Old News

Herts Motors Limited

Great St. Albans Fire
Motor Garage Ablaze
Soldiers as Fire Fighters
Exciting Scenes

Herts Advertiser, 15th September, 1914

The Fire at St Albans Sept 4th

Valuable help rendered by Territorials

Picture from badly damaged postcard with no publisher information.




Such a conflagration has not been see at St. Albans since the extensive tallow factory of Messrs. Wiles and Lewis was destroyed, occurred on Friday evening, and resulted in the total demolition of the garage and motor works of Herts Motors Limited, in London Road. The premises are those that were originally built as a Roman Catholic Church and were occupied as such for many years - up to the time, in fact, that the new and more commodious church of S.S. Alban and Stephen was built in Beaconsfield-road. They were then acquired by Mr. F. A. Giffen, and, after necessary alteration, were open as a motor garage. With the extension of the commerce of St. Albans, business premises were erected on either side of the old church, and these were involved in Friday night's fire, which broke out while one of the employees was engaged upon repairs to a motor-car, the property of Mr. A. F. W. Martin, the manager of the Heath Farm Dairy, Limited.


Messers Wiles and Lewis's Tallow Works were on Bernards Heath and were burnt down on 16 February 1911. See Wiles & Lewis's Tallow Works.

The history of the Roman Catholic Church in St Albans is given in Celebration, the story of a parish. The London Road church was opened in 1878. The Beaconsfield Road church which replaced it was officially opened in 1905.

Francis Alfred Giffen was listed in 1912 as an insurance agent, assistant overseer, collector of rates & clerk to Parish Council for St Peter Rural. He lived in Beaconsfield Road.

Arthur Frank William Martin (1879-1922) married Rose Mary Reynolds (daughter of Jacob Reynolds) in 1912. They lived at 82 Sandridge Road. (See Reynolds, Sandridge Road,  St Albans, circa 1900

Heath Farm Dairy was owned by Jacob Reynolds and had offices at 10 Chequer Street.

Mr Tilley [Identity uncertain]

Sydney Harris - Presumably the son of Frederick & Esther Harris who, in the 1901 census, was a 14 year old "layer on at Printing Works"

Lady Thompson - Presumably the wife of Sir James Thomson K.O.S.I., M.A., LL.D., Torrington house, Holywell Hill, St Albans.

The main entrance to the garage was from the London-road, the ground floor of the building being used as a large showroom. At the rear of the original building had been erected an annexe, with large workshop in the basement, another workshop on a level with the London-road, and a store room above. It was in the workshop at the rear of the premises, on a level with the road, wherein was an office and store, that the motor-car was undergoing repair. The workmen were inspecting the valves to see if they were seating properly, when either from a spark from the magneto or back-firing from the carburettor, or some other cause, there was a sudden outburst of flame, and in a moment the car was all ablaze. Mr. Tilley, the manager, Mr. Sydney Harris, the assistant manager, and others promptly endeavoured to put out the flames with patent fire extinguishers, but it was obvious from the first that their task was hopeless, for within an inconceivably short space of time the whole workshop was ablaze, the flames finding every encouragement to spread in all directions along the oil-saturated floor. Mr Tilley went to the telephone to call out the Fire Brigade, but the flames were then so perilously near the office that he had not time to put the receiver back upon the rest. Neither had he the time to fetch his coat and hat.


Pending the arrival of the Brigade, an attempt was made to get as many cars as possible out of the premises. Lady Thompson's car and three or four others were removed to places of safety. It was not long, however, before the work of salving the cars had to be abandoned  on account of the extreme heat. One car. in fact, had been dragged half-way out of the entrance when the rescuers were driven off by the rapidly approaching flames. Mr Harris, the assistant manager, had his face burned considerably, and his hair was burned off close to his head.


It was 4.57 when the fire bells were rung, and as help seemed to be long in coming, Mr. Tilley despatched a messenger with a motor-car to ascertain if the call had really been received. At the Fire Station he found four firemen waiting for horses to draw the engine. Boarding the motor-car they dragged the hand hose cart after them, and attached the hose to the hydrants. At seven minutes past five the fire engine, with other members of the Brigade, in charge of second officer Younger, left the Fire Station, the fire escape being taken down later.


