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.


Jermyn’s Fire of 1884

(Wednesday, 17th December 1884)

Transcription of the article appearing in the Lynn News and County Press, Saturday 20th December 1884.

Transcribed from microfilm copy held at the King’s Lynn Library by Martin A. C. Scott, January 10th 2007.



On Wednesday morning a disastrous fire occurred at the drapery establishment of Mr. Alfred Jermyn, High street, Lynn, resulting in the total destruction of the extensive premises and the greater part of their valuable contents. The premises, which during the last five years have been much extended and improved internally and externally, have a frontage to High Street of some 78 feet, and extend rearward 108 feet, and were divided into three divisions – a carpet arcade, a millinery department, and the general drapery shop. At this time the central arcade had been made a repository for Christmas fancy goods and was prettily decorated.  It is needless to say that the establishment contained a heavy and valuable stock of millinery, dress, haberdashery, drapery, and fancy goods, beside furniture, beds, bedding and carpets. The windows had been filled with seasonal goods, and on Tuesday the central front had been dressed with cotton wool to represent a snow scene. It was in this window that the fire originated on Wednesday morning. About half-past eight o’clock, at which time the shutters had been drawn, but the doors remained shut, one of the young women assistants went into the window to light the gas. Immediately afterwards she gave an alarm of fire, and simultaneously the other assistants observed flames darting from the window. These flames caught the wrappers which were lying over the fancy goods, ascended to the ceiling, and in an incredibly short space of time spread to the counting house, the silk room, and the Manchester shop. Mr. Jermyn’s fire brigade immediately got a hose to work; but it was very soon apparent that the case was hopeless. The bright reflection of the flames was observed in the street, and a number of persons more zealous in their attempts to render service by saving goods than in the means adopted to effect that purpose, smashed the windows and succeeded in removing a quantity of things from the windows and the doorways. As soon as the draught of air was thus admitted the fierceness of the conflagration was increased fifty-fold, and the flames flew through the whole building, attacking everything in their course, and in a few moments the place presented the appearance of a great furnace. Finding sudden vent through the broken windows the volume of flame flashed out and reached right across the street, burning the paint off the shop fronts of Messrs. Gates, Willis, Bayes, and Curson, and breaking the windows. There was no chance even to save the account books or anything from Mr. Jermyn’s counting house. The assistants fled from the shop precipitately. Both staircases being in a blaze the young ladies engaged upstairs were cut off by the flames, and some distressing scenes occurred. Ladders were hastily fetched from Mr. Thing’s and wherever they could be procured, and reared up against the show-room windows, out of which two young women, Miss Bell and Miss Barnes, were assisted. In the meantime, Mr. Jermyn’s fire corps were working well with their hose, and Mr. F. Jermyn Smith (who, in the absence of his uncle and Mr. Waldegrave, had assumed the direction of the affairs) had sent for the fire engine, and the fire bells were clashing a summons to the fire brigade. It was apparent that prompt measures must be taken for the assistance of the young women who were confined to the upper rooms of the premises, and who were quite helpless through fright, and Mr. Jermyn Smith and one or two other persons climbed on to the roof of the carpet arcade, and rescued three of them from their bedroom windows, where they were standing in great fear, being scorched by the heat and almost suffocated by the smoke. Utterly helpless, the young women were dragged along the glass roof of the carpet arcade, now quite hot with the immense body of fire beneath it, and which was bursting through the windows all along, and they had scarcely reached a place of safety when the roof over which they had been brought fell in, and the rooms they had left were all aflame. But for the timely aid rendered they must have perished. The names of these young ladies are Miss Anderson, Miss Ratsey, and Miss Ball; the last named was very much scorched by the flames and choked with smoke. There were distressing rumours that one or more of the young women were yet in the burning buildings, but Mr. Jermyn, who had now arrived, and exhibited great command of his feelings, soon mustered his hands, and ascertained that all were safe, the young women engaged in the workrooms having been released by Mr. True. In a short time the entire roof gave way, and a huge body of flames rose high above the surrounding shops, the lurid glare of which was seen in every part of the borough and over the water. Many hundreds of people came rushing into High street from all directions. Mr. Mawbey and his fire brigade, with the steamer and manual engines, arrived about this time, and aided by the efforts of the police, who kept back the crowd, they soon got into working order. It was too late, however, to save the building or any part of it, and a few seconds after their arrival the whole front burst forward and fell in a heap in the  street. One man named Fison narrowly escaped being crushed beneath the falling masonry, but fortunately no one was hurt. So rapidly had the flames done their work that in half-an-hour after the alarm of fire was given the building was entirely destroyed, not a stone was standing in High street, and only ruined walls, hidden by the flames and the volumes of steam and smoke, at the back.

