'The biggest blaze in this town's history': Remembering the Harrison Gibson fire in Ilford High Road 60 years on
PUBLISHED: 10:00 16 March 2019
Sixty years ago today, flames 100 feet high came within minutes of destroying the vast majority of Ilford High Road as a massive fire at Harrison Gibson furniture store caused millions of pounds worth of damage.
The front page of the Recorder’s March 19, 1959 edition – which chronicled the biggest fire in Ilford’s history - made for spectacular viewing.
It was made up predominantly of a startling photograph of the smouldering ruins of the Harrison Gibson building on Ilford High Road, with a simple headline in block capitals: “WHAT THE BIG BLAZE LEFT”.
The fire, which began at around 7.30pm on the evening of Monday, March 16, 60 years ago, raged for around 90 minutes, and reduced Ilford’s most prominent furniture store to ashes.
Indeed, for that desperate hour and a half, the emergency services had feared for the safety of the entire High Road as the blaze began to spread, inexorably, east towards Seven Kings and west towards the Town Hall and the station.
Hundreds of firefighters from across east London and Essex were called to wage a high-stakes battle against the fiery furnace for the future of Ilford’s town centre, and, thankfully, they won – but only just.
Before they emerged victorious, another popular drapery store by the name of Moulton’s was engulfed in the flames, and all in all £2million of property was destroyed before the last embers were doused, along with £900,000 of stock.
In today’s pounds and pence, once adjusted for inflation, that equates to around £46million of charred and blackened real estate, and £20million of destroyed goods.
Thousands of spectators flocked to the scene too, and police evacuated hundreds from their homes.
The Recorder, whose staff worked through the night on the day of the fire to capture as many people’s stories as possible, reported that smoke was still rising from the burnt out debris on Wednesday morning.
The news reports filled up eight pages of that week’s paper, and labelled the disaster “a blaze bigger than any single incident during the air raids which devastated the town centre”.
Flames reached 100ft into the sky – emboldened by windy conditions which made tackling the problem all the more difficult.
As the fire raged, millions of gallons of water was fired through hoses in an attempt to quell it, and firefighters were relieved from the frontline every few minutes to make sure everyone remained fresh.
Water and gas mains serving the High Road burst, and an explosion rocked nearby houses.
For a short time, the Fire Brigade was battling on two fronts, as burning material carried by the wind landed on the roof of the Marigold Restaurant on the other side of the High Road.
There followed another tense period where firefighters were informed a 500-gallon petrol tank was kept at the rear of that restaurant, but fortunately the authorities were able to extinguish that fire in time to prevent any catastrophe.
One fire officer described it as the worst fire he had known in Ilford in 60 years, and several firefighters suffered minor injuries, although thankfully all of them were allowed to go home from hospital immediately after treatment.
As the Harrison Gibson warehouse burned, all rail travel through Ilford was also suspended due to fears the building, which backed onto the railway line, would collapse across the tracks.
That order was given at around 8pm, and it wasn’t until just after midnight that a freight train was slowly allowed to crawl past heading into London.
Civil Defence rescue teams were called in, and led evacuated families from a staging area in Havelock Street to temporary shelters set up at the Town Hall, Methodist Hall and Vine Memorial Hall.
As the entire situation balanced on a knife-edge at around the 90-minute mark, firefighters decided to establish “a curtain of water” by feeding a hose onto the top of Moulton’s west wall and allowing water to cascade freely down it.
This stifled the blaze’s advance west, and slowly the authorities were able to split the fire into smaller areas.
It wasn’t until 1.30am, when most spectators had finally given up watching and gone home for the night, that firefighters deemed the area safe.
Rumours abounded in the first 24 hours after the conflagration that it had been a deliberate arson attack.
By Tuesday evening, they had been circulated to widely that Det Insp R E Bird of Ilford CID was forced to put out a statement quashing them.
It read: “An investigation has been made, and we are satisfied that the fire was not caused by incendiarism or arson.”
Then Mayor of Redbridge, Cllr F R Masters, also released a statement in which he expressed his sympathies to all the traders and evacuated families whose lives had been affected by the fire.
He added: “I want to say ‘thank you’ to the Fire Brigade, to the police, to St John Ambulance, the Civil Defence and to everyone concerned including all the public who gave such help and offered help in any shape or form.
“I am very proud of the way in which the whole of the people concerned worked together.”
The cause of the fire was never satisfactorily determined.
Amazingly, John G Gibson - the shop’s owner who had been away in Milan on business at the time of the fire - ruled the ruined store would open for business as usual on Saturday morning.
He paid extra to have his warehouses restocked, and opened a small area of underused warehouse floor as a salesroom.
The ‘shop’ opened as planned at 9am, and according to Mr Gibson traded at “a brisker pace than usual”.
Harrison Gibson would go on to rebuild in the area, and was a name synonymous with the town centre for many years, and its High Road building is currently undergoing redevelopment.
But in a bizarre twist of fate, further fire-related tragedy would follow Mr Gibson.
Another store he opened in Bromley was also burnt down in 1968.