The days when Christmas caught fire

Shortly before Christmas 1884, a devastating fire took hold in the centre of King’s Lynn – and history repeated itself almost exactly 13 years later...

They say that lightning never strikes in the same place twice, and while that’s demonstrably untrue the same can’t be said of the High Street in King’s Lynn – where Christmas turned to disaster twice in the space of 13 years. 

On Tuesday the 17th December 1884, the central window of Jermyn’s department store (today’s Debenhams) had been dressed with cotton wool to represent a festive snow scene – but things were soon to heat up in a very literal sense.

As the Lynn News and County Press reported:

“It was in this window that the fire originated on Wednesday morning. About half-past eight o’clock, at which time the shutters had been drawn but the doors remained shut, one of the young women assistants went into the window to light the gas.

Immediately afterwards she gave an alarm of fire, and simultaneously the other assistants observed flames darting from the window. These flames caught the wrappers which were lying over the fancy goods, ascended to the ceiling, and in an incredibly short space of time spread to consume the building and the case was hopeless.”

As the building burned to the ground, true heroes emerged during the day – especially when three young female shop assistants became trapped in the upper rooms of the building where they lodged.

Reported to be “quite helpless through fright” they were saved by Mr. Jermyn Smith and a couple of other men who climbed onto the roof of the carpet arcade and rescued the women from their bedroom windows.

“They were standing in great fear, being scorched by the heat and almost suffocated by the smoke,” ran the report. “Utterly helpless, the young women were dragged along the glass roof of the carpet arcade, hot with the immense body of fire beneath it, and which was bursting through the windows all along, and they had scarcely reached a place of safety when the roof over which they had been brought fell in, and the rooms they had left were all aflame. But for the timely aid rendered they must have perished.”

This was disaster on a grand scale. Hundreds of people rushed into the High Street from all directions, and the fire engine arrived (with bells ringing) from the fire station behind the Corn Exchange.

It was too late to save the building or any part of it, however, and a few seconds after the arrival of the fire engine the entire front of the building collapsed and fell in a heap into the street. 

The building was utterly destroyed only 30 minutes after the alarm was first raised, and it wasn’t the only casualty. The store’s two neighbours – Mr. Andrews’ butchers shop on one side and Mr. Jex’s tobacconists on the other – also burned down, and Mr. True’s house in Union Lane also caught fire. The men could only watch helplessly as their livelihoods and premises went up in smoke and flame – but other nearby shops and houses were saved by the hand-cranked fire engine.

“A strong jet of water was kept playing upon the buildings in danger, and though for two or three hours the issue was doubtful, the premises were saved from destruction, though much damaged.”

Rising like the proverbial phoenix, Jermyn’s was rebuilt, and the magnificent new store was only 13 years old in 1897 when the Christmas decorations surrounding the fancy goods in the central arcade caught fire on 27th December 1897, a ferocious blaze rapidly spreading to the rest of the store. 

This time, the scale of the fire and the destruction was of such enormity that the story even made the pages of the New York Times.

About 7.40pm the fire brigade arrived with their new steam fire engine, which was placed in a position on the High Street close to a good supply of mains water. Unfortunately, ten minutes later the steam engine collapsed and the fire engine became completely useless, although water still gushed from the hydrants.  

Buckets were optimistically (but hopelessly) filled by helpers “where such feeble means could be rendered serviceable.”

To add to the problem, several “zealous people” smashed the glass windows of the burning store in an attempt to ‘save’ some of the goods (at least that was how it was reported) – but that only let in a rush of air which fed the flames. No less than 13 shops burned to the ground on both sides of High Street, and people watched in dismay as this “huge fiery monster engulfed the street.” 

One of the onlookers was the unfortunate Mr Jex, who lost his tobacco shop once again.

Another victim of the fire was Trenowath’s drapery store, which was rebuilt and still looks very stylish to this day. Look up and you’ll see a date stone above the parapet that reads ‘REBUILT 1898’ while below it on the fascia ‘THE LYNN DRAPERY EMPORIUM’ is written in gold lettering on a red background.

While there, it’s worth looking across the street from Debenhams. You’ll notice that as a result of this second fire the premises on the west side of the High Street were rebuilt further back to create a wider street than runs from the former Sue Ryder shop (itself the victim of a recent fire) to the hairdressers at number 108.

As for Jermyn’s department store, it continued to flourish and was renamed Jermyn & Sons in 1927 before eventually being acquired by Debenhams – which occupies the same site today. 

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