St Paul’s Cray recycling plant fire prompts look at area’s history of raging infernos

Firefighters tackling the blaze at Harrison Gibson furniture store, Bromley, in 1968

Firefighters tackling the blaze at Harrison Gibson furniture store, Bromley, in 1968

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BOB OGLEY finds out about the area’s history of raging infernos.

I AM sure it has nothing to do with the inadequacies of firefighters, or too many vandals playing with matches, but the borough of Bromley has suffered more than its fair share of fires over the years and, in many cases, they have made headlines throughout the world.

I am reminded of this because of the recent blaze at a St Paul’s Cray recycling plant.

It burned for more than a week and has been described as the longest-running fire in Bromley’s history.

It is certainly longer than the one which destroyed the New Theatre 42 years ago.

The venue had only been opened 24 years earlier by Queen Mary, but mysteriously burnt down in 1971.

More than 100 firefighters failed to save the building but managed to prevent the flames from spreading to other parts of the town.

Onlookers who gathered to witness the conflagration would have wondered why Bromley was so vulnerable when it came to the burning down of famous buildings.

In November 1936, the people of Bromley looked up in the sky and saw a mass of flames.

Burning debris then fell on the town, carried by the wind from the top of Sydenham Hill, where the great glass edifice was on fire.

The Crystal Palace had moved from Hyde Park 84 years earlier.

Now, on this memorable late November night, it was providing the most spectacular show of its life.

The fire which lit up the sky for miles around was watched by thousands who gathered on every prominence in Kent and London.

Section by section, the glass components shattered and then the iron skeleton, white hot, collapsed in a great shower of flames which leapt 300 ft in the air.

Could there ever be a blaze to match this one?

The answer is yes.

A few days after, the remaining great north tower of the Crystal Palace was demolished by explosives because it was presumed to be a helpful landmark to the Luftwaffe.

The bombers came over the town in threatening waves and devastated the heart of the town.

There wasn’t just one big fire in Bromley on one April night in 1941.

There were 365, one for every day of the year.

Five churches were destroyed, 74 people were killed and more than 1,500 made homeless.

The end of the Second World War brought renewed optimism.

No more bombs. No more fires.

But it was short-lived.

The Rookery, a wonderful old house on Bromley Common, which had been home to the Norman family for more than 200 years and later served as temporary Operations Room for RAF Biggin Hill, burnt down.

Requisitioned by the government in 1939, The Rookery saw service personnel come and go but, when much of Biggin Hill was put out of action by the bombers, the operations unit moved in with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

The girls eventually found better accommodation nearby and the house stood empty until 1946 when the God of Fire had the last word.

And so this blazing story continues.

Kemnal Manor, Chislehurst, was also requisitioned by the War Office in 1939. On this occasion it was the Ordnance Board, with its munitions experts, who took over the mansion.

Later, it was headquarters for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers before being abandoned.

It burnt down in 1957. As the ruins were not considered to be of special architectural character, to the dismay of many, it was pulled down.

By now much of Bromley town centre, including the parish church, had been rebuilt and the town’s firefighters were alert to every small blaze in case it should spread.

Their vigilance was rewarded when a fire broke out in furniture store Harrison Gibson in 1968, threatening the buildings in this part of the high street.

Within minutes, sheet flames surged in all directions and general manager Frederick Doe bravely went from floor to floor methodically checking everyone had left.

Firefighters fought the blaze for hours and stopped it spreading, but the store lost £65,000 of stock.

Scadbury Manor, Chislehurst, built in 1780 on the site of a moated Saxon house, burnt down in 1980.

The De Scathebury family lived here during Medieval times and the manor was later associated with the influential Walsingham family for more than 200 years.

It remained in private ownership until it was acquired by Bromley in 1983, opening to the public on April 30, 1985, as Scadbury Nature Reserve.

Write to me at Bob Ogley, News Shopper, Mega House. Crest View Drive, Petts Wood, Kent BR5 1BT, email bobogley@globalnet.co.uk or visit frogletspublications.co.uk

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