Guests escaped blazing hotel

The fire at the Royal Beach Hotel July 13, 1911 PPP-140331-171044001
The fire at the Royal Beach Hotel July 13, 1911 PPP-140331-171044001
A delightful look along Pembroke Road, Old Portsmouth, in Edwardian days when all there was on the road was a bakers van and a stray dog.

NOSTALGIA: Telling the time in Old Portsmouth

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On Thursday, July 13, 1911, a fire was discovered in the lift well to the rear of the Royal Beach Hotel, South Parade, Southsea.

At the time many of the guests were at breakfast and when the alarm was sounded they made their way to the seafront.

Quite soon they were in a crowd of holidaymakers who came to see what the matter was.

An alarm was sent to the fire station in Park Road, where a horse-drawn escape ladder was despatched. This was followed by the motor steamer and the No1 motor steamer and then by a motor escape.

There was not much to be seen from the front of the building, but the rear was well ablaze by the time the brigade arrived.

Soldiers from the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) guarded the road around the hotel and a company of local Engineer Territorials assisted with moving furniture and silver plate to South Parade Pier for safe keeping.

By 11am the fire had spread to the lower levels and brought the flames within easy reach of the hydrants.

Fortunately all the bedrooms bar one were unoccupied at the time the fire started. A woman who was breakfasting in her room came to the window in great alarm and an escape ladder was drawn up to the window. By the time the firemen reached the window the breakfast was still there and the woman had escaped.

The building was not new and the floors were not made of concrete. The maze of passages made it difficult for the fire brigade to find the rooms where the fire was at its fiercest.

The hotel was damaged considerably by water which had percolated through the floors.

One of the guests, a Mrs Fisher from London, who had come down to Portsmouth the previous evening, said: ‘I was in my dressing gown.

‘I was having breakfast in my room when I noticed the smell of burning. I took no notice of it until I heard someone call ‘‘fire’’.

‘I was very frightened and didn’t know what to do when a waiter rushed into my room. He said that I must escape by the staircase.

‘Then the manageress (Miss Holmes) arrived and dragged me away. The smoke was very dense but I saw no flames.’

Inspector Ogden, the chief of the fire brigade, said that apart from those engines mentioned the Fratton motor-escape, The Granada Road escape and the Southsea horse-cart also attended.

Perhaps the most amazing report came from an Evening News reporter who entered the burning hotel.

‘On arrival I entered the hotel by the front door out of which articles from the hotel were being passed by members of the RGA and the Fort [Cumberland] Engineer Territorials all in canvas working rig.

‘Swollen hosepipes ran up the stairs and many members of the police, coastguard, civilians and the RGA were giving a helping hand to stop kinks forming.

‘Arriving at the third floor I noticed a door blistering from the heat and turning I saw a window frame completely aflame.’

By 2am the fire was under control and rooms were locked as a security measure.

Most of the guests were put up in neighbouring hotels. There was no loss of life and the only harm done to the rescue services was a cut hand to one of the firemen.

Eddie Wallace formerly of the City Police Fire Brigade, tells me his father told him that he was delivering a package when he saw the fire and raised the alarm using the Beasely Gamewall System.

For anyone wanting to raise a fire alarm the instructions were ‘Break glass and pull down handle’. This set in motion a ticker tape machine which punched holes in a paper tape which indicated which alarm had been set off.

It automatically set off a large gong behind the telephone switchboard in the watch room.

This was still in use when Eddie joined the police in 1939. When it went off in the middle of the night it certainly brought a certain cadet (Eddie), when he was operating the board, to his senses.