very disastrous fire could not have been averted.

As to the origin of the outbreak, nothing can at present definitely be said. Mr. Corfield, as stated, was inside with a friend less than half an hour before the discovery, and all appeared to be then right; and the doors were safely locked when the first helpers came on the scene. The only possible hypothesis is that one of these late visitors dropped a match or a cigarette end, which smouldered among the loose papers and shavings until it eventually burst into flames; but this, of course, is only speculation.

The above account, reproduced from a local newspaper report dated 6th November 1920 was kindly loaned to us by Mr. John O.E. Holmes.


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