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The Timber Yard Fire of 1922

In January 1922, a huge fire broke out in the timber yard of Messrs George Horsley and Son. The fire at its height covered 80 acres of ground (32.38 hectares). It destroyed several streets of houses nearby, making a hundred families homeless. Happily, no one died in the fire. The fire was reported in the national newspapers. The cost of the damage in the timber yard was estimated at £1m. (£36,470,125.79 today) A fund was set up to collect money to help the homeless families – even the King and Queen contributed.

The timber yard was sited at the north-west corner of the old Hartlepool docks. There was a strong wind blowing from the north-west. This threatened to drive the fire across the dock complex and burn a creosote works. (Creosote is the liquid put on wood to prevent rot, it is highly inflammable). The Central Marine Engine Works, would also have been in its path, had the fire been left unchecked.

The fire is discovered

A fire broke out at about 1pm on Wednesday, 4th January, 1922. It started at the timber storage ground of Messrs Geo. Horsley & Son, at Greenlands. Greenlands was an area in the timber yard in the north west corner of the dock complex to the east of the main railway line going north. A young boy is said to have spotted the fire first, and he called to some men who were in a shed having their lunch. It was quickly realised how serious this could become. The Hartlepool, West Hartlepool and North Eastern Railway fire brigades were called and soon arrived.

An ill wind can cause a lot of damage

During the day, there was a gale coming from the north-west. With its help, the fire soon covered eight to nine acres. (3.2 hectares) The flames from the fire were fifteen to twenty feet high. (approximately six metres) The fire was by this time intense, and the flames would have been higher on a calm day, but the wind was beating them down again, thus making the fire hotter. The gale blew the fire across the timber yards to Union Road on the edge of Central Estate, where there were many small houses and flats. The intense heat from the fire set the houses alight. If sparks from the fire crossed the road it would get to a nearby creosote works and more timber. If that happened, the fire would go out of control.

By 4pm Cleveland Road, which goes from West Hartlepool to Hartlepool, was blocked owing to the heat and smoke. The tram service between West Hartlepool and the Headland went along Cleveland Road. It was forced to stop running.

By the time it got dark, the light from the fire was visible for many miles. The reflection of the flames onto the clouds could be seen as far away as Newcastle and Gateshead. (About 50 kilometres away) One man claimed to have seen the reflection nearly as far away as Doncaster.

Surveying the ruins

The following day the sight that met onlookers’ eyes was hard to believe. Part of the fire had burnt itself out, but there were still some areas alight. The remains of railway trucks looked like twisted skeletons, having crumpled in the intense heat. The heat had twisted tram and railway lines so badly that they were useless; lampposts were melted and bent double.

Rows of houses close to the timber yard were roofless and gutted. Homes in nearby Arch Street & Watson Street on the Central Estate were badly damaged. So were four shops and the Central Hotel, on Cleveland Road.

Where the previous day there had been timber yards full of railway sleepers and pit props, now all that remained were ashes. By Friday, January 6th the local newspaper reported that the fire was “practically extinguished”. Firemen remained on the site, guarding against renewed outbreaks. It would be some time, even in January, before everything cooled down.

The homeless families

Over one hundred families were made homeless by the fire. Many of them also lost all their possessions. Many people were already poor because of the post war recession. Soldiers had come back from the First World War, which had ended only four years earlier, to find there was no work. There was much unemployment, and so the fire was the final straw.

As the fire grew, the people living nearby moved whatever they could in motor vehicles, carts and even prams. Things were hastily put out into the street, and then carted away, but it was difficult to keep track of where items of furniture were taken. Things were hurriedly thrown out of first floor windows, and were damaged beyond repair. Public buildings were used for storage and shelter. A large part of a nearby school was full of furniture and effects. Some families’ possessions were scattered over various sites, and they did not know where their belongings were.

 Most of the homeless families found a temporary place with friends and relatives, but some had nowhere to go. They were put up in public buildings.Firms offered help for the stricken families. Sir William Gray offered accommodation at the Gray convalescent home at Seaton Carew, (now the Staincliffe Hotel) and in some new houses at Graythorp. Graythorp was William Gray and Company’s new yard specially built for ship repairing. Sir William had built the houses for his workforce near to the yard. Graythorp was on the road out of West Hartlepool on the way to Middlesbrough.

A great task now had to begin - the clearing away of the debris and helping people whose      homes were repairable. Occupants cleaned up their homes, but costly repairs had to be paid for from the relief fund money. Some houses were relatively unharmed at the back, but the front of the houses was badly damaged.

The Relief Fund

A relief fund was set up by the Mayor of Hartlepool, Alderman J.T. Turner. The local paper, the Northern Daily Mail, strongly urged its readers to help. Alderman Turner stated in the paper, “It is no exaggeration of the facts to say that there are hundreds of people destitute and in actual want”.

