Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Fire of 1903 which Almost Immolated Pyott’s Ambitions

To a younger generation of Port Elizabethans, the name Pyotts Biscuits is largely unknown but to a century of residents it resonated as the biscuit of choice. Personally, the Pyotts business has a stronger connection. As an articled clerk with Price Waterhouse in the 1970s, I was allocated to the Pyott’s audit. By then the business had been sold to a competitor and later on the name of the business severed its link with the Pyott’s name.   

The details of this fire are wholly derived from a report in the subsequent edition of the Eastern Province Herald.

Main picture: Pyott’s original factory in Port Elizabeth

In 1902 it had been decided at the Annual General meeting of the Shareholders that it would be necessary to build new premises as the old ones were becoming too small. Little did they realise that within ten months they were to be forced to hasten the construction of a new factory as the old one would be totally destroyed by fire.

 The fire in 1903

On Wednesday, 16th December 1903 the following report appeared in the Eastern Province Herald as regards the great fire which destroyed Pyott’s factory in Princes Street.

‘In the early hours of Tuesday morning the North End of the town was visited by a conflagration which completely gutted Messrs’ Pyott’s confectionary factory, situated on the corner of Princes and Elizabeth Streets. The origin of the fire remains a mystery, but it seems to have broken out in the rear part of the building, where unfortunately, it would remain unnoticed until the flames had obtained such a hold that they had penetrated to the outer air. We understand that some of the employees were at work in the building until about 10 o’clock on Monday night, and when they left all seemed perfectly safe. About two o’clock, Captain Wares and ten men of the P.A.G. Rocket Brigade were returning home from the beach where they had been on duty owing to the heavy south-east wind which was blowing and the heavy seas which were consequently running, in case there should by any call for assistance from the shipping. As they approached Princes Street, coming up South Street, they noticed flame and smoke spewing from the back of Messrs’ Pyott’s factory.

Quickening their pace, they hurried on and gave the alarm to a constable who was on duty there. So far as we have been able to ascertain, this was the very earliest indication that anything was amiss, and in support of this, one member of our staff passed the premises a couple of minutes before two o’clock at which there was absolutely no indication of a fire from outside. On the alarm being given the policeman immediately blew his whistle, and in a short time several more of the police were on the scene.  They were assisted by the Rocket Brigade, got the hose-reel out from the substation in South Street, and soon had attached it to a fire plug in Elizabeth Street which seemed to be the most likely place from which to fight the flames. In the meantime, one of the Rocket Brigade had awakened the inmates of the chemist shop opposite and got them to telephone the Police Station; while the police and others of the Rocket Brigade procured another hose from the Gaol, which also turned a jet of water on the burning building.      

The Fire Brigade under Superintendent A.G. Butterworth, Town Engineer, and Lieutenant Anderson, appeared on the scene some forty minutes after the alarm was given, but the fire had then obtained SUCH A HOLD of the building that it was practically impossible to save it. Shortly after the arrival of the Fire Brigade a regrettable misunderstanding occurred between them and some members of the Rocket Brigade, Lieutenant Anderson being of the opinion that the latter were doing wrong in breaking a certain window, which, apparently, was being done with the object of throwing into the blazing interior another jet of water, and the Rocket Brigade withdrew.

Both Inspector Hingle and Sub-Inspector Mason were on the scene. By the time the Fire Brigade arrived the roof had fallen in, and the whole place was one burning furnace. As the roof crashed in a dense cloud of sparks shot heavenward like a brilliant display of fireworks and as the heat increased it exploded innumerable tins of jam which were stored there, the contents of which added to the fierceness of the fire. The colour of the flames as they consumed THESE SUGARY SUBSTANCES was of a pretty pale pink, and one could not help admiring the blending of the different colours as the flames roared and crackled.  The flames accomplished their work only too well, and when the work people arrived in the morning, they found nothing but the bare blackened outer walls, and inside the once busy hive of industry a black heap of smouldering ruins. The cottages on the opposite side of Elizabeth Street, belonging to the Reed Bros. combination, had a severe scorching, and the inmates, as may be imagined, got a bad scare. At one time this row of houses was in great jeopardy, but there was very little wind blowing, and the Brigade was able to stay the progress of the devouring fiend.

1950. Pyotts biscuit factory [Source Transnet Heritage Library photo number Item N56557]

After the fire was subdued, the wind sprang up somewhat, and after eleven o’clock several times fanned the smouldering ashes into renewed activity, but the Brigade were easily able to cope with this.

In the meantime, the Fire Brigade were busy knocking down the outer walls which were on the quiver and were a danger, and at 12 o’clock Inspector Hingle, after consultation with Mr Butterworth, closed that part of Princes Street to traffic owing to the danger of the wall falling into the roadway. After that the trams, both from North and South only ran to the Chinamen’s Garden on the one side and St Paul’s on the other, and the passengers being allowed to cross, while the vehicular traffic was diverted down the side streets. We believe that the lozenge room is the only part of the factory now standing. The safe containing the firm’s books and other valuable papers still stands under a mountain of debris, which until a late hour yesterday continued to smoulder, at times breaking out into flames. The fire points to a better system of alarm, and also the very great necessity of a speedier way of transporting the hose reel than human labour.