The police had by this time barricaded the end of High street nearest St. Margaret’s Church, and they at once went to work to clear the street, forcing back the crowd of spectators as far as New Conduit street, and stretching a rope or erecting a rough barricade at every entrance to the street. The Naval Brigade corps had arrived on the scene under the command of Mr. Harrington, and they went to the pumps of the manual engine and of the Great Eastern Railway Company’s engine, which arrived shortly afterwards under the care of Mr. A. P. Turner. Speedily and systematically, the well-drilled fire brigade laid several lengths of hose, and very soon the steamer was throwing two powerful jets of water upon the burning heap. It was not possible that so huge a conflagration should burn out without doing damage to adjacent properties, and very soon the shops of Mr. Andrews, butcher, on one side, of Mr. Jex, tobacconist, on the other, and Mr. True, in Union lane, were invaded by the flames. Mr. Jex’s premises were long in imminent danger. There is no brick gable to his house, and the wooden partition offered no resistance to the flames. Had this house taken fire Messrs. Matsell and Targett’s must have “lighted,” as the two shops (formerly one) are only separated by a thin partition: A strong jet of water was kept playing upon the weak point however, and though for two or three hours the issue was doubtful, the premises were saved from destruction, though much damaged. Another source of serious alarm was as to the safety of the row of cottages in Armes’ yard. Mr. Jermyn’s shops ran along at the back of these, only a few feet distant, and the volumes of flames and sparks which belched from the windows, and the portions of the burning roof which fell in the yard made these places exceedingly unsafe. The walls of the cottages became very hot, and the frightened tenants packed up their goods and prepared to leave. At one time the danger here was very great, but two jets of water being at once by Mr. Mawbey and other precautions taken by himself, and Mr. Turner, ably seconded by the officers of the brigade, the fire was prevented spreading in this direction.

In Union lane, Mr. Jermyn’s back premises were nearly destroyed, and the shop and residence of Mr. True were on fire, and all that could be done was to remove as much of the stock as was possible. There were no fewer than eight jets of water pouring upon the fire from all points round it, firemen being stationed on the roofs and at every point of vantage. As the flames still raged fiercely great difficulty was experienced in keeping the conflagration from spreading to the buildings round the ruins. Shortly after ten o’clock the gable of Mr. Andrews’ house came down with a crash, and other portions of walls gave way soon afterwards. By eleven o’clock the firemen had got the mastery, and the greater danger was passed, though for several hours the utmost vigilance was necessary, and the engines continued to pour great streams of water on the place.

Later in the day it was found necessary to shore up Mr. Andrews’ shop, which the occupiers vacated; Mr. Jex’s shop was also vacated. The house and furniture had been very much damaged by fire and water, and the roof of Messrs. Matsell and Targett’s was also damaged, and the water poured in, occasioning considerable loss. The roofs of the cottages in Armes’ yard were also injured.

The Fire Brigade remained at the place all night; but on Thursday morning, danger being past, the engines were sent away, and all the water required was obtained from standpipes.

At the time when the fire broke-out there were 26 young women engaged in the dressmaking and millinery rooms, and 37 assistants on the premises who with the servants, with one exception, lost all their clothing and money. Two were insured.

The safe containing the principal ledgers &c., has been recovered. It was every night lowered beneath the ground as a precaution. The books are somewhat damaged by water.

Mr. Jermyn was insured against fire in the undermentioned offices: Alliance £8,600; Norwich Union £7,200; Fire Insurance Association £2,000; County Fire Office £2,000; Midland Counties £3,000; Manchester Fire Assurance Office £500; Total £23,500. Mr. Jermyn believes this will cover the loss of stock, fixtures, and premises.

Mr. True was insured, and Mr. Jex partly insured, but Mr. Andrews was not.


