The most disastrous fire in the history of the town

Harton Low Staithes ablaze in 1914.
Harton Low Staithes ablaze in 1914.

It was described as the most extensive and disastrous fire in the town’s history.

Throughout almost the whole of a night, the riverside at Shields blazed across a thousand yards of its length.

The aftermath of the fire.

The aftermath of the fire.

It was a pyrotechnical display, the likes of which had never been seen before, and a sobering reminder of the hazards of shipping coal from so close to the town centre.

At one point, it was feared the adjacent ferry landing would also go up.

These pictures, absolute smashers from Kevin Blair, recall the huge blaze that swept through Harton Low Staithes.

It was the end of January 1914 and the fire, just after nine o’clock at night, was first spotted by a showman from Murphy’s show ground close by.

But by then it was already too late, as flames began to engulf the massive jetty of creosoted wood, which ran from the Mill Dam, eastwards almost to the Penny Ferry.

On it, valuable machinery, including an electric conveyor belt chute which had been installed just a year previously, as well as a massive crane and eight wagons full of coal, were enveloped in fire, fanned by a strong westerly gale. Crowds gathered to watch. Wrote one commentator: “The staiths became a great burning mass along the whole of their length.”

This was the era still, of course, of the police force doubling-up as the fire brigade, and the blaze was attended by two police fire engines from Shields, supplemented by jets from street hydrants, and, eventually, support from other divisions, including two motor fire engines from Elswick and Sunderland.

Three ‘floating fire engines,” the vessels Patrol, Moselle and Cobledene, helped to fight the fire from the river.

As well as the ferry landing, fears were also entertained for a time for stables at the eastern end of the jetty, but the 27 horses were got to safety.

Remarkably, when you look at these pictures, no-one was hurt, but it was a blow for the Harton Coal Company. The damage was estimated to cost £100,000, close to £4m today. There was, however, subsequent praise in the magazine, The Engineer, for the construction of the jib on the jetty which, despite having the front legs of its support burned away, remained standing.