A devastating fire in the early hours of Thursday October 4, 1923 saw one of the oldest workingmen’s clubs in Swindon destroyed. When fire fighters eventually left the scene at 9 a.m. all that remained of the once elegant old building were the external walls.
The idea of a club for the labouring man was the brainchild of Unitarian Minister Reverend Henry Solly. Established in 1862 the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union aims included non alcoholic recreation and education in an attempt to lure the labourers out of the pubs and beer houses. Whilst the idea soon caught on, by 1875 the drinking restrictions were abandoned and members took over the running of their own clubs.
The West Swindon Club in Radnor Street, pictured before the fire, was one of the oldest workingmen’s clubs and in 1923 had 700 members.
Among the fixtures and fittings lost in the fire were two new billiard tables valued at £200 along with 30 or 40 barrels of beer and large quantities of spirits. Furniture, stock and even the cash register were destroyed with damages estimated at several thousands of pounds and only partially covered by insurance.
The alarm was raised when the crackling of burning woodwork awoke the young daughter of shopkeeper Mr J.A. Chalmers who lived six doors away. There was some delay in summoning the fire brigade as an initial telephone call made at the Cemetery Lodge received no response. The fire station in Cromwell Street eventually received the call at about 2 a.m. ‘In a few minutes the firemen were dashing up Clifton Street, the sparks meeting them as they approached the blazing building,’ reported the Advertiser.
Fanned by strong winds the fire rapidly took hold. The fire brigade, led by Captain W.H. Baker, fought the inferno from five different vantage points, concentrating on the rear of the building where various wooden structures in the vicinity constituted a further hazard. ‘It is a remarkable and pleasing fact that no one was injured, especially seeing the dangerous positions in which firemen placed themselves to cope with the flames,’ the report continued.
Described as one of the most destructive fires Swindon had seen in many years, local residents told how they were too scared to get out of bed.
Club stewards Mr and Mrs E.H. Hemmins lost their home in the fire. ‘Though desperate efforts were made to save his furniture, the greater portion of it was destroyed by fire and water, only a piano and a few chairs and other articles of furniture being saved.’
These rare photographs sent in by Swindon Advertiser reader Mrs Iris Matthews from Wootton Bassett, show the smouldering building on the morning after the fire. ‘The two boys lived next door to us in Exmouth Street, and are standing in the back way,’ said Mrs. Matthews.
A burning match or cigarette end dropped on the sawdust floor in the skittle alley was thought to have caused the fire.
For more images of Swindon visit the Swindon Local Studies Collection on www.flickr.com/photos/swindonlocal