Man at Work

JAMES WILKES LTD

by Reg Aston

Man at Work

6.  The Great Fire and Rebuilding

As the company had expanded there had been expansion of the original premises.  There was a new extension to the works in 1936 and another in 1939.  After the war there were works extensions in 1953 and 1956.  

New Building

The new building of 1953

In 1957 there was an extension to one side of the offices and in 1958 another extension to the other side. 

Multimatic Extension

The Multimatic Engineers extension, 1958.  Multimatic Engineers were a division of Wilkes which designed and manufactured equipment for sale.  They were later relocated to Parkfield Road.

 In 1960 there was a big, three bay, extension on the north east side; a new boiler house in 1960; and the rebuilding of the canteen in 1962.

In 1964 yet another extension was under way.  But that year, as I was walking to work down Oxford Street with Derek Hipwell, we were stopped in our tracks by a girl off the shop floor coming the other way, who gave us the news that during the previous night the entire factory had burnt down overnight. We flagged down colleague, Bill Cowling, who was passing in his motor and sped down Oxford Street. What a sight: fire engines everywhere, hoses, smoke, water and shocked workers hanging around in groups talking. It was indeed a serious fire.

Fire Damage

Fire damage.  This photo was taken on the 7th April 1964, when tidying up had already started, but the extent of the devastation can still be seen.

The fire was started by an electrical fault in the baling department sometime during the evening shift. Much at the rear of the factory, including the paper warehouse, was destroyed. However the offices, and the front and original part of the factory, survived. This was fortunate as this part of the factory was spanned by a wooden Belfast roof. If the fire had reached this who knows what would have happened. I will never forget the spirit generated by the workforce, staff, shop floor, men and women. All combined to clear the debris and to achieve a miracle: the resumption of production in just about a week. It really is true, give us British a crisis and we will soon get it sorted.

Rebuilding Underway

The rebuilding under way

The rebuilding work started almost right away and proceeded very quickly.  It was just about complete by the end of that year.

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