1950. Pyotts biscuit factory [Source Transnet Heritage Library photo number Item N56559]

Obviously, the firefighting did not go as smoothly as would have been wished, as a result both the Engineer and the Rocket Brigade want to put their case. The Town Engineer reported as follows: An alarm of fire at Pyott’s Biscuit Factory, Queen Street. was received at the Fire Brigade Station, by messenger from the Police Station, at 2.27 a.m. yesterday. The hose reel was at the scene at 2.40, at which time the fire had obtained a complete hold of the whole premises, and the main roof had already fallen. The Police had got a single hose to work in Elizabeth Street from South Street sub fire station. There was a very full supply of water, principally from the Queen Street 9 inch main, and six jets were thrown on the flames, but it proved impossible to save the greater part of the premises, which were almost entirely gutted. Some of the stock and adjoining premises were saved. It is extremely unfortunate that the Fire Brigade were not communicated with earlier, as the fire originated prior to 1.30 a.m. an hour before we received the alarm. This is in my opinion not giving the Brigade a fair chance. The police rendered valuable assistance, working well under the order of the officers of the Brigade, and no additional assistance was required.

The P.A.G. Rocket Brigade who were on duty on the beach were also in attendance but did not report themselves to the officers of the Fire Brigade on their arrival, and shortly afterwards withdrew. I again regret to have to call attention to the fact that persons entirely unauthorised broke in windows and doors on the ground floor before the arrival of the brigade, thus increasing the draught and rendering the fire more hopelessly beyond control. A hydrant was also broken by the attempts of some unskilled persons. This is the largest fire that has occurred in Port Elizabeth since that of Cleghorn, Harris and Wards premises.”

1950. Pyotts biscuit factory [Source Transnet Heritage Library photo number Item N56560]

To give the other side of the picture we have the report from Captain Wares of the Rocket Brigade. He communicated as follows: He and ten men of the Rocket Brigade were returning home from watch on the beach, at about 2 o’clock, up South Street, and when opposite Pyott’s factory saw smoke spewing from the roof in the rear part of the premises. They went over to see what it was, and a policeman who was on duty there sounded his whistle as an alarm.  The policeman asked the men of the Rocket Brigade to go down to South Street substation and get the firehose, which they did, and then assisted the police to attach the hydrant to the fire plug, and to pour a jet of water onto the fire. They had some difficulty finding the fireplug, as it was covered up, and also in opening it.  Some of the men then assisted the police to use the hose on the Elizabeth Street side of the building where the fire seemed strongest. After using the hose there for some time, they cleared and opened another fire plug a little higher up the street, with the object of saving time when the Fire Brigade arrived. The fire continuing to spread, Captain Wares sent several of his men to the North End Gaol, where they found a number of policemen getting the reel out of the shed there. The Rocket Brigade men assisted to get the reel out, and up to the fire, and after attaching the hose assisted the police in directing the water onto the fire. All this was done before any of the Fire Brigade had arrived. When the Fire Brigade arrived Lieutenant Anderson pulled one of the Rocket Brigade men who was assisting the police with the hose away from the hose and told him to clear out.    

John Pyott [Received from Jenny Bennie]

Another Rocket Brigade man was attempting to break in a window on the front of the premises, with the object of putting a hose through there, as he had done on the Elizabeth Street side under the direction of the police sergeant – so as to try and keep the fire from spreading to the northern side of the factory, when Lieut. Anderson laid hold of him, and handed him over to a native constable, and the men were told very abruptly that their services were not required. Captain Wares spoke to Mr Butterworth about his man being handed over to the police saying he thought after what the Rocket Brigade had done it was rather harsh treatment, especially as it was done with the object of assisting the Fire Brigade, and the man was released. Captain Wares estimates that it was quite 40 minutes from the time the alarm was given until the Fire Brigade arrived on the scene and has expressed himself as very indignant at the way his men were treated after doing their utmost to keep the fire under control. Two of the Rocket Brigade went down to St. Patrick’s Hall at the request of Lieut. Anderson to assist the Fire Brigade haul up their reel and when the fire was first seen one went over to Messrs’ Monkman and Goddings Chemist shop, roused up the inmates and got them to telephone the alarm to the Police Station.

The particular window that the Rocket Brigade was endeavouring to break in when Lieut. Anderson interfered, Captain Wares states was broken in about ten minutes later by the Fire Brigade themselves with the same object.

The premises of Pyott’s including stock, machinery etc. were insured as under:

New Zealand£2 500Phoenix£3 000
Imperial£3 000North British£2 000
Union.£3 000Equitable.£ 500

Sum Total – £14 000

The tale is told how natives in the vicinity rushed to the factory with tin cups and buckets to catch the jam as it flowed down the hill.

Post the fire

Where previously only the Four Mills had been situated in Broad Street now a new works factory was built in the same road. The 1907 Directory gives the address of the Works and Four Mills as Broad Street but by this time the offices had moved to the Cuthbert’s Building. Pyott took great pride and delight in the new building and was up at 5 a.m. each morning to go down to work. He loved his family to show an interest in it.

It seems amazing that within three months of the fire the new building was almost complete. The old site remained vacant for many years until Pyott had a bioscope built and let the premises for £20 per month. Out of the ashes a new and more vigorous business was to emerge

Sources

Eastern Province Herald dated Wednesday, 16th December 1903

John Pyott – 1862 – 1947 by JS Bennie

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