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Pictures: remembering Gloucestershire’s largest fire

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Time flies, or so it seems, writes Ian Thomas. It is now 40 years since a major fire devastated part of the R.A. Lister factory in Dursley on Wednesday July 27th, 1983.

At the time, Gloucestershire was experiencing the best weather conditions since the summer of 1976 and July 27th saw a high of 26c in very humid air in a stiff north-easterly breeze.

Around 12.30pm, a fire had broken out in the millwright’s department and spread very quickly, the alarm was raised and the Lister works fire service responded immediately. Fortunately for all, it was during the works annual fortnight shutdown and only a skeleton staff were on site.

Lister fire 27 07 83 1 | Pictures: remembering Gloucestershire's largest fire

Assessment of the situation was carried out by Station officer Alec Cross and because the fire was rapidly expanding, the County fire service was summoned. Two appliances from Dursley attended with sub-officer Len Frost in charge, only to be confronted by a worsening situation and further assistance was requested from Stroud and Wotton-under-Edge stations.

Station Officer Keith Martin, who was in the locality, arrived at 1.08pm and immediately requested further pumps and a hydraulic platform appliance for aerial attack as the fire was taking hold of the offices on the floor above. By 1.30pm, flames were up and through the roof with the large timber joists cracking in the intense heat.

Lister fire 27 07 83. Photo Ian Wilkins | Pictures: remembering Gloucestershire's largest fire
Picture: Ian Wilkins.

With the fire still rapidly expanding, the number of appliances at the scene was increased to ten, with assistance from Avon fire service as Gloucestershire was hard pressed to cover the fire ground and send in standby appliances to stations.

Meanwhile, the fire was now travelling northward through the office block taking with it part of the Tool Room and General Machine shop, whilst posing a serious threat to the Sheep Shear department. With the fire now knocked down at the south end, it was decided to redeploy the 85ft hydraulic platform at the sheep shear end and await the arrival of the fire.

With the appliances in position with several jets at the ready, an all-out attack on the fire commenced with some success at controlling this ferocious blaze. Just as this was achieved, Senior Officer Joe Nash, who was now in charge, was horrified to be informed that the churn works (opposite the office block) inexplicably had smoke pouring from the roof. Ten minutes later, the whole churn works building was engulfed in fire and its destruction was both rapid and spectacular.

At 2.28pm, SDO Nash passed the final assistance message to Brigade control-‘MAKE PUMPS 15’, requesting another hydraulic platform or turntable ladder appliance. A few minutes after 3pm, a large explosion rocked the whole area as welding gas cylinders exploded in the heat.

Lister fire 27 07 83. 3 | Pictures: remembering Gloucestershire's largest fire

At 3.10pm, a 100ft turntable ladder appliance arrived from Avonmouth and set to work pumping water onto the churn works building, just as Gloucestershire’s Chief Fire Officer, Mr R.G.Wilson arrived and took command. There were now 22 appliances and 100 firefighters at the scene and a staggering 20 tons of water per minute being pumped onto the fire. The County Ambulance service attended to deal with any injuries. Leading Ambulance Man Bill Greenwood and colleagues  dealt with a number of cuts, some needing hospital treatment. 

From 5.30pm onwards it was possible to downscale the operations and return appliances to their home stations, although a level was kept up throughout the night with further release of appliances on the 28th. Firefighting was eventually handed back to the Lister fire service at 12.14pm on the 29th. 

The fire was the largest in the history of fire fighting in Gloucestershire and refuelling the hungry firemen was dealt with by sending 154 meat pies to the fire ground, along with copious amounts of soft drinks.

Pictures by Ian Wilkins, Hayden Pegler and Ian Thomas.

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