MEMORY LANE: Match factory blaze left navy ships in peril

UP IN FLAMES: Harbour tugs help fight the flames of the match factory fire from Swainson Dock on August 30, 1954

UP IN FLAMES: Harbour tugs help fight the flames of the match factory fire from Swainson Dock on August 30, 1954

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A FIRE at a West Hartlepool match factory left 16 ships of the Reserve Navy Fleet “imperilled” on August 30, 1954 - as burning embers “fell like snow” on their decks.

Firefighters, dock workers and hundreds of volunteers battled in vain to save the North of England Match Company - as well as the warehouse in which it stood.

The fire reached its peak at 7pm, with flames 100ft high, and it was still blazing furiously at 10pm. The greatest danger was that it would spread to nearby warehouses and ships.

Captain Stathers

But, although the match factory was left in ruins, the Reserve Fleet - with each ship valued at £350,000 - survived intact. Only the plastic casings of guns and armaments were burned.

“We could not take any chances with the ships, and made plans to move them if necessary,” said Captain Stathers. “But it would have been a very tricky operation to carry that out.”

It was shortly after 4pm that an “unkind fate set off a spark to kindle a fire which, in a short space of time, enveloped and gutted one of our great warehouses”, reported the Mail.

“The fire reached its peak at 7pm, with flames 100ft high, and it was still blazing furiously at 10pm. The greatest danger was that it would spread to nearby warehouses and ships.

“Other damage was caused to a grain warehouse, the old dock building clock tower and parts of the roofs and gutters of buildings in Victoria Terrace.

“That disaster was averted is a tribute to the heroic work of firefighters, the dock authorities, and staff from Messrs Gray shipyard - as well as hundreds of helpers from the community.”

Unofficial estimates put the total damage at £500,000 - the majority of which was to be borne by the British Transport Commission, which owned the building.

Hopes of rebuilding the ruins were, however, dashed just days later - when it was revealed that the 27-inch walls had been so badly damaged by fire they could “easily collapse”.

Indeed, such was the risk to safety that the road leading to Messrs William Gray’s dockyard had to be closed, as it was feared the boiler-house chimney at Union Dock could collapse.

“That a match factory, which existed to harness fire to the needs of man, should have been reduced to ashes is testimony to the truth of the proverb which warns us that fire is a good servant, but a bad master,” concluded the Mail.