Since 1871 Ryde’s Theatre Royal deserved its place as an edifice of Victorian grandeur set in the main thoroughfare of a prospering seaside town.

Theatrics was no stranger to the plot prior to the building’s construction. From 1816 the site had been occupied by a market house erected by a joint stock company. By 1838 trading ended due to inadequate custom and the building, considered ugly by many, was converted for use as a theatre which in the late 1860’s was pulled down to make way for the Theatre Royal. Many years later the County Press described it as a little on the small side for a theatre, with a capacity for 1000 patrons, yet with its pit, dress circle, upper circle and gallery, its rows of ornate boxes and lofty embellished ceiling, it was considered unique to the Island.

Many stars of the era graced its boards also a young Winston Churchill pleading the Liberal cause to a spell-bound audience. Decades of entertaining royalty, dignitaries and the ho polloi followed until the arrival of motion pictures compelled a rethink. Theatre management invested in the technology and alterations required to project movies. By the 1920’s other than occasional productions by Ryde’s Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society the theatre was increasingly occupied by enthusiasts of the big screen. Over the course of the following decades, under the ownership of I.W. Theatres Limited, to oblige the need of cinemagoers, down came the boxes and nostalgic trappings of the age of theatre and the capacity reduced to 600 seats, described in more technical terms by the Island’s Chief Fire Officer – Brick walls, all floors timber, traditional close-boarded timber, ridged slated roof with several dormer windows. The main Auditorium curved ceiling match-boarded on timber joists, under-drawn with fibre board and over-laid in roof space by 7/8” timber floorboards for 75% of area. The ceiling over stage area from proscenium arch to rear wall renewed in recent years with Asbestolux on timber joists. The ceilings in offices in front of building, lath and plaster.

On the evening of Friday 19th May 1961, the theatre paid host to a throng of Tony Hancock fans watching their comic hero progress through a chaotic romp concerning a disillusioned London clerk turned failed Parisian art fraudster in a way that only Hancock, with his bland expression and countenance, could deliver to such mirth.

At 22:22 the film ended. Patrons dribbled out of the cinema into a pleasantly mild Ryde night disturbed only by an embracing south-westerly breeze. Some nipped to the Colonnades for a late pint at the Turks Head where a Whitsun extension was in place, others headed home chatting and giggling of Hancock’s disasters.

The Turks Head public house.

The Commissionaire bade farewell to all at the exit, closed the doors and cleared the building. As was customary he shut off all lighting circuits excepting the Police light in the foyer and signed off the premises fire book ‘all satisfactory’. He left with the relief manager and locked the doors. The pair lit cigarettes and chatted for ten minutes beneath the glazed awning before departing on their separate journeys home.

At 22:50 a passer-by near the rear of the theatre heard glass shattering. He looked up to the window high above the rear of the stage. First he saw smoke, then a burst of flame leapt skyward followed by a whoosh and a muffled explosion from within (which the Chief Fire Officer later estimated to have been a dust explosion). The first concern of the passer-by was not the fire, but the cars positioned in Lind Hill, which he accessed and began moving to safety. Such was the reverberation of the explosion that it attracted the attention of Jack Pugh, licensee of the Turks Head, as it shocked the revelry of his patronage to silence. Mr A.D. Wesson of St Thomas’s Street was equally stunned. Both peered from windows, and both called 999 with Pugh later stating – I’ve seen some fires in my time but never one which went up like this one!

Ryde Police Station received the notification at 23:02 where the Duty Officer activated the fire brigade callout system. 

Among those roused from their homes were many old hands who had experienced firefighting in both war and peace. Collis, Williams, Cogger, Ballard, Perkis, surnames embedded in Ryde firefighting folklore poured from front doors alongside younger men more recently recruited including Dave Corney and Reg Burgess, the latter of whom had once been a projectionist at the Royal. For both men this fire was to be their first big-one. The first of them to arrive piled aboard Ethel. The powerful Leyland Pump Escape had served the town since 1938. The machine which attended the Cowes blitz when carrying the wartime designation 14D2Z-1, was by 1961 referred to more simply as Station 4 Pump Escape (PE). The fire at the Theatre Royal was to be her final major engagement in 23 years’ service.

'Ethel', Ryde's long serving Leyland Pump Escape.

