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Westwood Works 1903-2003

The Great Fire

The Great Fire

"On the second day of March 1922, in the early hours of the morning, a rapidly spreading fire was discovered in the paint shop: in spite of the great efforts of the fire brigades, a large area was soon alight. The blazing wooden bins in the stores generated such heat that many of the roof girders collapsed. Fortunately, the administration block, with the company's current records, was saved.

The firemen concentrated on the fire in the power house to prevent the flames from reaching the foundry, which had recently been enlarged at considerable cost so that it served both Peterborough and Willesden. By a remarkable stroke of fortune, the wind changed. Although the power house roof was alight, the firemen saved the building.

The first two photographs below, show the wooden roof trusses and beams that must have contributed to the ferocity of the fire. The third photograph is believed to show the aftermath of the fire with the roof over the machine shop completely destroyed - the line-shafting to power the machine tools is clearly visible. (See the second and third of the second sequence of photographs taken the morning after the fire).

Before dawn broke over the Fen country, the fire was under control, but the major part of Westwood Works was a blackened ruin. F.C. Ihlee had built the factory eighteen years before, but the new building, which quickly rose upon the ashes of the old, became a more worthy monument to one whose indomitable energy and courage never failed him in any crisis". (Extract from "The History of Baker Perkins" by Augustus Muir - 1968)

We believe that the photograph to the left of members of the Plate Shop was taken on 3rd or 4th March 1922 in the aftermath of the Great Fire

With acknowledgements and thanks to Peterborough Images

The fire was attended by the Peterborough City and Volunteer Fire Brigades who were joined later by the Old Fletton and Midland Railway brigades. It was soon discovered that there was a lack of water pressure and the Etton waterworks was asked to increase the supply.

Cascades of sparks and burning embers were carried as far afield as All Saints' Road and the glare of the fire was visible for more than 20 miles.

Two hours after the fire began, an explosion shook the neighbourhood, breaking windows up to a quarter of a mile away, as one of many oxygen cylinders blew up.

On two of the above photographs what appear to be Boy Scouts feature prominently. Dave Marrington has informed us that a Rover Scout contingent existed at Westwood Works at this time. It was usual for Rover Scouts to respond to "local emergencies", which is a likely explanation for their presence in the aftermath of "The Great Fire".

We are indebted to Miriam Fletcher (nee Rice) for the following vivid memory:

"I started at Werners, as it was always called, in about 1934 and worked under Bill Fowler in the Inspection Office. I started at 7.30 am to 5.30 pm for 7/6d per week. I always remember the broken and partly melted man's watch he had hanging at the back of his desk - it was the only thing that he retrieved from the ruins of the fire that almost destroyed the factory."

See the photographs of the rebuilt factory in Westwood Works in 1923

There now follows an extract from "Ready and Willing - A Centenary History of the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade 1884-1984":

The most destructive fire of the period (causing 250,000 worth of damage) was that at the Westwood Works of Werner, Pfleiderer & Perkins, (now Baker Perkins): this, too, seems to have had its origin in or near the paintshop. The fire spread quickly through the Carpenter's shop, Plateworking shop, Pattern shop, Turning Department, Machine Department, Smithy, Stores and Despatch Department. This was surprisingly far from the whole of the factory since the City Brigade prevented the fire from reaching the offices and the PVFB prevented it spreading to the foundry, oil stores and power house. During the height of the fire one of fifteen oxygen cylinders exploded causing much damage. Hon. S/O Scotney remembered this fire and wrote:

"It's a wonder none of us were killed as there was a large dump of gas cylinders and one exploded hurling a large timber beam right on to the main railway lines. I got this away before any express trains passed along. I nearly always went into a building first to ensure no one got hurt but on this occasion there were several men on the roof playing on the fire. Luckily, I went inside and found the structure of this ablaze and immediately went outside to call my men to get off as quickly as they could and to do it gingerly and, as the last one got off, the whole roof collapsed."

(Acknowledgements to the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade) .

An interesting story was in circulation some years after the above event. It is said that, on the day before the fire, a certain boiler-maker, employed at Westwood works, had made a mistake on a job which would have cost the firm a lot of money. He was expecting to get the sack as he trudged to work the next morning but was met by friends who told him that the factory had been burnt down and his work destroyed. No one in authority ever found out and he continued to work at Baker Perkins for 50 years until his retirement.

After The Great Fire

The following extracts from Works Committee meetings and Correspondence with Josh Booth, the Works manager, give a small insight into the working conditions that existed after the Great Fire, during the time that the factory was being re-built.

(See also Westwood Works in 1923).

