Death of a Landmark

Gardiners Corner Fire 2To most firefighters, calls to incidents have a tendency to become routine. An incident may be life-changing to the individuals involved in them particularly if it something like a fire in their own home, but after a few years service, firefighters tend to view such things as “Just another job”.

Occasionally and incident will occur that will forever stick in ones mind and  I was involved  in once such incident in 1972. Early one evening my fire station at Plaistow received a call not to go to a fire but to go to Poplar Fire Station instead. This was because that particular fire stations appliances, (fire engines), including those of other surrounding fire stations had already been called and detained at an incident. This left the area temporarily denuded of fire cover and that was the purpose of the appliance I was driving going to another station to cater for the deficiency.

Our route took us over Canning Town Bridge to East India Dock Road. It was clear from the amount of radio traffic that the incident, a fire at a large and well-known department store named Gardiners was becoming bigger by the minute.

Long before our arrival at Poplar Fire Station we heard a priority message being sent by the Officer-in-charge of the incident requesting many more fire appliances to deal with the fast growing incident. Within a few seconds of that message being sent my own fire appliance received a message to go direct to the incident instead.

Our destination was Gardiners Department store located on the junction of Whitechapel High Street and Commercial Road..Even when we were still some way from the incident it was possible to see the flames engulfing this large building consisting of a ground and five upper floors. We parked some distance from the building to allow for our fire appliance not getting damaged in the event the building collapsed which seemed a real possibility.

Gardiners Corner FireAt  large incidents a Control Unit is always set up at where oncoming appliances book-in and crews are detailed to specific tasks.There was a lot of background noise as well from the noise of the inferno from the burning store and the sounds on numerous two-tone horns from many other fire appliances also arriving at the incident from far afield. My own crew was initial detailed to run out and man two jets of water from a position on the opposite of Whitechapel High Street onto the store. Clear instructions were also issued not to get any closer to the store due to the danger of the building collapsing. Our jets of water however were only a temporary holding measure akin to to using a pea-shooter on a leviathan. Other specialist equipment know as Radial Branches had also been ordered.and we were waiting their arrival.

A Radial Branch is like a huge water cannon with an outlet several inches wide. The recoil from these jets are too high for an individual to hold so they are held between to steel guides mounted on a heavy base plate. A small winch and cable is also fitted to allow the angle of the jet of water to changed by lowering or raising it. The volume of water output by these branches is so great it requires two separate pumping appliances to feed them. There are also vanes built around a central hole on the inside of the outlet of these branches. The vanes create three swirling columns of water around a central water core which stops the water jet breaking up and allows it to reach much greater distances. The best way to describe the power of these jets is to imagine hitting a wall with a heavy sledge-hammer. With the hammer the force of the impact only lasts for a moment as the sledge-hammer makes contact. With a radial branch that force is constant.

The store was surrounded with about six of these radial branches after which time there was little more that could be done other than playing a vast volume of water onto the fire. The front of the store which was triangular in shape was surmounted. by a towering three sided stone and concrete clock tower. A discernable and growing lean could be seen on the clock tower until it reached the point of no return and hundreds of tons of masonry toppled backwards into the store crashing through all five floors with a tremendous noise. Once that had happened the fire started to gradually subside leaving just the outer shell of this once grand building.

In the meantime the surrounding area had become like a mini-lake with the water run-off from the store. The London Transport underground station Aldgate East has several entrances near to this incident and the flood doors to the station had to be closed and underground trains were not allowed to stop at the station.

It is incidents like this that firefighters always remember.

The store was originally built in the 1870’s and specialised in military uniforms, Scottish and children’s clothing, For many years the store was simply known as “The Scotch House” which was proudly proclaimed by a huge sign at the front of the building. Over the years the sign disappeared and the store became known as Gardiners Corner due to it’s prominent position. Gardiners Corner also became a landmark name appearing on bus route signs. For a building that lasted a century and which was demolished without trace over forty years ago, the name still lives on as a landmark. I doubt if the original Mr Gardiner could have foreseen his name becoming immortalised in such a way.

Gardiners Corner 1906

Gardiners Corner in 1906

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