Sir William Gray & Company contributed £100 (£3650 today) immediately to help start the fund. The Mayor, three aldermen, a councillor and the Town Clerk of Hartlepool all gave £10 (£365 today) each. Local firms and individuals quickly answered the call for funds. Less than twenty-four hours after the fire had started, the fund had risen to £300 (£10,940 today). A Committee was appointed by Hartlepool Council to administrate the funds raised to help victims of the fire. There were collections at the Hartlepools United football match and a football match at Sunderland for that Saturday. (£232. 3s 6d, was collected at Sunderland, the equivalent of £8647 today.) A special entertainment was arranged at the Empire Theatre, West Hartlepool on the Sunday evening to help the Relief Fund. There were charity football matches, organ recitals and many other events arranged to raise funds. Cadbury’s the chocolate maker, sent one ton of cocoa, asking to be informed if more was required.

The fire was so large that it was covered by the national newspapers, many sending photographers to capture the scene. The news reached King George V, who sent a message of sympathy to the town. He also gave £100 to the fire relief fund, and Queen Mary gave £50.

The plight of the people

The local paper reported the sad story of a family who had recently had a child die. The funeral had not yet taken place, and the body of the child was still at home. So the family had not only lost a child, but now their home as well. The child’s body had to be moved out of the way of the fire.

Everyone had their own tragic tale. One couple had been married for five years. They had just moved in to their first house and got it “nice for Christmas”. Now they had lost many possessions and their new home was spoiled. On the night of the fire they sat in a friend’s house, where there were twenty-two people in one room. Some people lost everything in the fire. One man had started a hairdressing business, and lived above the salon. He lost both his home and his job. A lady who ran the Cozy Corner Eating House allowed other people to use her place as storage. But the fire got too near. The other people moved their belongings, but she did not have time to save her own things. She had only just started in business. A butcher’s shop was ruined at the front, so the enterprising butcher set up stall at the rear of his house.

As well as the families who lost everything, many more families left their homes. They came back the next day to see how much damage there was, and make repairs. On Cleveland Road, the houses from Central Hotel to Union Road were wrecked. On the other side of the hotel, away from the fire, the houses needed the glass replacing in windows. They had cracked in the heat. The Northern Daily Mail reporter saw couples returning, carrying some of their things, and a lady with a black cat under her arm. A little boy who had lost his home was relieved to have found his pet kitten. The reporter also noted a cinema photographer filming a black cat looking for its home.

“A Pig’s Frantic Run” Northern Daily Mail, Saturday, 7th January.

The local paper reported a story which was upsetting to read, but, happily, turned out not to be true. A witness had thought that a pig had not survived the fire, but in fact it appears that it had run the other way, and escaped.

“Among the incidents of the fire that are reported today is one that concerns a pig, whose fate is unknown, though it is to be feared that it may easily be surmised. When the fire was at its height, it is stated, piggy escaped from somewhere in the vicinity into the streets. It ran squealing right between two walls of flame that bordered the involved section of Cleveland-road, its bristles actually singeing as it ran. No human being could venture in pursuit, and the distracted animal literally disappeared into the prop yard and was never seen again.”

The story was corrected two days later. From the Northern Daily Mail, Monday 9th January:

“Regarding the pig which was seen scampering towards the heart of the fire, the worst has not happened. It appears that the animal at first refused to leave its sty, although the flames were uncomfortably near, and it was not until a fireman turned the hose on the pig that it was persuaded to quit. It promptly bolted, but was headed off.”

The Inspector arrives

On Saturday, an inspector from the Ministry of Health came from London. His visit had been set up by the Member of Parliament for the Hartlepools, who was in London and who contacted the Ministry. The inspector, Captain Hooper, was accompanied on his tour of the afflicted area by the Mayor of Hartlepool, the Town Clerk and Borough Surveyor. Capt. Hooper’s attention was directed to the closeness of railway sleepers and pit props to houses. He was asked whether Hartlepool Corporation could be awarded compensation for damage to the roads and loss of rates. He replied that all these questions would be included in his report.

People had commented on the height that the sleepers had been piled just behind the fence on the opposite side of the road from the houses. Some of the people living nearby had been afraid that something like this would happen someday. It was this wood that went up first, thereby making it impossible to prevent damage to the nearby houses.

The cause of fire will never be known

With modern techniques, fire officers can often discover the exact cause of a fire. In 1922, identifying the cause would be largely educated guesswork. Two theories were put forward in the days following the fire. The first was that it was caused by a spark from a locomotive, which was shunting in the area at the time. The spark lodged in timber, and from there the fire grew. In the timber yards, there were many railway lines for trucks to transport timber to where it would be stored. 

The second theory was that the fire was caused by the fusing of one of the electric cables taking power to the saw benches in the timber yard.

