Fire at Crowtrees Workmen’s Club, 1923

This article was in the Durham County Advertiser, Friday 22nd June 1923, page 6.

Workmen’s Club Burnt Out

Early on Saturday morning1, a destructive fire broke out in the Workmen’s Club, Bowburn, near Coxhoe, which completely gutted the building, only the bare walls being left. The building, which was situated off the main road, Coxhoe to Durham, was practically a new one, having only been erected a little over two years ago. The walls were of fire bricks. The middle floors and roof, which were of pitch pine, as were also the fittings, being interlaced with iron girders. The ground floor was used as the club premises, the large hall above being let to Mr. W. Turnbull and used as a picture hall. The steward’s house, occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Weightman2, was attached to the club at the north end.

Everything was apparently all right when Mr. Weightman retired just after eleven p.m. on Friday night, his first knowledge of anything being wrong being about one a.m. on Saturday, when he was wakened by a dog barking. Hearing noises apparently in the picture hall, he proceeded to investigate, and found flames bursting from the roof of the hall. He at once raised the alarm. Constable Hurry, stationed at Bowburn3, who was at Shincliffe Station at the time, noticed the glare in the sky and rushed back to Bowburn, where the assistance had been obtained of a number of men residing in the village, who were preparing to go to work in the first shift at Bowburn Colliery. Mr. J.G. Ramsay4, under-manager, and Mr. W. Gardner5, cashier at the colliery, had also been roused; the former telephoning at once for Houghton rescue Fire Brigade6, while the colliery buzzer was blown to call up the workmen who form the colliery brigade. Fanned by a N.E. wind, the flames had gained a good hold of the hall and roof of the building and were spreading rapidly. Constable Hurry and an energetic band of workers endeavoured to save as much of the stock of the club as possible, while other workers got the furniture out of the steward’s house, with unfortunate results to many of the articles.

The work in the club was much hampered owing to the ceiling collapsing, but determined efforts were made to get all that it was possible to get out. In the meantime, other workers laid the colliery hose pipes from the colliery reservoir to the burning building ready for the brigade. Mr. M.H. Kirby, agent for Bowburn Colliery, arrived shortly afterwards with some lengths of hose pipes from his residence. Fortunately, two water tanks erected in the picture hall, for hot water heating, adjoining the steward’s house, burst owing to the heat, the water saturating the wall of the steward’s house, and helping in a great measure to prevent it from taking fire. The fire brigade arrived twenty five minutes after the call was put in, and quickly got to work under Supt. Bond, but owing to the colliery hose bursting did not make rapid progress until their own hose was attached to the reservoir, from which there was an ample supply of water. The fire was prevented from getting hold of the steward’s house, but it was impossible to save the club premises, despite the ready assistance rendered by workmen who had been on night shift at the colliery and came straight from the pit.

How the fire originated

The fire continued burning until about half-past seven, by which time only the bare walls of the building and twisted iron girders were left, the outer walls of fire brick standing as grim mementoes (sic). Fortunately the billiard table, on the ground floor, was saved, being pushed, or lifted, into the shelter of the saturated wall of the steward’s house, where it was safe, the wind, owing to other property, just missing that part of the building. A dynamo on the ground floor was also got out, but Mr. Turnbull was very unfortunate, his cinema engine being destroyed, in addition to films worth £100. Subsequent investigation showed that the fire had originated from a burnt electric fuse in the top corner of the picture hall, the flames travelling rapidly along the pitch pine roof.

The loss, which is covered by insurance (except Mr. Turnbull’s) is roughly estimated at £3,0007. During the weekend, large numbers of people visited the scene of the fire from adjoining villages. It should be mentioned that strenuous efforts were made by Mr. Turnbull8 and a man named Hall to partly subdue the fire by using extinguishers directly it was observed, but without appreciable effect. The stocks in the cellars were only partly destroyed.


1. The fire took place early on the morning of Saturday 16th June 1923. The Club committee met at 1.45pm that day, “in the damaged part of the Billiard Room not destroyed by fire”. It agreed, amongst other things, to inform the insurance company immediately, and also to write to Dorman Long.

