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Spooner's shop after the fire

The aftermath of the fire which, in June 1902, destroyed the shop of Spooner & Co in the heart of Plymouth plus several adjoining premises

Courtesy of Steve Johnson


From The Totnes Times

Saturday 21 June 1902



£200,000 DAMAGE

"One of the most disastrous fires ever witnessed in the West of England occurred on Saturday night, when the main block of Messrs Spooner and Company's premises fronting Bedford Street, Old Town Street and Market Arcade, Plymouth, were burnt to the ground. From the alley leading to Chubb's Hotel  bar down to the Bedford Street corner was a very handsome frontage, and all except one small tobacconist shop, kept by Mr. Reed, was utilised by Messrs Spooner. Rounding the corner into Old Town Street were Field's Telegraph Inn, the jeweller's shop of Mr. A. L. Rohrer jun., Byne's tobacco shop, a branch office of Messrs Mortimer's dyeing works, and then came Spooner's, in which was exhibited a vast amount of decorative material for the Coronation* festivities, and in which the outbreak actually originated.


Adjoining this were the confectioner's shop of Mr. W. E. Cornish and Kennett's jewellery and watch making establishment, then the mantle and costume department of Messrs. Spooner's, a large five-storey building , and the two sides of the square, about an acre in extent, were completed by the fine building known as Chubb's Hotel, the whole forming one of the finest business areas in the town.  Except Chubb's Hotel, which though damaged by fire and water, escaped destruction, almost the whole of this extensive range of business premises has been entirely destroyed. On the west side of Spooner's Alley, Spooner & Co. have their Piazza and other large premises, but these being separated by the narrow alley from the burning block, happily escaped. The flames set alight Browse's clothing stores, but this extension was soon extinguished.


The fire, which broke out at about twenty-five minutes past eight o'clock, originated in one of the shop windows of No. 4 Old Town Street. This window had been gaily dressed with Coronation goods, and the assistants were at the moment engaged  in removing the flags and other articles. One of the shop assistants accidentally dropped a lighted taper, and in a moment the whole of the material in the window was in a a blaze, and with startling rapidity, the flames spread through the shop and up the stairs into the first floor which connected to the millinery department. Stored with straw hats and other inflammable material, the millinery room speedily became converted into a roaring mass of fire, from which flames spread in various directions with a swiftness that seems almost incomprehensible. There was no time to save a thing or even close a door. The whole place from end to end was nothing but a fiery furnace ten minutes after the outbreak. Right through from Old Town Street to Bedford Street and across to Spooner's Alley the fire had a firm grip on the whole place.


Three hundred shop assistants and other employees were got out without accident, and fortunately several hundred employees, who worked in the upper part of the premises, had left a short time before the outbreak. In the counting house, a sum of about £300 was at the time being counted up, but the money had to be left behind. From various points of vantage all round the block streams of water were poured into the burning mass. When the Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport Brigades were at work, with three companies of Royal Artillery and their reels, twenty-one hoses were brought to bear in different positions, but for a space of nearly three hours, the fire raged with terrific fury, and the heat emitted was so great that it blistered the paintwork and cracked the plate glass windows and enamelled sign boards of the shops immediately facing the doomed buildings. Chubb's Hotel, which was somewhat recently reconstructed at considerable cost, was in imminent peril between 10 o'clock and midnight, and no less than eight jets were being concentrated on the hotel at one time; six of the Plymouth jets, and one each from Stonehouse and Devonport.


Old Town Street, Plymouth

Old Town Street, Plymouth c. 1900

It was said after the fire that the city's steam pump to which the hoses were connected was notoriously slow to get up steam and that it was fully 11 minutes after the arrival of Plymouth Fire Brigade on the scene before any water could be directed on to the flames.

Courtesy of Steve Johnson


Throughout, there was a splendid supply of water. In Old Town Street is a 12-inch main, and within a few minutes of the outbreak the water was turned on at high pressure. At no time was there any difficulty in throwing water on to the highest point of the fire. By half-past two o'clock the conflagration was so far extinguished that the Stonehouse and Devonport Fire Brigades were able to return home and at four o'clock the bulk of the Plymouth Corporation Brigade were withdrawn. A section of the Plymouth firemen remained,  however, and kept three  hoses playing  through the night.


Chubb's hotel, except for the burning of the roof for about three yards, is intact. A great deal of damage has been caused by the fierce heat to paint work and a large number of the upper rooms have been saturated with water.  The fire left singularly alone the shops of Messrs. Cornish and Rohrer, and also the Telegraph Inn. But into each place the Fire Brigade, as a matter of precaution, poured a plentiful supply of water, and this has caused considerable damage. Some great excitement prevailed, and a large number of soldiers and sailors were requisitioned to keep the crowd in check. 


Mr. Clarence Spencer, speaking on Sunday, expressed an opinion that the loss will amount to £200,000, a figure which he thinks will work out rather below that of the final amount. Several of Spooner's assistants were engaged on Monday in searching for money and ledgers left behind in the counting house when the building was abandoned. Their arduous efforts resulted in the recovery of £140 in gold and about £50 in silver and bronze, There was a considerable quantity of other melted coins brought to light but most of the metal had run into lumps in such a way as to be valueless. The books, which were left open upon the desks, were unearthed. Except that they are burnt around the edges they have suffered no injury. The importance of this find may be imagined from the statement of Mr. Clarence Spooner that the book debts which, with the exception of three days trading, can be clearly deciphered, represent a value of no less than £16,000.


Alderman Pethick, father of Mrs. Clarence Spooner**, placed Norley House entirely at the service of the burnt-out assistants, and also a large residence in Holyrood Terrace for the accommodation of other of the employees who were accustomed to have slept on the premises which are now destroyed.


Messrs. Spooner attended a meeting of their employees on Monday and assured then that they would reimburse to a reasonable extent the pecuniary losses which they had suffered, and also that their salaries would go on as if nothing had occurred to interrupt the business.


On Monday morning it was announced that arrangements were being made which would permit of Messrs Spooner** using other premises and restarting business again within a few days."


* The Coronation of King Edward VII was arranged for 26 June 1902 but had to be postponed, due to the King's illness, until 9 August 1902. 

** Alderman John Pethick, formerly Plymouth's Mayor, whose daughter Edith married Clarence Spooner.

***Spooner & Co continued to be one of Plymouth's leading department stores until the 1980s when it was taken over by Debenhams.


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