Station Officer Len Williams had been a member of the pre-war Ryde Fire Brigade since 1935. He’d served continuously through the war as a member of the National Fire Service during which he’d experienced the worst that the Luftwaffe inflicted on the Island. Post-war he remained committed to the town with the IW County Fire Brigade and to the satisfaction of all was appointed Ryde’s Station Officer in summer 1958. Len’s rapid northbound journey to the station from Osborne Road along Swanmore Road and the upper High Street betrayed a substantial orange glow in the night sky to his fore. His years of experience forewent any reluctance to make the necessary call. Immediately he arrived at the station, he ordered Fireman Long on duty in the watchroom, to make a call to brigade headquarters (BHQ) – make pumps four, turntable ladder required. BHQ recorded receipt of the makeup at 23:03.

Station Officer L.Williams

While BHQ summoned the Station Officer’s requirements from Sandown, Bembridge and Newport, Len clambered into his boots and leggings, buttoned his tunic, donned his white cork helmet, and took his place in Ethel’s front nearside seat. One by one the crew cab was filled until the throaty engine roared, the appliance pulled through the bifold doors and arrived at the frontage of the theatre amid a swarm of gasping onlookers at 23:06. They were closely followed by Ryde’s second appliance commanded by Leading Fireman Collis.

At 23:08 Chief Fire Officer Richard Fitzmaurice Sullivan, known affectionately as the father of the IW fire brigade having commanded it since its inception in 1948, was called at home by BHQ alerting him to the fire and the scale of the operation being launched.

Like Len Williams, the CFO was a veteran of wartime firefighting having served as Divisional Commander in Bournemouth with the National Fire Service before serving as the Column Officer of the Island from August 1946 and overseeing the final months and close of NFS Fire Force 14d. At the time few of his firemen were in the know that when the County Council were seeking the Island’s first CFO in late 1947, Richard Sullivan was not their first choice. Fate was to intervene and when eventually appointed chief-elect just two months before the county brigade was born it was to be a decision that led to two decades of impeccable officership.

As the CFO prepared to depart his home to drive to the incident, Station Officer Williams, having re-evaluated the situation on the fireground, despatched a further message to BHQ – make pumps ten.

It was immediately apparent to Station Officer Williams that the theatre was lost. On arrival the roof was alight from end to end and a little later a large portion of it plunged past the orange glow from the windows and crashed into the auditorium. With searing heat useful only in assisting the Police to keep the crowd from getting too close, Williams was faced with two concerns – radiated fire spread to adjacent properties and total collapse of the lofty outer walls. As the fire raged within, further weakening what was left of the structure’s integrity, probability of collapse increased. Among those who stood agape at the havoc being wreaked on the lofty structure was a 14-year-old boy who recalled - I remember being woken up by all the noise and then walking to the fire and watching the flames as they bolted into the night sky it was a very memorable night.

CFO Sullivan raced to Ryde and took command of the incident at 23:18. By then Williams’ plan to protect adjacent properties with cooling jets, combined with directing firefighting jets into the burning mass within was well underway. Sullivan backed Williams’ plan as firemen took turns to clamber up ladders positioned against the fragile walls, take a leg lock, and direct jets through the glassless windows into a mesmeric apparition of volcanic properties.

A still frame captured from original colour footage of the fire (courtesy of www.imagefilms.net).

Every length of layflat hose available was deployed around the fireground, attacking the fire, and defending the buildings on all sides with eight jets supplied by five pumps. Instantaneous couplings were clicked into standpipes connected to the older mains, but the majority were fed from the recently installed 8-inch main, allowing for a copious supply of water from the multitude of hoses that writhed like monstrous pythons as they were charged in turn. Rivers of bubbling water ran from the stricken building, thick with debris and soot laden to appear as black as tar discharging detritus in a torrent down St Thomas’s Street where 82-year-old Maude Murray watched in melancholic stupor. It had been 67-years since her first performance at the theatre. Her forty-year career had taken her to stages far and wide in France, Italy, Canada, and the USA, but it was where she began, as a Ryde teenager and to where she returned that she regarded as her home and the place where her thespian heart lay.

