A thousand men fought Portsmouth Dockyard blaze

The fire in Semaphore Tower takes hold.
The fire in Semaphore Tower takes hold.
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It appears that in the early years of the last century Portsmouth was fraught with fatal fires.

I have written about the Royal Beach Hotel blaze in July 1911 and the one in Queen Street, Portsea, in April 1912, but on the Saturday evening of December 20, 1913, Semaphore Tower in the Dockyard went up in flames causing the deaths of two guards inside.

jpwm-03-05-14-012 rw semaphore tower''The original semaphore tower.

jpwm-03-05-14-012 rw semaphore tower''The original semaphore tower.

More than 1,000 men, including the Metropolitan Dockyard Fire Brigade, bluejackets and firemen from the Royal Marine Barracks at Eastney and Forton attended.

The fire engine from the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard hurried across Portsmouth Harbour’s floating bridge. Many soldiers and civilians also ran to help.

Fire parties from 15 ships in the harbour also attended. But it was to no avail as the inferno took hold and the men who fought the blaze were driven back by the flames.

The first alarm came from look-outs on the new battle-cruiser HMS Queen Mary lying at South Railway Jetty 100 yards from the scene.

jpwm-03-05-14-012 rw bluejackets''Bluejackets fire a volley at the memorial service to the two men lost in the fire.

jpwm-03-05-14-012 rw bluejackets''Bluejackets fire a volley at the memorial service to the two men lost in the fire.

Within minutes men of the Metropolitan Dockyard Police Force were on the scene working hydrants within the building. But the fire was so fierce they proved useless.

The building was 400ft long by 50ft wide and stored inside was stock normally found in a sail loft or rigging room. This included sail cloth and tarred rope. All this simply fuelled the fire.

South of the building 50,000 gallons of mineral oil were stored. If that had caught, the fire would have been even more serious.

With this in mind, and Queen Mary enveloped in smoke with sparks falling on her deck, she was moved up the harbour. With wooden decking and the ship’s boats stowed on the upper deck there was an immediate danger to her.

While the wind took the smoke and flames across South Railway Jetty there were plenty of brave firemen willing to prevent the fire spreading to the Flag Captain’s Office and the Cable Chain store.

Through their selfless action the buildings, although in great jeopardy, were saved as were other storerooms close by.

Built in 1833, the main structure was one of the oldest in the ’yard and well known to everyone who passed by and underneath it. But this was all lost when at 9.30pm the tower toppled over and collapsed.

It wasn’t until 3am that the fire was brought under control although hoses were played on the embers for the remainder of the night. At daybreak the gaunt remains of the lower square tower, which remained after the signal section above had collapsed, stood firm but in danger of collapse and was ready to topple at any moment.

Many hundreds of 25-gallon drums of oil were removed by bluejackets to safety while the firemen fought the flames.

Two men were killed in the fire. One was a local man, Chief Yeoman of Signals Samuel Peck of 39, Posbrook Road, Milton. He was married to Nellie and they had a four-year old son, Edward Alexander.

Signalman Alfred Stewart’s home was at 429, Romford Road, Forest Gate, London. Aged 19 he had joined the navy at 15 at Shotley Barracks, Ipswich. He was stationed at the Royal Naval Barracks, Queen Street, Portsea.

He was supposed to be on Christmas leave but gave up his place so he could take extended leave the following January to attend his sister’s wedding. The survivor was Signalman Edward Hayes also of the RNB. He told how he escaped by pushing through a trapdoor and got onto the roof. He then made his way to the end of the roof where an iron ladder went down to the ground.

A memorial service was held a week later in St Ann’s Church in the Dockyard. Every ship in port sent representatives.

After the service the mourners made their way down Anchor Lane to the arch under the tower where a three-volley salute was given by 26 bluejacket riflemen.