A thousand men fought Semaphore Tower blaze

Semaphore Tower, Portsmouth Dockyard, before the fire of December 21, 1913
Semaphore Tower, Portsmouth Dockyard, before the fire of December 21, 1913
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On the Saturday evening of December 20, 1913, Semaphore Tower in Portsmouth Dockyard went up in flames causing the deaths of two guards inside.

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.

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.