Jermyn’s Fire of 1897

(Monday, 27th December 1897)

Transcription of the article appearing in the Lynn News and Norfolk County Press, Saturday, 1st January  1898.


The most disastrous and extensive fire ever known to have occurred in King’ Lynn broke out on Monday. Its ravages were enormous, and as a result one of the principal business thoroughfares of the town has had entirely obliterated from it a number of premises occupied by tradesmen in various lines; while others have been so seriously damaged that some of them will have to be demolished. There is a huge gap on each side of the street, and the openings created extend for a considerable distance right and left of the street. Where there existed early on Monday morning huge trading concerns, there was, not many hours afterwards, nothing but a heap of smoking, blackened and charred ruins. What a striking comment on the text announced little more than 24 hours previously by a preacher who stood in one of the Free Church pulpits of the town – “Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth!”


High street – that portion extending from New Conduit street to the Saturday Marketplace – was the scene of the conflagration. It was the morning of Boxing Day; everything was perfectly quiet; and the inhabitants, or many of them, were gently slumbering. For two days there had been a commotion of business operations. On Sunday, and of course the preceding day, (Christmas day), the shops were closed, and employees and assistants were taking their ease. A third day’s holiday was expected, but the Fates had decreed otherwise. At a quarter past seven o’clock on Monday morning quiet prevailed throughout the town; but in less than a quarter of an hour the wild clashing of the bells from the old tower of St. Margaret’s church, and the ominous sound of the Waterworks alarm “buzzer,” told to the local world the beginning of a blaze which was soon to wrap large business houses in its hot and destructive embrace and wipe out of existence for ever some of the premises which had been associated with the trade of the south part of High street for many years. Hundreds of alarmed persons, and persons who were not alarmed, but were ready for anything in the way of sight-seeing, wended their way to the centre of the town, asking “Where is it?” An answering stream of fire, with its accompanying volume of smoke, shooting heavenwards, told that the outbreak was in the vicinity of High street. Thither, accordingly, the crowd surged; and, augmented very soon into thousands, the people viewed as best as they could  the awful fire which was now in progress.


Simple, indeed, was the cause of the immense conflagration; and as one heard it recurred to the memory the equally simple cause which led to such a disastrous fire 14 years ago this Christmas, on the premises of the principal partner of the same whose mammoth establishment, the Bon Marche, witnessed the commencement of the huge outbreak of which we now write. Then, an assistant lighting the gas in one of the windows; now, a boy with a lighted taper looking for sweeping materials in a building at the rear of the premises.

Various accounts have been given as to how the fire started; but from an authentic source we have ascertained the following facts. The system adopted by Messrs. Jermyn and Perry is to always have a competent night attendant on the premises. There are three men who take turns in fulfilling the duties. A man named Anderson takes a week at a stretch, and two other men named Collins and Jackson divide the opposite week between them – one of the two taking the first four nights and the other the last three. After Anderson had again had a week at the work, Collins and Jackson again share the following week, the one who had previously had three days now having four and vice versa. At Christmas time it was Collins’ turn to be on the premises the night through, and he accordingly slept there on Sunday night. The next morning a boy named Bunton, who lives in Sedgeford lane (and whose mother is a typhoid patient in the Workhouse Infirmary), went to the shop about seven o’clock and aroused Collins, who let him in before he had finished dressing. Collins had lighted one of the gas jets in the carpet room, and after letting the lad in he went back to finish dressing. Seeing the light in the carpet room, the boy crossed over the other side of the shop, got a taper, and, going to the carpet room again, lighted it at the gas. Then he went on into the blanket warehouse with the light, to look for a watering can in order to commence sweeping out the shop. Not finding it there, he returned with the lighted taper. Before reaching Collins he blew out the taper. In the meantime Collins had finished dressing, and proceded to superintend the boy as he performed his sweeping operations. He had no occasion to do any superintending, however, for no sooner had he got into the large open shop before he perceived the smell of burning and made the awful discovery that the place was on fire. In almost less time than it takes to chronicle the fact there was an awful blaze. Mr. Brunton, who lives at the rear of Messrs. Jermyn and Perry’s shop and looks after the horses, vehicles, etc., knew immediately of the outbreak. About twenty-five minutes past seven o’clock, almost breathless, the boy Bunton rushed into the Police station and gasped out, “Jermyn’s is on fire.” Telling the lad to wait a moment, P.c. Hipkin turned to the telephone to communicate with the Waterworks and the Fire Brigade; and then he turned to further interrogate the boy, but that individual had darted out of the Police station as speedily as he had entered it. About 7.40 the Fire Brigade, in the command of second officer Oakley and foreman fireman Goldsmith (Mr. E. J. Silcock, the superintendent being out of town) arrived with the steam and manual fire engines. The steamer was worked from a position in High street near to the shop of Mr. Wilkinson, butcher, and the manual took up its stand to the north of Messrs. Jermyn and Perry’s and, subsequently, in Baker lane. There was a good supply of water from the mains. Unfortunately, after it had been at work only about ten minutes, the steamer broke down utterly, and became completely useless, this lamentable failure being due to the snapping of a brass strap. The Lynn fire engine is, remarkable to say, possessed of no duplicate parts whatever; and as the break was of such a nature that it could not be quickly repaired, the engine remained silent for nearly three hours. Water, however, continued to come from the hydrants.


