At four o’ clock in the morning of Wednesday, December 10th, 1930, the last public view day, the skeleton crew on the Empress were awakened by a cry of “fire.” Almost at the same moment, a ferryman on the High Ferry saw a tongue of flame issue from the after part of the ship. He sounded the ferry buzzer as an alarm and a startled Blyth rubbed the sleep out of its eyes and sprang into life. Within minutes a cloud of smoke began to roll out to sea; in the houses across the river, bedroom windows reflected the glare of flames which were soon 20 feet high. The Harbour Commissioners’ fire float scudded up river to BattleshipWharf. On land the Blythfire brigade, alerted by another ferryman, met with exasperating delays: the yard was outside its zone of operations and the chairman of the fire brigade committee had to be dragged from bed to give his authorisation for the boundary to be crossed. Even then, the engine could not be taken across the ferry; it had to follow a circuitous route along a frost-bound road, a detour wasting a precious 30 minutes. Once on the scene, there was little that the firemen or the reinforcements summoned from miles around could do. The blaze, which had apparently started in the tourist-class barber’s shop, had burned undetected for some time and was firmly alight. Throughout the day more than 100 firemen fought the blaze, one squad snatching a brief respite as another came on. Smoke and flames pored from every ventilator and hatch; all along the hull the steel plates glowed red hot right down to the water line; slabs of burning paint, streams of molten metal lead, plopped and sizzled into the river. Onlookers saw the lifeboats dissolve into ashes, and the portholes appeared as “great fiery eyes.” By nightfall the flames had sliced through mooring wires and ropes; the giant masts began to sway, their foundations burnt away, and it was feared they might topple into the yard. There was only one thing that could be done, and that was to scuttle the Empress. To move her into the river or to tow her out to sea would be impracticable: it was impossible to get the necessary ropes aboard and to try to manoeuvre her in such narrow waters would be to put the whole port in peril. She would have to be sunk where she lay: she would settle only a few feet, but she would be rendered more stable thereby and flooding would quench the deep-seated flames. A number of oxy-acetylene burners now set out in small boats charged with the task of cutting holes in the steel hull. The plates were still glowing hot and firemen had to cool them with hoses before work could begin. As each hole was cut, the water lapped into the blazing vessel and slowly she began to settle. By the following morning the flames were in check, although the fire was not declared finally out for another four days. By then the shell of the Empress, a skeleton of blackened steel was on an even keel on the river bed, ballasted by tens of thousands of tons of water. Every piece of furniture in her had been destroyed. Shafting and machinery were twisted and cracked. Great pools of debris, made up of glass, iron, lead and brass, writhed and cooled into shapes as bizarre as they were valueless. The Mayor of Blyth, Councillor J. R. Ferrell, arrived to inspect the damage. It was a disaster to the town, he said. But things might have been worse. Although much of the profitable non-ferrous metals had fused and there were few reusable items left intact to be sold, three bells and a gong were about all that remained, the steel structure was not greatly affected and there would be a claim on Lloyds with whom a £47,500 insurance had been taken out. Breaking could begin almost immediately, although it would be hazardous: platforms and decks from which the burners usually worked had been eaten away or seriously weakened. Pumping would be a major operation. But there would still be jobs; nobody would have to be laid off. The actual amount of work to be done’, Harrison assured the mayor, “will be at least equal to what we would have had to do if the fire had not occurred…Apart from breaking up, there is a good deal of work to be done in safety measures.” The cause of the outbreak was never determined, but a fused cable was generally held to have been responsible. There were many other theories, some of them serious, some wildly fanciful. Many townspeople believed that a cigarette end carelessly thrown down by a visitor who had ignored the “no smoking” regulations was to blame. Others spoke mysteriously if not too intelligently of an act of revenge by German agents or – the universal scapegoat of the early 1930’s – a Communist plot. Demolition of the Empress began on December 15th, a few hours after the firemen had given the all-clear, and by the end of the month both the funnels and part of the superstructure had been cleared. At the end of February the holes that the fire-fighters had cut were sealed, the ship was refloated and the work began of removing 800 tons of sand, concrete tiles, broken baths and washstands. Operations lasted well into the following autumn, interrupted at one stage by another small fire among oil waste. Nor was this the final mishap. At the end of May, when the half demolished hulk – reduced from 25,000 to 12,000 tons – was being towed into the tidal dock she broke her back. Her forepart grounded safely at the head of the dock but her middle section, weakened by the fire, was unable to take the strain imposed by the falling tide. The Empress was split almost in two, held only by her bottom plates and a mesh of steel wires which had been installed to stiffen the ship against such an eventuality. It was another seventeen days before she could be finally docked. By October, when demolition had been completed, Harrison was able to assess what the fire had cost him. His original valuation had estimated the return on the ship, after the payment of wages, at £47,640; the fire had reduced this but almost exactly half. Harrisonput the cost of fighting the fire at not much less than £1,500. There were payments to the Blyth, WhitleyBay and other fire brigades and to the owners of the half-dozen tugs which had taken part in the operations. The underwriters were prompt and generous in their settlement. Nevertheless, the losses, especially of non-ferrous metals, were grievous. As I Saw it. By James Bruce: James Bruce joined Hughes Bolckow in 1924. He was successively oxygen plant engineer, works engineer and works manager. Since 1953 he had been director and general manager. Five o’clock on a bitter morning in December is not the most inviting of times to be called from one’s bed. So it was with reluctance that I stumbled downstairs to answer a frantic knocking at the front door. A figure hardly recognisable in the darkness confronted me: “The ship’s on fire” it said. “Get to the yard right away.” Fire. In the Empress. You can imagine how I felt. Fire in any circumstances is bad enough but on board a ship it is a major hazard. I can’t remember how I dressed. My mind ran