July 11th 1922

I have been requested by the men employed in the Joinery Dept. to convey to you their appreciation of, and most sincere thanks for, the very generous manner in which the Management have met their claims for tool lost in the recent fire.

On behalf of the men concerned,

Yours sincerely,
J W. Ackroyd.

14th July 1922

To Mr. W. Harradence, Secretary, Shop Committee.

With reference to the employees' tools lost and damaged in the recent fire. As you know my Board have agreed in this instance to recompense your members to two-thirds value of their claims. My reason for referring to this matter again is to recommend the Shop Committee to arrange for their members to insure their tools, as I understand that this can be done for a very small sum per week.

Yours faithfully,
J.H. Booth, Director and Works Manager

17th July 1922

Re the letter from the Shop Committee. E.Lightfoot to be moved from the screwing machine on to the bench as per Mr. Hayward, as the lads we now have as errand boys are rather too old to go on the screwing machine. Mr. Gardner in the Tube Shop has said that his lad has just left the Technical School and has a promise from Mr. Harvey that he will have the very next vacancy in the Drawing Office. In the meantime, he would be a suitable lad for the screwing machine.

The letter goes on to list lads who are still suspended with the note - "no work for him at present", plus a list of lads "who will have to wait until the new Pattern Shop is ready".

1st August 1922

Notice to all Employees.

The Management regret to inform all full-rated employees that, as from the 14th August, the wages will be reduced by 5/6d per week in accordance with agreement from the Shop Committee and with the reduction already in operation in Federated Establishments. This reduction is equivalent to 1-3/8d per hour.

By Order.

17th August 1922

The Committee asked the Management for data re hot dinners. The reply from Management was -

Hot dinners would consist of two vegetables and a plate of meat - cost 11 pence - a sweet extra.

2nd October 1922

Mr Booth, on behalf of Joseph Baker Sons & Perkins Ltd., regrets to inform the Shop Committee that, owing to the standard rates in Federated Firms having been reduced by the third instalment of 5/6d per week, I am reluctantly compelled to make the same operative in these works as from the 11th October for the Foundry and October 12th for the rest of the Works. Unless I hear form the Shop Committee to the contrary, notices will be posted to this effect tomorrow (Tuesday).

7th December 1922

Minute from Shop Committee Meeting.

It was decided to ask if it could be found possible to provide work for all apprentices up to Christmas who are at present working weeks about.

12th December 1922

Reply from J.H. Booth.

I regret that it is not possible to accede to your request to provide work for apprentices up to Christmas but, if it is found that work can be given to any not working week and week about, it will be done.

8th February 1922

From J.H.Booth.

Re short-time working in the Oven and Tube Shops. We recommend that this shall commence on Saturdays.

29th May 1923

From P.Trowell, Chairman, Shop Committee.

It was decided to take a shop vote on the question of the starting of men before full time is being worked in the Departments concerned for guidance in any further negotiations that might take place.

25th May 1923

Works Committee Meeting.

After a full discussion the following resolution was carried - That in our opinion, no man should be taken on until full-time is being worked in the department concerned by every employee. The Committee views with the greatest apprehension the number of German machines now being brought into the works, at such a time as Englishmen are only able to get 36 hours work per week.

3rd April 1923

Works Committee Meeting.

Re Aublet-Harry Ltd. It was decided to request Management for information as to the truth of the rumours now prevalent throughout this factory; and we trust that, in the event of employees at that establishment crossing to this side of the road, they will be governed by the Conditions Of Employment as are in operation here, i.e. short-time working.

It was agreed to bring to the notice of the Management the fact that, with the exception of the Erecting Shop, all other Departments are now on full-time and suggest an extension to the Erecting Shop would be appreciated.

H.Morton, Chairman, W. Harradence, Secretary.

4th April 1923

From J.H. Booth, Works Manager.

Re Aublet-Harry & Co Ltd. We are arranging to take over certain of their employees on Monday 4th April and they will be governed by the Conditions Of Employment in operation here. I shall be only too pleased to put the whole of the Shops on full-time as soon as we have sufficient work.

11th September 1924

A letter sent to Mr. Booth.

Sir, I am writing to thank you on behalf of the men in the Plate Shop for the kind and generous manner in which you appreciated our efforts during the last week-end. Should ever the occasion demand it, the Management can always rely on us, either individually or collectively, to do our best to serve them. We would like to add that a great amount of our success was due to Mr. Pidcock in organising the starting of the job.

Yours faithfully,


13th September 1924

To P.Trowell, Plate Shop.

Dear Sir, I duly received your letter of the 11th inst, and thank you for the sentiments expressed therein. I am quite convinced that appreciation from both sides and confidence in each other is the solution to many of our difficulties.

Yours faithfully,
J.H. Booth.

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