To come back  to the monstrous drapery establishment of which we wrote a moment or two ago, as being in flames. The building of course still contained a large quantity of Christmas trade decorations; and the whole stock was of a highly inflammable description. In less time than it takes one to describe it, the huge shop was one mass of flames, from end to end and from side to side. The large plate glass windows were shivered into fragments by the heat of the roaring furnace within; the various parts of the building were wrapped in a fiery embrace; the flames rushed up the revolving shutters; the joists and supports of the upper floor caught fire and burned fiercely; and it was plainly seen that the entire edifice was doomed to destruction. Indeed before ever the bells were clashed the roof had been destroyed and the flames were shooting upwards gilding everything for some distance around with a ruddy glow and lighting up the towers of St. Margaret’s with wonderful effect. The heat in the vicinity of the blazing building was so great that it was impossible to go very near to it but the firemen ventured as close as they dare in order to cope, if possible, with the flames. Seeing, however, that nothing they could possibly do would save the burning establishment from destruction, the firemen directed their energies to attempting to avert the danger which was now threatening other premises in the near vicinity. In this they were wise, and it is a pity that the engine which they were manipulating was unworthy their decision. Turning from the fire-doomed premises of Messrs. Jermyn and Perry, they put forth their efforts to protect Mrs. Jex’s tobacco shop, which, being next door to Messrs. Jermyn and Perry’s, was exposed to very great danger, and also other buildings, including some on the other side of the street which were already appearing to scorch and almost shrivel under the awful heat which, with so narrow a thoroughfare, they were feeling terribly. For several minutes the workers had been so engaged when a shout rent the air, “Look out! It’s coming down.” The alarmed firemen, instinctively knowing what was meant, dropped the hosepipes and ceased operations immediately, rushing madly away from the front of the Bon Marche. They were only just in time. No sooner had they got clear than, with a mighty crash which shook the ground for a distance, the entire front of the drapery establishment, with the turret and part of the roof, fell into the street. In another twenty minutes the front of Messrs. Jermyn and Sons’ furniture store, which had also been burning fiercely, fell likewise. Everything, save still burning beams and woodwork, had gone; the great stocks were no more; and nothing remained of the immense double fabric but two walls running along from and to what had been but a short time before the front and back of the business premises. Almost immediately afterwards the mishap occurred to which we have previously alluded – the fire engine ceased working; and with a thrill of horror the spectators realised that there was little or nothing to stay the ravages of the flames – huge fiery monsters which threatened to sweep away the entire street.


The situation was enough to appal the stoutest heart. With the stream of water from the engine, it looked as though the fire could have been confined at least to the side of the street upon which it had commenced, if not to the building in which it had originated. Without it there seemed to be little prospect of preventing a terribly augmented amount of mischief. In place of the steamer there was nothing immediately at hand in the shape of fire-extinguishing apparatus except two standpipes which were connected with the mains. And these were miserably inadequate. The flames had swept across the street with the fall of the front walls of Messrs. Jermyn and Perry’s and Messrs. Jermyn and Sons’ premises, and had now attacked Mr. Lipton’s provision shop, Messrs. Salter and Salter’s boot shop and Mr. A. Howard’s confectionery store. A hose managed to keep the flames somewhat in check so far as Mr. Howard’s shop was concerned; and some little help was given to Mr. H. Sutcliffe, the manager for Messrs. Salter and Salter, who from a window over the shop of that firm was dashing pailsful of water on to the burning shutters and outstanding sign. The plate-glass window of Mr. Howard’s had gone at an earlier time; and though the efforts of the firemen kept the shop from entire destruction yet the damage done was extensive and the interior of the shop seemed to be spoiled. It seemed almost a miracle that Messrs. Salter & Salter’s shop did not become prey to the flames, but the stout shutters served to keep out the all-devouring element. As it was, the shutters were frightfully burned and charred; the sign was badly damaged; and the upper windows were gone. Of course the plate glass windows had succumbed to the heat, but the contents of the shop were damaged only by water. Messrs. Jermyn and Perry’s extension premises – where the assistants have their meals and the male portion of them live, and where there was a splendidly set out show window – were also in danger. The lower and unshuttered plate glass windows smashed and went, and the woodwork caught fire; but the firemen were able to save the building at the cost of spoiling the valuable contents of the window with water.


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