wildly over the potentialities as I grabbed my bike and tore off to the ferry which I had to cross to get to the yard. When I reached the north-side landing I found the approach blocked by fire engines. Threading my way through the maze of hoses snaking their way to the quayside, I was met half-way. “Jim, get the Merryweathers going, ”someone said. The Merryweathers were two small fire pumps mounted on wheels. In an atmosphere chocking with smoke, I struggled to get them started and transported to the jetties. As daylight slowly broke, it became obvious that our small fire machines would be of no avail in a blaze of such magnitude. Closing them down, I took myself off to see what better I could do. The scene was of an appalling grandeur. Dense clouds of smoke poured from every aperture in the aft of the Empress and rolled over the yard in a giant cloud, reducing visibility to a few feet except near the ship where the air was clear and cold. On the jetties were a party of firemen directing their hoses as the great structure but, as it seemed to me, achieving little. On the river a number of harbour craft were doing likewise, again, I thought, to little purpose. The fire had taken hold as far as the midship saloons and access by the gangway which led to the after well-deck was hazardous in the extreme. There was no one on board. The skeleton crew who had been keeping steam up for heating during the auction sale view days and our own watch party had both scrambled ashore as the flames advanced. At the foot of the gangway a hastily assembled council of action was debating ways and means. I remember one of them detaching himself: Tom Middleton, the yard foreman, a man stout of heart and figure. As he passed me he called out: “Let’s get some hands aboard at the for’ard end.” Hurrying after him, I reached the north jetty and found Tom organising a boarding party into a skip. In I tumbled and was whisked away and up by the dockside crane. In a few moments we had all scrambled out on the forward well-deck. As more men came aboard we broke up into small parties. With three or four others, I went below through an access from a deck house at the base of the forward mast. In the dim light we advanced cautiously and found the starboard corridors remarkably free from smoke. We were then about two decks down. As we crept forward we soon saw why the corridors were clear: they were becoming wind tunnels, funnelling air into the fire. I remember opening a door into one of the saloons. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Flames – white, red, yellow, indeed, all the colours of the rainbow – boiled and churned in front of me, a roaring wall of hell. They stopped short at the doorway, checked by the inrushing airstream, but the radiated heat was intense. We decided to open a porthole in a nearby cabin and bring in a hose from one of the tugs alongside. It seemed to take an age and, even when we had succeeded, the water had little effect. But we kept on and on. Owing to the heat, we had to hold the nozzle in turns, each of us grasping it for as long as he could bear. Some time later – I don’t know how long for we had no sense of time – a message reached us: “Get out quick: the fire is a long way past you on the deck above.” Jamming the hose nozzle in the door of the saloon, still pointing at the unending flames, we retreated along the corridor and made for the open deck. Thinking I was the last to leave, I banged shut the steel access door in the deckhouse. I expect I had the vague idea of excluding air from the fire. I slammed on the catches and was just about to leave when, above all the chaotic din; I heard a cry and a banging on steel as if with fists. Turning back to the door, I found the sounds were coming from the corridor we had just left. I threw back the catches and there stood one of my small party. He stepped through quite unperturbed, little realising how near he had been to a fiery grave. Outside there seemed to be little change. “What about taking a hose up the mainmast?” someone suggested. Two of us, Tom Middleton and I, decided to see if it were possible. Tom went up the port shrouds and I went up the starboard. We had reached the cross trees and were trying to determine whether a hose would be of any use when suddenly I lurched. Looking at Tom, I saw that he, too, was hanging on with both hands. Then we realised that the mast was swaying – towards the now burning bridge structure. Suddenly it was brought up short, held by the forestay and shrouds. Tom and I scrambled down as far as we could. We soon saw what had happened: the fire had burned out the wooden chocks where the mast passed through the deck. It was one of my many narrow escapes we had that night. By this time smoke was gushing from the forward hatch spaces and only the forecastle was clear. A message came to us that the ship was to be scuttled: we had to get out at once. So we left as we had come, by crane and skip. On shore the impromptu council of action had set in motion the work of scuttling and I was asked to join a crew which was preparing to cut holes in the shell in the forward section. Soon I found myself alongside the towering bulk of the Empress with an oxy-acetylene burner. We began to cut a horizontal oblong in the ship’s shell with its bottom edge about an inch below the surface of the river. As the cut-out piece fell into the ship the water started to trickle over the weir formed by the power edge of the hole. Guided by shouts from the shore, we moved the boat further aft and started cutting another hole. When it was finished and the piece of plate knocked in, we found we had finished and the piece of plate knocked in, we found we had pierced the fuel tank and set it on fire. The inrushing water, however, soon put the flames out. Just as we were leaving the side of the ship a sheet of burning paint dropped from above. It was as big as a blanket, mighty heavy and scalding hot. For a few seconds we struggled to get clear. Darkness fell with the ship still burning. Around midnight it was possible to get on to the after deck where the fire was dying down a little and hoses were brought to bear from closer quarters. The vessel had begun to list as the inrush of water had increased. As the tide rose, the list grew more pronounced and then came a new danger. Would she heel right over? The great funnels and masts towered above the quay front; the top of the forward mizzen was poised above the office building. A party was organised to remove documents, and Sally, the elderly caretaker, who had a room upstairs, was called from her bed. Poor Sally! She cursed and swore like an old trooper as she gathered her scanty belongings and made for the gate. During the next few hours the Empress slowly settled upright in the river about 50 feet from the jetties. The violence of the fire began to abate, although there were bursts of flames in isolated spaces for several days more.
Empress of Scotland and her Charred Remains
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