Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Dewsbury's beloved Marks and Spencer on fire in 1953

It took three hours of effort by five brigades, to finally subdue the ferocious fire.

By Jane Chippindale
Wednesday, 25th May 2022, 9:56 am
Updated Wednesday, 25th May 2022, 2:39 pm

Margaret Watson writes: Most people living in Dewsbury today will have happy memories of the celebrations surrounding the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

But for many, the rejoicing was short-lived once they heard the town’s most prestigious store – Marks and Spencer’s – had been almost burnt to the ground.

The disastrous blaze occurred on the evening of June 3 while Dewsbury people were still celebrating the crowning of the young Queen Elizabeth.

Sign up to our daily Dewsbury Reporter Today newsletter

FLASHBACK: Fire at the Marks and Spencer store on Northgate, Dewsbury in 1953 (Photo kindly supplied by Stuart Hartley)

The store had only recently been renovated and redecorated for the coronation, but after the blaze many thought it would never re-open.

But within four weeks of the fire it did re-open but only in part while the rest of the building was partitioned-off to allow workmen to carry out restoration work.

The cause of the fire even to this day still remains a mystery but at the time it was believed to have been caused by an electrical fault.

It was the darkest day in the history of Marks and Spencer and one which those who witnessed it would never forget.

Added to the sadness of the scene of devastation were the charred union flags and bunting which had been decorating the front of the store all that week.

The alarm had been raised in the early evening by a passer-by who spotted smoke pouring from the roof, and people came rushing from nearby pubs to watch the sorry spectacle.

Word spread from village to village and soon there were thousands congregating in Market Place and Northgate to watch.

Firemen fighting the blaze had great difficulty forcing an entrance to the rear of the premises because of the burglar proof doors.

Once inside they met smoke so dense they could only see a few inches in front of them and had to use breathing apparatus.

Volunteers rushed to help staff from neighbouring premises to remove goods from their offices in case the fire spread.

The surrounding streets were nearly flooded as thousands of gallons of water were poured on to the blazing building.

Silk shirts from the stock at Marks and Spencer were used to plug neighbouring premises to stop water entering them.

A turntable ladder from the Dewsbury Brigade was used, augmented by a smaller appliance from Wakefield.

Water was poured through the windows but the fire had gained a firm hold.

And with the increasing heat, the underside of the roof caught fire and eventually caved in.

After three hours of effort by five brigades, the ferocious fire was finally subdued, but by then the upper floor had been completely destroyed and all the stock ruined.

Before firemen left the premises, members of staff were already in with mops and buckets, clearing up fire and water damage.

Throughout this period all the full-time staff were retained and given jobs in other stores, mainly in Leeds.

Members of staff were heartbroken when they saw the devastation.

Some burst into tears, fearing the store would never re-open and they would lose their jobs.

Marks and Spencer’s was always regarded as the best place to work because they had a reputation for looking after their staff, even after they’d retired.

The store in Northgate was the second one which Marks and Spencer’s had occupied in Dewsbury, the first having been opened in 1909 on Westgate, just at the bottom of Daisy Hill.

In 1936, however, they moved into new and bigger premises on Northgate on the site of the old White Lion pub.

Overnight it doubled its staff from 40 to 80 and placed a big advertisement in the Reporter announcing there was nothing in the shop priced more than five shillings.

Work started on the new store in February of that year, and despite major difficulties like the discovery of a deep well on the site, the building was completed in six months.

The men doing the building work were all from the Dewsbury area and most had been drawn from the local labour exchange.

Only a few months earlier, “Fifty Shilling Tailors’ opened a new store just across the road on the corner of Market Place and the retail trade locally was booming.

Shops like Bickers, J&Bs, Eggleston’s, Birtle’s, Roebuck’s, Hodgson’s, Hudson’s, Ward’s and the impressive Co-operative store just up the road, were flourishing,

The market was also thriving, sometimes staying open until midnight on Saturdays.

No wonder the new Marks and Spencer store aroused great public interest, and people were soon hailing it as a great shopping acquisition in Dewsbury.

Customers were amazed at the contrast between the new building and the old premises in Westgate, especially the design of the shopping aisles.

Sadly, the store closed in 2007 after being in Dewsbury for nearly 100 years and moved to the new White Rose Shopping Centre.

It was a devastating blow to its loyal customers and one which badly affected the town centre economy and also the shops nearby which had always benefitted from the M&S footfall.

The week they announced they were leaving, Dewsbury shoppers could be seen openly sweeping in the store, elderly ones in particular, who said they wouldn’t be able to get to the White Rose Centre.

The headline on my column that week was “Our beacon goes out after a century”, which was very apt because that was exactly what our Dewsbury M&S store meant to us – a beacon of light.

Looking back, I wonder how many people could have foreseen that the young Queen whose coronation anniversary we celebrate next week would still be with us 70 years later.

I think we can safely say that she too has been our “beacon of light” through good times and bad – and thankfully remains so.

Read More

Read More
Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: No more Whitsuntide currant buns!