Some further particulars may be of interest. It appears from the police report that at 8.30 a man named Joseph Jenkinson gave the alarm at the Police Station. An officer was at once despatched to the house of the sexton of St. Margaret’s for the key of the belfry, and when this was obtained the bells were clashed an the Fire Brigade summoned. Mr. Superintendent Ware despatched a cab to the Water Works to fetch the Borough Surveyor, who is superintendent of the Fire Brigade, and in the meanwhile the chief constable and the policemen who had been summoned from the several beats hastened to the scene of the fire and proceeded top clear the street of the crowd which had already assembled, and to keep a clear space for the Fire Brigade to work. Mr. Jermyn’s fire corps had got a hose to work from a fire cock in the passage and were striving to subdue the flames, and very soon some of the firemen brought up a hose reel, attached a pipe to a hydrant, and commenced operations. Mr. Mawbey now appeared on the scene, and at the same moment a pair of horses galloped up the street with the steam fire engine with fire alight and steam already making. As it takes a quarter of an hour to get up sufficient steam to work, and as the state of affairs was very dangerous, Mr. Mawbey had the manual engine run up, and got to work without delay. The Great Eastern Railway Company’s fire brigade, under command of Mr. A. P. Turner, had also arrived on the scene, and the engine was speedily connected with a hydrant in High street, and water poured upon the rear of the burning shops. Mr. Harrington, the officer in charge of the Naval Brigade station, at an early stage of the fire brought up the whole of his force and tendered their services to the Borough Surveyor, who gladly accepted them, and the men undertook the pumping for the manual engines. A few minutes after the arrival of the steam engine the whistle sounded, and immediately two powerful jets of water were poured on to the burning pile, one from the front the other from the rear up Armes’ yard; here the firemen had scaled the roofs of the cottages and were pouring the water down with tremendous force from that elevation. At 9.15 eight jets of water were being thrown on the fire all round, and men were handing buckets of water where such feeble means could be rendered serviceable. There was no lack of assistance – 20 volunteers came forward when one was needed – and having regard to the amount of extra help required Mr. Mawbey set his pupils to work, and they were on duty all day taking the names of the men engaged, by which means it will be known who has a claim for services rendered. During the afternoon a small pipe in the boiler of the steam fire engine burst, and for the first time during the day the engine was stopped. The defect was remedied with all speed, and in twenty minutes the steamer was once more at work. About 4.30 in the afternoon, when the worst of the work was over, the extra men were mustered, their names checked, and then they were released from duty with the exception of fifteen who were retained to clear away the debris from the street and prepare for the resumption of traffic on Thursday. The Naval Reserve men, who throughout the day had worked cheerfully at the pumps, singing in time to their strokes, were also relieved. At one o’clock on Thursday morning Mr. Mawbey sent half the Fire Brigade away for rest till seven o’clock, when they returned and relieved their comrades. Mr. Mawbey expressed his heart thanks to the railway brigade, and the blue jackets for the effective assistance they rendered, and speaks in the highest terms of the men under his command, who acted throughout the day with untiring energy, and rendered such splendid service. He has also expressed his gratitude for the very effective assistance rendered by the police. Mr. Superintendent Ware’s arrangements were perfect; and the firemen were quite unimpeded in their work. Upon this first occasion of serious work with the brigade which he has so well drilled Mr. Mawbey won the well-deserved applause of all who witnessed his praiseworthy efforts and excellent management. At the commencement he made it understood that nothing should be done except at his command, whilst he was willing to listen to every reasonable suggestion. His orders were carried out cheerfully under the direction of Messrs. Elam and Goldsmith and of Mr. W. Lock, plumber, who offered his services, and was placed in charge of the working gang at the rear of the property. Undoubtedly the work of the firemen was much facilitated by the new hydrants which have lately been fixed. Mr. Mawbey considers that had they had to work from the old hydrants there would have been considerable delay, and probably failure.

Mr. True, of Union lane, whose house and shop were destroyed, states that whilst at breakfast on Wednesday morning he noticed a smell of fire, and immediately afterwards was startled by screams. Rushing into the lane he found that the cries proceeded from Mr. Jermyn’s mission room, which is used as a workroom during the week, in which room and the workroom adjoining several young women had assembled. The staircase having caught fire, and finding no means of escape from the room, these persons were greatly alarmed. There is, however, a separate entrance to the room from Union lane, and Mr. True returned to his shop for a hammer, with which he smashed the lock and released the inmates. When he returned to his shop he found the premises on fire.

Mr. Jermyn states: I was sitting at breakfast at my private residence, Burleigh house, on Wednesday morning, when by the kindness and promptitude of Mr. Kerkham, at 8.50 the intelligence was brought me that my place was on fire. I hastened away. When I arrived at the Union lane entrance I discovered that all the rear of the establishment was in flames. I made my way to High street, and then found that the whole building had fallen. I instantly took steps to ascertain if all my assistants, servants, and workpeople were safe, and was grateful to find that none was seriously injured, although some had narrowly escaped death. Having ascertained the position of affairs, and perceived that the Fire Brigade and police with the many willing helpers were doing all that was possible to prevent the spread of fire, I proceeded at once to Mr. W. S. Miles to hire the Music Hall, and that gentleman’s prompt attention I shall never forget. I then sent my buyer off by the ten train to Manchester and Rochdale, and later on put myself in communication with Nottingham, Bradford, Dewsbury, and London, and then with three of my head manageresses proceeded by the 11.47 train to London in order as quickly as possible to replenish my stock. I returned to Lynn by the mail train same night. Arrived here I proceeded to the scene of the fire and found that Mr. Mawbey had made the most satisfactory arrangements for the extinction of the fire and the safety of the surrounding properties. I believe my insurances will cover my loss of premises, fixtures and stock. I am extremely sorry for the loss which has fallen upon my neighbours. I am deeply grateful for the kindness and generosity manifested toward me on all hands.

Mr. Jermyn advertises his intention to commence business in the Music Hall on Saturday.

It is estimated that the property saved from the fire will only realise a small sum, as it is much damaged.

On Thursday the officers of the various insurance companies met on the spot and took charge of the ruins. Mr. Jermyn has entrusted Messrs. Pope and Sons, of Downham, to value for him as against the insurance companies.

On Thursday afternoon the ruins were fenced in from High street, and in all probability it will not be a lengthy period before Mr. Jermyn’s energies are directed towards reconstruction, and a new edifice will be seen rapidly rising on the spot which now wears so desolate an appearance.