Local historian Keith Johnson takes a look back at a tragic warehouse fire in Preston.
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At about 5.30pm on the second Wednesday of June 1918 just a few minutes after most of the 200 employees had finished their daily shift at the Woods-Milne Rubber Company warehouse in River Street, off Bow Lane, a fire broke out.
The works manager Mr. Pye raised the alarm and telephoned the Preston fire brigade as the blaze quickly took hold on the top floor of the four-storey building that was hemmed in on two sides by cottages. The fire brigade arrived within minutes, but by the time they had connected to a water supply in Marsh Lane flames were already bursting through the roof.
Within half an hour a portion of the roof had fallen in and burning timbers were crashing to the ground as strong winds fanned the flames and burning rubber creating dense smoke that choked the firefighters.
The brigade made every attempt to restrict the blaze to the top storey and using the iron staircases inside and outside the structure they were largely successful.
The progress of the fire led to evacuation of the nearby cottages and when the western extremities of the roof collapsed and brickwork fell onto a couple of cottages it was seen as a wise decision.
A number of firefighters performed heroically to bring the blaze under control often being affected by the fumes from the burning materials. Large crowds gathered at the scene during the evening although they were kept out of harm’s way by the police. The fire brigade remained on duty in full strength all night and their achievement in bringing the fire under control was admired.
Unfortunately, when a roll call was made in the morning it was realised that John Chippendale one of the firemen was missing. Immediately a search party was set to work and shortly after 12 o’clock that day a gang of workmen clearing debris from the ground floor unearthed the badly burnt and lifeless body of Chippendale beneath about 10 feet of debris, bricks and timber.
Within a couple of days an inquest was held and fire chief Supt. Alonzo Savage told the hearing that Chippendale, who was 49 years old, was in attendance at the front end of the blazing building from the start. He had known him for 40 years and described him as a steady, experienced fireman. He had retired 10 years earlier, but he was pleased that on the outbreak of war he had volunteered to serve again. He explained that at the scene the firemen had to scatter and work to their own discretion and that Chippendale had been in the part of the building where the first portion of the roof collapsed.
Butcher and part-time fireman Thomas Buck stated that he had seen Chippendale using his hose on the fire from the doorway of the third storey and that when a portion of roof fell in he himself had become cut off and needed to be rescued by ladder.
The jury after a brief consultation returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ and the coroner expressed his sympathy to his relatives. The funeral of fireman Chippendale on the following Tuesday was an impressive scene. Crowds lined the route from his Everton Gardens home to Preston Cemetery and the full staff of Preston fire brigade marched in procession with the coffin draped in the Union Jack with his helmet, belt and axe upon it. It was a sorrowful farewell to a Preston firefighter.
A few weeks later a claim for compensation was made in the Preston County Court by his widow and Preston Corporation agreed to pay her £256 based on his earnings as a dustman and voluntary fireman.
The Woods-Milne business was run from Belfast and had branches in Preston, Dublin, London, Bristol, Birmingham & Glasgow and were famous for their rubber heels and tyres for fashionable motor cars. In 1924 the business was acquired by an American company, which became the British Tyre & Rubber Company operating from Leyland and later known as BTR Industries from Centurion Way, Farington.