The Corporation Fire Brigade were based at The Engine House, Victoria Street, under Captain William Henry Thorpe. In 1912 they had "20 men, 1 manual engine, 1 steamer & 1 hose reel & all modern appliances." The steamer has a steam boiler to pump water, but pulled by horses.

For some little time after the arrival of the engine it was difficult to obtain pressure sufficient to give a jet powerful enough to give a jet powerful enough to do any material good.


Joined with the efforts of the firemen were those of a considerable number of the military, who proved themselves both fearless and resourceful as fire fighters. When the fire broke out many of the soldiers billeted in Paxton-road and neighbourhood were being paraded for tea, and they were all excitement to get into action. Before the arrival of the fie engine they rendered valuable assistance and continued to do so until the outbreak had been subdued. Buckets were leant by the residents, and the "Tommies" forming human chains up the passages of the houses in Paxton-road, passed them along filled with water to the rear of the burning garage. A heroic attempt was made to keep the flames from reaching a petrol pit in the yard at the back of the workshop, but the flames were persistent in their fierceness, and 'ere long the pit, and its supply of petrol was attacked. Fed by this considerable quantity of highly combustible spirit, the flames leaped high into the air, and the heat was so intense that it was not safe to venture within several yards of them. A quantity of sand was procured and was thrown upon the burning heap, as well as upon another petrol pit a short distance away.


When war was declared the the 2nd London Division took up war stations in Hertfordshire, with their headquarters being in the Peahen Hotel. [add link] The troops arrived in St Albans in the middle of August and were billeted in local houses. For more information see The London Gunners come to Town.

I am not certain which troops were billeted around Paxton Road, but they were almost certainly from one of the infantry battalions.

From the description I assume "Pit" is used in the sense "Pit Stop" and the petrol was stored in cans.

When the flames had been got under, the soldiers, with shovels, sought to dig out the cans, and to save as much of the spirit as could be saved. This was a most dangerous occupation, for repeatedly, as a can of petrol exploded, the flames leapt out anew, and there was a great risk of serious personal injury. One of the soldiers, as a matter of fact, was rather badly burnt. He was working with others in an endeavour to get away the petrol, when an explosion occurred quite unexpectedly, and throwing down his shovel, he ran back, the puttee on his left leg being all ablaze from his ankle up to his knee. He was thrown down by his comrades, who beat out the flames with their hands, and he was afterwards conveyed to the military hospital. Several of those who came to his aid had their hands more or less burnt.


I have no information of the location of the military hospital, or whether, so soon after the move to the St Albans area, it was tented, or whether a building had been commandeered.

Another dangerous position was that at the rear of the lower workshop, where a supply of carbide of calcium was stored, and as the firemen played upon the building the cans of carbide could be heard repeatedly exploding, the report being followed by a fresh outbreak of flame.


When water is added to Calcium Carbide the highly inflammable gas Acetylene is given off. At the time it was widely used to provide lights on bicycles and motor cars.

The occupiers of premises adjoining the garage were loud in their expression of gratitude to the soldiers for the gallant efforts that they made to remove their furniture and other belongings. They also took the precaution of fetching away from the premises of Mr. E. S. Harvey, of 49a [sic], London-road, two doors from the fire, all oils, spirits, and other inflammable goods. Fortunately, however, the fire did not spread so far.


The 1913/13 St Albans Street Directory lists the following neighbours:

92 Stebbings Wm, tobacconist
94 Smith Edward, butcher
94 Herts Motors Limited
94a Thorpe William James, baker
94c Elliott Mrs E, wardrobe dealer
94d Harvey E S, oilman

The premises that suffered were those that immediately adjoin the garage, occupied by Mr. E. Smith, butcher, and Mr. W. J. Thorpe, baker and confectioner, respectively. The flames spread from the burning roof of the garage along the rafters of these adjoining premises, and it was in their upper storeys that the principal damage was done.


