A tragedy of errors: Fire brigade’s incompetence led to church burning

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Recently I wrote about Hanging Heaton Parish Church being destroyed by fire 100 years ago.

But this wasn’t the only church in Dewsbury to suffer such a fate – the same happened to Westborough Methodist Church in 1885, only 10 years after it had been built. Fortunately, both churches were able to be rebuilt, and they still survive today, living symbols of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. Despite the terrific cost, both churches set about rebuilding these beloved places of worship within days of the tragedy occurring.

Hanging Heaton’s church fire was caused by lightening during a terrific thunder storm in 1916, but the fire at Westborough was caused by a fault in the heating system.

The fire broke out in the early hours of the morning and by the time the fire brigade arrived, everything inside the church was destroyed, only the outer walls and spire remained.

The late arrival of the fire brigade was due to them having to wait while two horses were attached to their engine, thus losing valuable time. The Dewsbury Reporter condemned the local authority for not providing an efficient fire brigade, and church trustees also sent a letter expressing regret at the delay.

But this didn’t prevent the fire brigade sending in a bill for 12 shillings to cover the cost of the hire of two horses and also the cost of sending the fire engine. The church didn’t pay it until 15 months later.

An irony, which The Reporter pointed out, was that the preacher at the church on the night before the fire had been Edwin North, of Batley. By a startling coincidence, he had been the preacher at Brownhill Chapel, Batley, on the night this place of worship had also burned down!

The account of the fire in the Reporter strongly criticised both the Dewsbury Fire Brigade and the local authority. It read:

“At 4.40am on Monday morning, the caretaker, Mr Giles, had called at the chapel on his way to work as was his custom. He met PC Bootland nearly opposite the church and drew his attention to a light inside the building. They entered the church by the vestry door, Bootland going first. As soon as the officer stepped on the floor, his foot went through the boarding and he was obliged to retreat.

“They entered by another door, to find the church filled with smoke. Bootland raised the alarm and the police and firemen were summoned. Mr F.W. Reuss, who lived nearby, heard the alarm, and at once telegraphed the police office, so no time was lost. The brigade was on the scene with anything but alacrity, and all the efforts to save the building were unavailing, the church being entirely gutted in less than an hour from the time the alarm was first given.

“The firemen had been compelled to wait while two horses were attached to their apparatus, thus valuable time was lost in consequence of the authorities not providing the necessities for an efficient fire brigade.”

Sir Charles Firth, president of the Fire Brigades Association, visited the scene and ascertained that the cause of the fire was overheating of the hot air flue of the heating apparatus. This was the same as that of a similar fire at a church in Kirkheaton, which had used the same system, and he condemned the use of this type of heating in churches.

He also considered it very important that the Dewsbury Corporation had a better arrangement for assembling the brigade and also better apparatus.

Despite what the fire chief had recommended about the hot air flue system, the same kind of heating apparatus was used again in the church, the existing system being rebuilt for £30.

Some years later, the system was replaced with a new model, proving that the church trustees had not lost their confidence in this system of heating.

It was during 1873 that the Salem Methodist Church in Dewsbury decided to sponsor a ‘mission’ church in Westborough. A temporary mission room was opened in a rented room in Russell Street, but it was not big enough to accommodate the growing numbers attending.

Plans were made to build a new Sunday school and church in Brunswick Street, the Sunday school being opened in 1875, and the church the following year. At the church opening on Good Friday, a special tea was provided for 150 at 9d per head, and on Easter Sunday, the new church was so crowded, many were unable to gain admittance.

The total cost of building the church, including cost of the site and the building of the Sunday school, was £5,600. Anyone looking at Westborough Methodist Church with its towering steeple and ornate transept, would be forgiven for thinking it was an Anglican place of worship.

And that is exactly what the architect who designed it would have had you believe, for his instructions had been to make it look like an Anglican church.

This little subterfuge arose because of a stipulation in the deeds of the land, owned by the Anroyd Estate, that no chapel buildings could be built there.

The architects, Messrs Holton and Connon, were appointed to ensure that it did not look like a chapel.

It was agreed that the Gothic style of architecture be adopted which would include a spire. The architects were later to design St Philip’s Church in Leeds Road, now demolished, and as Holton and Fox, Dewsbury Town Hall.

At the stone-laying ceremony, people assembled at Salem Church in Northgate at 2pm in order to process to Westborough for 3pm, uphill all the way. Sadly, Salem Church is no longer with us, but Westborough still thrives, and has proved to be an important asset to the local community.

It provides a home for numerous organisations in the village who have use of it on nearly every day of the week, and the church is fortunate to have a strong and loyal membership.

They have even found the funds to have a clock installed in the tower, in a space left for that purpose in the original design, although one was never installed.

At a time when churches and chapels throughout Dewsbury are closing down, how wonderful it is that Westborough Methodist Church in Brunswick Street continues to thrive.

Well done Westborough!