2. Thomas and Annie Weightman lived in Bowburn in 1918 (no address on electoral roll) and at Newton House, Bowburn in 1930. This is 26, Durham Road West – i.e. the house across the lane north of the steward’s house – which is given as their address thereafter. So the Weightmans presumably moved across that lane in the 1920s.

It is interesting that the Club committee, at its meeting on the day of the fire, agreed that “the position of the Steward and Stewardess be considered at meeting to be held on June 25th 1923”. It is tempting to link this with its decision only five days earlier (on 11/6/23) to cut the Steward’s wages from £4 to £3-10s a week! Indeed the Steward subsequently tendered his resignation, which the committee accepted (with 28 days’ notice) on 17/7/23. But that resignation was subsequently withdrawn.

3. Robert and Elizabeth Hurry lived at 15, Durham Road in 1930 (but not in 1918) and indeed Robert Hurry was still there, and was possibly still the village policeman, in 1945. In 1950, Robert Hurry had moved to 6, Durham Road West and Fred and Vera Jones were at 15, Durham Road. (Fred was a police tailor.) Before PC Hurry, 15, Durham Road had been the home of PC Thomas Ewen Nesham, who died in 1920 as a result of injuries incurred during World War I.

4. John Gladstone and Elizabeth Richardson Ramsay lived at Oak Lea, Durham Road North, Bowburn.

5. William Frederick and Dorah Matilda Gardner’s address in both 1918 and 1930 was given only as “Bowburn Colliery”. But they lived at Langley House, Durham Road North.

6. The Houghton Rescue Fire Brigade was part of the Collieries Fire and Rescue Brigade, set up under the 1911 Coal Mines Act. The following editorial comment appeared elsewhere in the Advertiser on 22/6/23 (on page 4), in the “Do You Know?” column:

That the disastrous fire at Bowburn gives point to the negotiations in progress for the establishment of a joint brigade in the district. For local authorities, those within a reasonable radius of Croxdale, to hesitate in such a scheme seems unthinkable. The urgency of the matter cannot be doubted. Fires occur in the best of regulated districts and with a competent brigade close at hand the amount of damage would be greatly minimised. Bowburn were compelled to call upon the services of the Collieries Fire and Rescue Brigade as far away as Houghton-le-Spring.

7. The insurance company paid up with remarkable speed. The Club committee agreed to accept a cheque for £483 for stock, fittings etc. on 10th July and one for £2,182-15s-11d on 3/8/23. (The latter was passed to Dorman Long & Co. “to cover the cost of re-instating the Club Building and the balance towards the repayment of the loan”. The loan in question will originally have been made by Bell Bros., who were the colliery owners when the Club building was built but had been absorbed by Dorman Long earlier in 1923.)

8. William Wilfred Turnbull who, with Phoebe Turnbull, lived at Greenside, St. Mary’s Terrace, Park Hill, in 1930, 1939 and 1945, but not in 1918 (Electoral Register).

The Club and both wanted the cinema to re-open when the premises were rebuilt. Various meetings with Mr. Turnbull are mentioned in Club minutes between July 1923 and 13/2/24, when an interview with him was described as “satisfactory”. According to ‘Stavros Young’, in Bowburn Interchange (6), a later report in the Durham Chronicle stated that the cinema re-opened as the “Olympia Cinema” in February 1924 and continued running until 1929.

It was Mr. Turnbull’s car (a Ford brougham 5-seater) that was being driven by John Leslie Edward, manager of the Bowburn picture house, when it knocked down and fatally injured Ernest Albert Merrison (15 years), pony driver, of Shincliffe Bank on 8/3/1926 (Durham Co. Advertiser 12/3/1926).

A new cinema agreement is referred to in the Club minutes of 22/7/29. But it seems that the magistrates did not renew the licence and that the agreement expired on 7/2/30. [Why? — This needs to be checked out.]