Such was the terrific heat, and despite the deployment of cooling jets, the windows of the fruiterers in the Colonnades cracked and the painted frame blistered. The Crown Hotel, imminently threatened by both fire and collapse, became a focus of the CFO’s continuing plan. Among those deployed for this objective was Harry Cogger, fireman of 18 Pellhurst Road, who ascended a ladder pitched to the south elevation in the narrow entrance to the garage between the theatre and the Crown Hotel. In the darkness, clutching a hose and branch, he leg-locked himself safely into position, directed the branch through a glassless window and called for ‘water on’. At ten minutes after midnight, with no vision save for the blinding glow of the fire within, Harry had no knowledge of the precarious situation overhead until suddenly, without warning, a loosened length of iron guttering tore from its fixings and came clattering down upon him. Incredibly Harry maintained both his hand grip on the branch and leg grip on the ladder but required assistance to be brought to the ground with what threatened to be a serious leg injury. He was despatched to the County Hospital with all haste. More incredible still is that after receiving a check for broken bones and a dressing for the injury, he returned to the fireground, reported to the CFO, and carried on with his duties.

An extract from a larger image emphasising the narrow space between the Theatre Royal and the Colonnades to the right.

While Harry was absent, the CFO was confident enough to submit to BHQ the message ‘fire surrounded’. Forty minutes later the ‘stop’ was sent. In 1961 the stop message was still being faithfully used as intended when created by London’s Superintendent James Braidwood one-hundred years earlier – meaning no further resources required at this fire – it did not indicate, as is common today, that the job is over. The Theatre Royal job was far from over. By that stage the crews from Ryde, Newport (Station Officer Harry Bradshaw), Sandown (Leading Fireman Charlie Woodford) and Bembridge (Station Officer Bill Barnett) had been joined with more from Newport plus one pump from East Cowes all of whom laboured in difficult conditions as a stiffening breeze began to spread airborne embers as far afield as the pier.

By 02:21 CFO Sullivan was satisfied that the worst of the incident was over, radiated heat was reducing and the threat to adjacent properties with it. Sandown’s crew were the first to be released and after considerable time locating and reclaiming sufficient hose for their pump, they made their way back to Grafton Street fire station.

As Ryde’s firemen had been first in and had taken much of the early punishment of the heat, the CFO returned them to their homes. At 03:35 Station Officer Williams was the last to the leave the station. The CFO needn’t have bothered, just over two hours later the Ryde men were recalled and at 05:45 Len Williams once again led Ethel and her crew out of the station doors, albeit this time with a little less alacrity.

The scene the morning after the fire.

By then the words of the County Press best describe the situation – On Saturday morning the interior of the cinema was a smoking mass of rubble and blackened, twisted girders. Poised high up above the entrance – the last and least affected part of the building – could be seen the ruined film projectors, still pointing down to where the screen had once stood. At the front posters still advertised “The Rebel” starring Tony Hancock, and on the Lind Street wall was a poster announcing a forthcoming film at the Scala entitled “Too Hot to Handle”.

Firemen were still busy salvaging the few pitiable objects not consumed by the flames. The numerous offices in the four-storey front of the building were used as an administrative centre for IW Theatres, and scorched chairs and tables were removed from an upstairs window. Barriers were erected and patrolled by the Police and crowds of sightseers gathered.

Ryde Fireman Arthur Cogger, peering out of the first floor window during the dampening down and salvage phase.

By 14:00 that afternoon the task of demolishing the remaining structure became urgent given the impact on the town’s infrastructure by the presence of hazardous remains considered incapable of standing unsupported for long. Arranged by the Borough Surveyor Mr W. Rowbotham, Shorwell Plant Hire were contracted to the task assisted by men of Ryde and Newport fire stations.

The turntable ladder was pitched to the rear of the remaining structure and a lone fireman projected upwards to connect a steel hawser through a remaining rear window. With the other end secured to a tractor a modest tug of the hawser resulted in many tons of bricks crashing into Lind Hill throwing up a dense volume of dust. Next came the north-west corner as the Lind Street wall was seen to sway perilously while constables continually pushed back sightseers who were tempted to stray too close.

Ryde’s firemen finally returned to station and dismissed at 21:55 that Saturday night.

On the Sunday the tricky task of recovering the salvageable projectors was taken before the last remnants of the construction were toppled to the ground.

With the once great theatre a steaming mass of debris, CFO Sullivan concluded his report – From eyewitness’s accounts of the fire in the early stages, it does appear that the fire started from behind the screen or screen area and while every investigation has been made as the actual cause, the total destruction of the building and contents prevents any cause being established.

 

 

All of the above is drawn from original documents including CFO Sullivan's report to the IWCC Fire Brigade Committee, various station watch logs, first-hand eyewitness accounts and editorial from the IW County Press. 

Original colour footage of the fire and demolition, courtesy of www.imagefilms.net.