North Laine all ablaze

Photo:Even before 18 Trafalgar St became Edgar Jones it was a dispensing chemists, as was revealed in 2007 by the removal  of all later shopfront signage prior to reletting the premises

Even before 18 Trafalgar St became Edgar Jones it was a dispensing chemists, as was revealed in 2007 by the removal of all later shopfront signage prior to reletting the premises

Photo by Jackie Fuller

Fire a constant threat in the 1930s

By Geoffrey Mead

Three cuttings from local newspapers in the 1930s show us that fire was a constant threat to the North Laine in the days before the present retail renaissance, with the profusion of inflammable raw materials at timber yards and saw mills, workshops and small foundries, paint stores and, as here, dangerous 'domestic' substances.

(1) No 18 Trafalgar Street (from Brighton & Hove Herald, 15th February 1930)

Fire at chemist's shop

"A big crowd of spectators watched the efforts of the Brighton Fire Brigade on Monday evening in putting out a fire at a chemist's shop at 18 Trafalgar Street premises occupied by Mr Edgar Jones. A bottle containing liniment had been placed near the fire so that the warmth should enable the ingredients to dissolve. Owing probably to the cold weather the bottle cracked, and the contents, which were of a spirituous nature, ignited.

The Fire Brigade responded quickly to a call by telephone and the flames were soon extinguished. Serious damage was done, however, to the shop, its fittings, and contents. So intense was the heat that the water pipe burst and the water from this leak must have helped in extinguishing the fire. Nearly four hundred gold-labelled bottles known as 'shop rounds' were broken.

Mr Jones asks us to state that the dispensing department and the rest of the premises were not affected by the fire. All the damaged goods have been removed and replaced. Although the painting and redecoration of the premises have not yet been completed, business is being carried out as usual."

Commentary: Directories reveal that Edgar Jones was at 18 Trafalgar Street from at least 1925 and the business was still trading as this when the Kelly's Street Directories ceased publication in 1974. In the more recent past it was a florist's shop.

(2) Kensington Gardens (from Brighton Gazette, 27th February 1932)

Fire in a Brighton cellar

Promptness averts big blaze

"A dangerous outbreak of fire in Kensington Gardens, Brighton, was narrowly averted on Tuesday night by the promptness of the Fire Brigade and the presence of mind of Mr David Collins, occupier of the shop, a grocery store. The fire occurred in the cellar, which has been converted into storerooms. The cellar, underneath the pavement, is divided into three rooms, and all are full of stores, wooden boxes and many inflammable goods.

The cause of the trouble was a lighted candle which, accidentally left on a shelf, evidently burnt itself out and set fire to the shelf. Not far from the candle was a large quantity of oil. When the Fire Brigade - three machines under Chief Officer Birch - arrived they found the shop full of smoke. The position of the cellar made their task the more difficult and this was heightened by the large stock and the small amount of room. With promptness, however, they were able to extinguish the flames by means of motor-pumps.

But for the prompt action of Mr Collins, who saw smoke pouring from the cellar and gave the alarm, and the smart response of the Brigade, there might have been a serious conflagration, for in the vicinity is much old property and the narrowness of the thoroughfare would prove a big check to the work of the fireman."

Commentary: Brighton street directories show in 1925: 'H Collins, 20/21 Kensington Gardens, fruiterer' but by 1927: 'Hyman Collins, fruiterer' at No 20, and at No 21 'grocer, Kensington Domestic Stores'.

The above 1932 press article shows David Collins as the grocer, a fact confirmed by the 1937 Pikes Directory with Hyman at No 20. The Second World War disrupts the directory sequence but by 1951 No 21 is 'F Johnson, sewing machine dealer' and also in 1956. In 1964 it is Mrs M Heather, pianoforte dealer; however by 1966 'J&D Stores, shopkeepers' are located there through to 1974.

Rising costs meant that the range of Kelly's Directories finished in 1974 and subsequent information therefore has to be collated through disparate sources. Suffice to say that in 2007 David Collins's premises is now Ditto Fabrics, a nice link back to the sewing machine dealer and the earlier domestic stores - fire to fabric!

(3) Robert Street (from Brighton & Hove Herald, 17 Nov 1934)

Bacon roasted in big stores fire

Streets blotted out by smoke

Fireman's fall from roof

"A hundred sides of bacon were roasted to cinders and dense volumes of smoke blotted out the immediate neighbourhood when a fire broke out at the provision stores of Messrs Collings and Aldrich in Robert Street on Wednesday afternoon.

So thick was the smoke that one fireman - second officer Gerald Avery, who was working on the roof, missed his footing and fell headlong into a pile of packing cases in the yard, sustaining injuries to his arm and face. He was carried into the street and taken in the Brighton Police 'Flying Squad' car to the Royal Sussex County Hospital.

Firemen were compelled to don gasmasks in dealing with the blaze, which originated in one of the curing ovens. The exact cause was not known but it is believed that, when one of the ovens was being lighted, an accumulation of fat deposited on the oven and walls was set alight. With tremendous speed the flames swept the store before the iron fireproof doors could be closed. Between 40 and 50 men were working and were able to leave safely.

Beaten back by flames

The first man to notice the outbreak was Edward Davis of Hendon Street, one of the staff, who detected a smell of burning at about 3.30pm. Immediately afterwards the whole of the bacon curing store seemed to be full of flames. Davis attempted to close the fireproof doors, shutting off the curing store, but was beaten back by the fierceness of the flames.

Crowds gathered to watch the firemen at work. The building extends from Robert Street to Kensington Street and lines of hose were run up from the pumps in both streets and directed into the burning building. Little could be seen of the flames, but smoke seemed to be pouring out from every direction. The crowd grew to such an extent that extra police reinforcements were summoned, a rope cordon was erected to keep them back and traffic was diverted.

Mr A Walker, a director of the firm, told the 'Herald' that there are four curing ovens in the building, but only the one in which the fire originated was destroyed. It contained a hundred sides of bacon. Damage was also done to other stores, particularly in the basement, which was submerged in water.

Tribute to Brigade

Mr Walker said: 'I should like to pay a tribute to the wonderful work of the Fire Brigade in confining the fire to the particular section where this bacon-curing oven is. They were able to isolate it from the rest of the building. The staff too have been splendid. Since the fire started, and after it was put out, they have been working like Trojans.'

Mr Walker revealed that the Fire Brigade have been called to the premises on many previous occasions owing to false alarms. 'Bacon curing is also carried on at night and people who saw the smoke from the curing ovens thought that the building was on fire, but we have been here forty years and have never had a fire before.'

The founder of the firm was the late Mr Horace Aldrich, father of Alderman H Wilfred Aldrich."

Commentary: In the above cutting about Robert Street a major fire broke out in the fat encrusted walls of the bacon stoves located there causing a major [and presumably smelly] fire! Add to that the domestic coal fires, gas lighting and general public acceptance of smoking and it is not surprising that fire was a constant worry in the crowded streets and manufactories of the district.

Collins & Aldrich appeared in Kelly's Directories until 1960 but had gone by 1964. I remember visiting unused bacon curing ovens in 1990 in the old Stewarts warehouse at the back of Jubilee Street in North Place. The late H T Dawes, in an article for the Sussex Industrial Archaeology Society in 1986, noted the following:

"Bacon was then smoked in Central Brighton at Kensington Street [Collins & Aldrich], North Road [Stewarts'], Market Street [Wallis, Holder & Lee] and possibly in Cheltenham Place. All have gone."

[The above newspaper cuttings and commentaries were previously published in the 'North Laine Runner', no.186, May/June 2007]

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