The sightseers flock to the scene

By the following morning, hundreds of sightseers had come to look at the scene of destruction. There were crowds in Cleveland and Middleton Roads, where the houses and timber yards had suffered the worst damage. There were still sightseers visiting the followingweek. Police had to be there to keep order, and to guard property. Extra trains put on to cater with increased demand, owing to there being no tram services. Tramcars were laid on to cater for the crowds on the unaffected part of their line. The trams set off from West Hartlepool to Greenlands, where the fire started. Collections for the relief fund were made amongst the sightseers. Many newspaper reporters and photographers from the national papers arrived to relay the story to the outside world. Some London papers mistakenly reported that West Hartlepool was in flames. This gave concern to readers who had friends and relatives in West Hartlepool. The Northern Daily Mail stressed that the fire was “wholly confined to Hartlepool, though at several points it came very close to the boundary of West Hartlepool.”By Monday 9th January a film of the fire was being advertised. It was shown at the Royal Electric Theatre, all week.

The Fire Brigades

The first fire fighters on the scene were Hartlepool and West Hartlepool fire brigades, and the North Eastern Railway’s own force. Stockton & Middlesbrough fire brigades were called and arrived a short time later. Fire engines came from many north-eastern towns, some as far away as sixty miles. (96 kilometres) The fire engine from Seaham Harbour got its water directly from the Slake. The Slake was an area of water to the north-west end of the Victoria Dock. It protected the C.M.E.W. by making a fire break. West Hartlepool Fire Brigade did forty hours continuous duty, fighting the fire. Some men suffered from temporary blindness caused by working in the glare of the flames for so long. Two firemen were treated at hospital for damage to their eyes.

The Northern Daily Mail  said “A feature of the work of the fire brigades is that many firemen who had to approach burning buildings blazing like furnaces directed a jet with each hand while a colleague directed another jet on to them to prevent their oilskins catching fire.”

Middleton was saved from disaster by watchful volunteers and brigades. Middleton at that time was a community between the two towns. It had streets of houses, pubs, a church and a school.

The Northern Daily Mail commented on the work of the fire brigades.

“It is recognised by all the that the work of the brigade in the teeth of a terrific gale has been most commendable. The West Hartlepool Fire Brigade was the first on the scene shortly after one o’ clock. Supt. Allan had with him at that time six men. “Shortly after arrival, said Supt. Allan to a “Mail” representative, “something went wrong with the gear box of the engine, but this was soon rectified and the engine worked splendidly from that moment. It has been a rough and heavy job. We have done our level best against difficult odds.”

As the fire spread it was apparent that extra help would be needed and urgent messages were sent to the brigades in the surrounding district, with the result that when the fire was at its fiercest there were about sixteen brigades at work, including seven engines belonging to the N.E.R. Co. – two West Hartlepool engines, two from York, one from Darlington, one from Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Sunderland. In addition to the Hartlepool Brigade, there were brigades from Stockton, Middlesbrough, Thornaby, Sunderland, Wallsend and other centres. All the men worked courageously and well.”

In the Northern Daily Mail’s report of Saturday 7th January Superintendent Allan of the Fire Brigade recommended that all fire hydrants should be standardised. This would mean that any brigade would be able to get water from the local supply. Brigades from the other towns had found that they could not use local hydrants. Their standpipes, which they carried with them, were a different size. He also suggested that timber storage should have a water supply, punctuated by hydrants, for an emergency. As it was, the water supply in the yards was inadequate, and the dock supplies were too far away to help.

The effect on nearby industries.

The timber importers, Horsleys, reported that 300,000 railway sleepers were destroyed by the fire. They estimated the cost of the damage was £1m, (£36.5m today.)  There were five fires in another timber yard owned by William Pearson. Thirty men prevented these from getting out of control. There was only slight damage to other works. The important industries almost wholly escaped. The fire had spread in the direction of Central Marine Engine Works (C.M.E.W.) and much more damage was feared. The pattern store of C.M.E.W. caught fire and sparks started some small fires there, but these were put out by the C.M.E.W. fire brigade, with the help of some apprentices. Gray’s central shipyard was threatened, but a crowd of men on duty all night prevented any outbreak. The corporation tramways system suffered serious damage. The local paper reported: “Two or three standards were brought down, and the overhead wires were rendered useless over a long section. So intense was the heat along part of the track that the pitch boiled through from underneath the tram setts”

J.H. Pounder, the boat building works, was at risk, and some boats and other material were removed to a safer place. The fire brigade worked hard to prevent the spread of the fire. Along the outer edge of the timber yards, there were other small industries, close to the docks. Among these all the fish curing houses also escaped. The Cooperative Society’s stables (made mainly of wood) burnt down, but the horses which pulled the delivery carts had been moved earlier in the afternoon.

Two spare creosote tanks had caught fire and blazed furiously. The main creosote works escaped, because of the hard work of firemen and volunteers who protected it.

The North Eastern Railway hydraulic power station at Middleton was set alight.


It took a long time for the town to recover fully from the effects of the fire. It took place in what was known as “close season”. During the winter, timber was not imported. Increased imports of timber in the spring made up for all the lost wood. There were no government pay-outs, as would be the case today, for the families who lost everything. For help they had to turn to the charity of other ordinary people, and local firms who were public-spirited enough to help. Today, there is some council housing where the Central Estate was. The site of the timber yards has now been swallowed up by the Hartlepool Port and Harbour Authority.

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