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1913 - Semaphore Tower Destroyed by Fire

20th December. Semaphore Tower destroyed by fire. At 7-30pm on the evening of Saturday 21st December 1913, a fishmonger’s delivery boy on leaving the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary moored alongside South Railway Jetty noticed a flickering light at one of the Sail Loft windows. He brought this to the attention of the ship’s quartermaster who realized the situation and raised the alarm. Up above, in the wooden tower, three signalmen were on duty and apparently unaware of the conflagration below. They were pensioner ex-Chief Yeomen Samuel Pook, of Posbrooke Road, Milton, Portsmouth and two ratings, Alfred Stewart and Edward Hayes.

Signals from the Queen Mary warned those of the danger, but only Hayes managed to escape. His comrades were overcome by smoke and perished in the fire. By 9-30 the tower collapsed into the main building and the blaze threatened 30.000 gallons of oil stored in drums and tanks in the vicinity. Only the favourable direction of the wind and gallant efforts of firemen and sailors,1,000 men in all, averted a far greater tragedy. It was 3 am before the fire was brought under control. There was a fourth rating on duty that night and he owed his life to being sent out to get a Football Mail and returning after the fire had taken hold. The cause was given as an electrical fault in the Sail Loft wiring system but this was never fully established.

The old Semaphore Tower was erected on the roof of the Rigging House and Sail Loft buildings in 1833, as the terminal station of the London –Portsmouth Semaphore Line, following the movement of the Admiralty residence from the High Street, Old Portsmouth, into the dockyard. (It had previously been on the roof of the Square Tower in Old Portsmouth.) It continued in this function until 1847 when the line was superseded by the electrical telegraph. From then on the tower became the focal point of the port’s communication until its destruction.

The present tower,opened in 1930, is built of stone as a replica of the original, incorporating the old Lion Gate (1778) from the Portsea fortification. The structure still bear’s the name Semaphore Tower although that particular means of communication has ceased to be practised in the Royal Navy.

*The Sail Loft and Rigging House (1778) were originally two separate buildings. They were joined together by an infilling that formed an archway over the road with the Semaphore Tower on the top. It is generally thought that the bridge across the camber on the east side of the Watering Island was built at this time. Previously the main access to the Watering Island would have been along the south side of No 9 Storehouse and along the Camber Road.

In consequence of this fire a wireless telegraph station was established on Horse Island, which had been purchased by the Admiralty from a Mr. C. B. Smith of Fareham some years before. It was the largest and most powerful in the World and was said to boast it could communicate with ships in anyone of the seven seas.

This account of the Great Fire was complied by Mr Clifford Dredge. He was a Vosper trained Shipwright who spent almost all his working life in the dockyard. For many years, in his spare time, he was a member of the Fire Brigade Band that entertained the spectators at Fratton Park, home of the Portsmouth Football Club. Together with two others, he formed the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Society that later became the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Trust. As with other organisations he had joined he threw himself into it wholeheartedly and much of what we now have is due to his endeavours. He was known in the Dockyard as “Drummer Dredge” and one of those characters that is sadly missed.

1913 - Semaphore Tower Destroyed by Fire