Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Retired firefighter recalls two garages burning down

Retired firefighter recalls two garages burning down

MY Hidden Henley item two weeks ago about the old car showroom in Reading Road that is now the Laura Ashley shop brought back memories for retired firefighter Trevor Beale.

He can recall two other garages in the town being burned down — one when he was a boy and the other when he was a fireman and helped tackle the blaze.

The first happened at Brown’s Garage in Bell Street on February 5, 1952, when Trevor was just seven years old.

The blaze broke out in the early hours and he recalls walking past on his way to Henley Infant School, off Greys Road. The building was gutted and had to be demolished.

Trevor, 72, of St Anne’s Close, Henley, says: “I can only remember seeing a load of oil barrels stacked up outside the property immediately opposite, which back then would have been the Bear pub.”

Years later, he bought a photograph of a lone fireman tackling the blaze taken for the Henley Standard by photographer George Bushell. Trevor says: “You can see from the picture the building had been well alight but it was just smouldering by the time my mother and I walked past at about 8.30am.

“It must have been devastating for the owners but, being young, I was more excited by how much of the inside you could see. They had to completely rebuild it. It then became Bell Street Motors, which I visited for a service and a few other things when I first began driving.”

It was more than 15 years later — on the night of May 27, 1967 — when Trevor was among dozens of firemen who battled another huge blaze at the Spiers of Henley coach depot, off Queen Street, where the Queen Street Mews flats are now.

The fire broke out at about 10.30pm and residents called 999 then alerted the owners, A G and K M Spiers, of St Mark’s Road, before being evacuated.

Twelve of the firm’s 20 vehicles were driven to the safety of the Station Road car park by members of the Spiers family but the remaining eight, including six coaches and several service units, were destroyed. The Henley Standard reported how explosions and flames shattered the windows of neighbouring houses and hundreds of onlookers gathered and had to be kept at bay by the police. At least eight fire crews attended.

Trevor recalls: “I was coming back from a coach trip to the south coast and could see this red glow in the sky from a good distance away and wondered what on earth was happening. At the time I lived in Northfield End and I can’t remember whether I came home and got the shout on the phone or perhaps someone flagged me down in the street, but it was all hands to the pumps. They needed as many people as possible.

“We were pumping water from the slipway at the bottom of Friday Street and it was very much an all-night job. Everyone was working as hard as they could but it still ended up being a total burnout.”

Henley firefighter Eric Grace was hurled several feet through the air into a wall when two gas canisters supplying an oxy-acetyline welding system exploded. Luckily, he was not seriously hurt.

The fire was extinguished by the early hours and the street was strewn with broken glass and other debris.

Trevor collects photographs of incidents he attended and one shows Henley station officer Harry George standing in front of a wrecked Mercedes saloon belonging to the Spiers. Others show the fire at its height and before the roof caved in.

He says: “There are some incredible images from that night but I really can’t remember it in much detail because I wasn’t looking at what was going on around me in any detail. I had a job to do and was completely focused on that.”

The coach firm continued trading despite the blaze and eventually wound up in 1985.

Trevor grew up in Henley and joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, which was based at the Fairview Estate off Reading Road, when he was 24. His unit drove the Bedford “Green Goddess” appliances.

Trevor served for 15 years before leaving to focus on his job as a printer and compositor for Higgs Group, publishers of the Henley Standard.

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