Mr. E. Smith was particularly unfortunate. He had two non-commissioned officers billeted upon him, and for their accommodation had cleared the sitting-room and bedroom on the first floor, transferring the principal part of their furniture to the floor above. It was found impossible to save more than a very small portion of it, the remainder, including a good many wedding presents, jewellery, and money, having to be abandoned on account of the rapid advance of the flames. The upper portion of these premises and of those occupied by Mr. Thorpe was destroyed, and much damage was done to other portions by water. Mr. and Mrs. Smith escaped with the clothes they were wearing at the time, and Miss Wing, who had been living with them, lost practically everything of which she was possessed.


Detailed information on billeting is not available, but it was done on a social status basis with officers billeted with the well-to-do, and privates ending up in working men's cottages.

It was common practice at this date to live over the business, with the ground floor being given over to the shop with accommodation at a higher level.

Miss Wing may have been a resident servant.

So far as the garage and workshop were concerned, they were burnt literally to a shell, and three cars at least were utterly destroyed, together with a valuable plant of machinery, much of which was new and had only just been installed.


When the flames had completed their [worst?] the metal framework of the car from which emanated the flame that set the whole building ablaze, was to be seen suspended in and above a badly charred beam. It was afterwards dislodged by the firemen for safety. Beneath it, buried to a depth of several feet in debris, was the engine - or all that remained of it - and framework of a large Belsize car, the petrol from the tank of which helped no doubt to keep the fire burning at the rear of the workshop. On the charred rafters of the first floor storeroom could be seen a number of circular springs, which were all that remained of an elegantly upholstered saloon body, used in the winter for the chassis of the motor 'bus. A Ford and a Stower car were also somewhere in the debris.


A Belsize car of 1912

The models of the Belsize and Ford cars is not stated - and I have been unable to trace any information on a Stower car.

On all hands there were indications that when the fire was at its height the heat must have been intense. Portions of engines of two of the motor-cars were literally melted away, heavy tubing was burnt and twisted, and even the substantial steel girders supporting the upper floor were warped and bent in a surprising fashion.


A resident in one of the houses backing upon the garage says: The first I knew of anything amiss was that I heard the engine of a motor car running and misfiring. Then I saw smoke coming out of the workshop. I took but little notice of it, because we had often seen smoke coming from there before when engines were being tested. It was not long, however, before I saw flames issuing from under the eaves, and in no time Mr. Smith's house was alight. When the fire was at the height the heat was so intense that we could not bear to be in our garden, and we were afraid that the shed at the back of the house would catch fire.


The effect produced when the conflagration was at its height was that of a gigantic bonfire, huge volumes of flame leaping many yards into the air; and when the rafter were all ablaze it presented the picture of a huge piece of red lattice work, with the tracied stone windows of the old church standing out in delicate outline below. The "Terriers" worked like Trojans, said one informant; they seemed to work even harder than the firemen, and when leakages occurred in the hose they bound them up with their pocket handkerchiefs. The precaution was taken of removing the kit of the men billeted in houses near to the burning building to places of safety.


While the building was completely destroyed, in 1917 and 1922 Herts Motors Limited were trading from 9 & 94 London Road & 81 St Peter's Street.

In most of the gardens abutting upon the works, fowls were kept, and when the fire broke out there was a general stampede to rescue these unfortunate birds from being roasted alive. There were several fowls in a shed in the yard at the rear of Mr. Smith's premises. In most cases the fowls were conveyed to the houses of neighbours.


The damage to the garage and its contents runs into thousands of pounds, which is happily covered by insurance with Messrs De Falbe, Halsey and Co. Herts Motors Ltd, are fortunate in one respect: They have two other garages in London-road, and will be able to carry on their business as usual.


De Falbe, Halsey & Co, insurance brokers, 122 Salisbury House, London Wall, London. [1915]

Albert Barnes & Sons, coach & motor body builders, wheelwrights & shoeing & general smiths, 95 London Road, St Albans. [1917]

Kingsbury Garage [No Info.]

Thorp & Co, general engineers, Cloisters, St Albans [1917]


Messrs The Herts Motors wish the public to know that, through the courtesy of The Kingsbury Garage, Messrs Barnes & Son, and Messrs Thorpe & Sons, who kindly placed accommodation and lathes at the firm's disposal, the business of Herts Motors will be carried on as usual. [Advert.]


If you can add to the information given above tell me.