An Eyewitness Account by Alan J Burke © Alan J Burke 1/11/2003
There had been several small fires in the camp during the hot, dry summer of 1973. Rumours were rife as to how they were started. It was the time of the Troubles In Northern Ireland, and not long after the Isle of Man Summerland Leisure Centre fire in August which killed 51 people. Some of the staff and holidaymakers thought these fires were related to the IRA and rumours started to spread. Many staff left as did some visitors. It may seem a bit over the top now but you have to remember the atmosphere in Britain at that time was one of suspicion.
On February 22, 1972, less than a month after Bloody Sunday, seven people were killed and 15 hurt when a bomb exploded at the Parachute Brigade HQ at Aldershot, marking the start of the IRA's bombing campaign in mainland Britain. Then again on March 8, 1973, violence returned when four car bombs were placed in London. Two of these were defused but the other two, including one outside the Old Bailey, exploded, killing one man and injuring 180 others.
The Gaiety Building fire itself occurred during late August (I think). My job at that time was Cellar Chargehand of the Spanish & Blinking Owl bars; I was twenty years old and had been at the camp since the beginning of the summer season in May. The Blinking Owl Bar was in the Gaiety Building and the Spanish Bar was situated between the Gloucester Dining Halls and Coronation Bar Discotheque & lounge above Yellow camp.
Green Line was my normal route back to the Staff Chalets.
Blue marked on Gaiety Green was the Gas Tank.
Red & Yellow is where the fire started.
I think the bar closed around 2.00am so given that we would have to clean up and get the bar ready for the following evening, I would say it would be around 2.30 to 3.am when I left the bar. After a short walk along the deserted road, going towards Gaiety Green, I saw what I thought was a light left on in the Wimpy café, which was part of the Gaiety building. The café was situated on the right of the central covered roadway which went through the centre and gave access to various bars, shops, the theatre, church, the Blinking Owl Bar & South camp.
As I walked across towards the café, I could see a small fire had started in the counter area at the rear. We used to take our tea breaks in the Wimpy Café, so I knew the layout well. The small fire appeared to be coming from the Doughnut Machine (I can only assume the machine must had been left on, and the hot fat eventually ignited.) As the doors were locked I quickly returned to the Spanish Bar and got my Manager to call the Fire Brigade. After a few minutes I returned outside and I couldn't believe my eyes, in those few short minutes, half the café was in flames, glass was exploding and the ceiling was falling in. Some of us went back into the Spanish Bar to get fire extinguishers but they wouldn't work. Many of the extinguishers were under pressurised, they appeared to be very old, and all we could do now was wait for the Fire Brigade.
The Gaiety was a two story building with a glass roof and a central roadway which cut through the bottom half of the building, linking North & South Camps together. As the fire couldn't jump across the roadway it went up into the second story and by the time the Fire Brigade arrived, half the complex was ablaze.
The self catering chalets on Blue Camp, where families were sleeping, unaware of what was happening, were in direct path of the now, rapidly increasing spread of fire.
Between the Gaiety building and the Blue camp chalets lay two potential hazards. A car park of vehicles with their tanks full of petrol, closer still to the fire a large petroleum GAS storage tank only inches from the building itself and right in the path of the fire.
My colleagues and I offered our services to the fire brigade, who where concentrating on spraying water onto the Gas tank to keep it cool. They split us into two groups, one to move the cars away, which consisted of smashing the windows, breaking the steering locks and then pushing the cars down to the far side of the car park away from the GAS storage tank and the other group were to clear the people from the chalets in Blue Camp. The firemen told us to bang on the doors until you get an answer and break them down if you don't, then check all chalets and make sure no one is still inside. I remember banging on one door with no reply, then just as I broke it down a frightened family appeared out of the gloom huddled together, having no idea what was happening. We led the frightened families dressed only in their night attire, up to the Main Reception building where the Redcoats and other staff were supplying blankets and hot drinks and entertaining the kids (and adults). Some of the older people said it was like being back in the shelters during the war. This was going to be their beds for the night.
At this point I thought about my girlfriend, June (now my wife) who had finished her shift on chalet patrol and was asleep in the staff chalets on the other side of blue camp. When I got their, all the staff chalets had been cleared, so I returned to the Main reception where, with some relief I found her. I ventured outside again during the night but the fire had spread with frightening rapidity & before dawn the building was gutted, what was left was a smoking heap of rubble and tangled iron girders.
During the morning everyone was allowed back to their chalets, walking past the rubble was a very depressing sight. The heart had been ripped out of North camp.
During the following day a lot of holidaymakers left for different reasons. Some were convinced this was the work of terrorists, some through choice and in the days that followed many more followed. There was a small exodus of staff, some were visibly shocked and scared, others went because they had lost their workplace.
Later during the day I went with my supervisor to find the safe from the Blinking Owl Bar in the rubble. I remember when it was opened, inside was a pile of ash containing the metal strips from the notes, which we carefully swept into a plastic bag and a bent and buckled cash box. The lid was off and the contents were welded into a semi molten blob of coins. We then took the contents up to the Cashiers Dept.
I also remember seeing someone from the Theatre pushing a costumes basket away, they had risked life and limb during the fire to go into the building to rescue the costumes, I thought of the phrase (the show must go on) but then I thought what a fool.
I also discovered the Crucifix from the church in a hedge bottom, how it got there, I don't know, but I picked it up and placed it in a doorway for someone to find later.
Life in the camp pretty much returned to normal over the next few weeks, much of the entertainment from the Gaiety Building was moved to other buildings, and we were coming to the end of the season, many holidaymakers had cancelled so it was much quieter. But for those that came there was no escaping the huge open space where once had stood the fabulous Gaiety Building.
I can recall only one injury, some one had been hit by falling glass but there were no deaths as far as I know. It was with good fortune that this fire occurred during the night when most were asleep in their beds. If this had occurred during the day I am sure by what I saw and experienced that night, this story would have an altogether more sinister ending.
Thanks to Ron Stanway for supplying this photo which shows Ron Stanway, Darkie Roberts - Camp Maintenance Manager, 'Rocky Mason' - Entertainment Manager, Bob Thompson - Asst. General Manager, the Foreman Contractor and Leonard Watkins - Camp General Manager, who are all toasting the health of the new building during the closed season after the fire.