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The Rushden Echo 19th July 1901
Disastrous Fire at Rushden

before the fire
The factory and properties and shops opposite before the fire

after the fire
High Street scene after the fire


The most serious fire which has ever broken out in Rushden occurred this afternoon about 1.30, at the factory of Messrs. John Cave and Sons, Limited, which is the largest shoe factory in the district.  At the present time of writing it is difficult to ascertain the cause of the outbreak or to give any definite particulars, but at 1.45 the whole of the rear portion of Messrs. Cave’s factory was in flames, the heat being so intense that even at a distance it was almost unbearable.  Crowds of people speedily rushed on to the scene, and several thousand persons had soon assembled.

One of Messrs. Cave’s employees who lives in Alfred-street had his attention first attracted to the fire by the heat within his house.  As showing the fearful speed with which the fire spread, he said no thought was further from anyone’s mind when he left off work than that a fire was imminent, but he had only just swallowed a bit of dinner when the heat became so unbearable that it was impossible to stop in the house. Shortly afterwards it was found that practically the whole of the factory was in flames and there appeared no possibility of the calamitous outbreak being stopped.  The flames rose to an enormous height.

The occupants of the Rose and Crown Inn removed many of their valuables.  From the shops in front of Messrs. Caves’ factory articles of value were removed. The London, City and Midland Bank occupy premises under the front of the factory, and the ledgers, money etc., had to be removed to a place of safety. The same remark applies to many other residents in the neighbourhood.

Firemen fighting the blaze at the front of the factory in the High Street
Firemen fighting the blaze
In Mr. Tomlinson’s yard the heat was so terrific that it was impossible to remain there.  In Alfred-street a hydrant was used but the crowd had to keep towards the south end of the street in consequence of the heat.  The firemen were speedily on the spot but unfortunately there was very little water available.  They brought the long ladders of the brigade and by them effected an entrance to the upper floors of the factory, Mr. Arthur Cave being one of those to enter. Large quantities of boots and shoes were thrown from the upper storeys into the High-street below. Hundreds of people will be thrown out of work, and the greatest suffering in the town is inevitable.  In every direction could be seen women and children crying, and there is something like a panic in the town.

The Alfred-street schools caught fire at 2 o’clock. All the China, &c., from Messrs. Edwards’ shop has been removed. The roofs of the shops on the opposite side of High-street are being watered so as to prevent possible danger in that direction.

At the time of writing it is impossible to say how far the flames will spread, and the greatest fears are expressed that half High-street may be destroyed.

Shortly after two o’clock – by which time apparently every inhabitant in the town had assembled – the flames were seen coming out of the upper storeys at the front so that by this time there was absolutely no hope of saving any part of the factory. The shops underneath, it seems, cannot possibly be saved. Mr. G. Wilmott, who has a small shop opposite the Rose and Crown on the other side of the High-street is removing all his goods from the small shop. Carts, etc., lent by Messrs. Tailby & Putnam, and other tradesmen are being used for the removal of the boots rescued from the factory, and they are being stored in the grounds adjoining the Cottage, the residence of Mr. John Cave the originator of the firm.

At 2.15 the High-street premises including the six shops were one mass of flames, the heat being so intense that women began to faint, and even as far as the bottom of Queen-street the heat was scorching. The flames rose to a height of from 50 to 80 feet. Inspector Onan and the other members of the police force are most energetic in keeping order and in superintending the arrangements for coping with the outbreak, and the greatest credit is due to the members of the Fire Brigade and others for the brave and plucky way in which they are working.

At 2.20 the shops of Messrs. Everingham and King, drapers, and Mr. Desborough, confectioner, on the opposite side of the High-street had caught fire, owing to the heat of the flames on the other side of the road. Up to the present we cannot find out the cause of the outbreak, but it is said that the flames might probably have started in the sewing-room. It was in the dinner hour that the fire broke out.

At 2.25 a most pathetic scene was witnessed, Mr. Paul Cave, in a thoroughly broken down condition, having to be led away by Mr. Karu. Messrs. Cave’s factory was rebuilt a few years ago, at a cost of from £7,000 or £8,000, and the machinery would cost about a like sum. The total damage cannot be less than £70,000 or £80,000. It is fortunate that the new Co-operative Wholesale factory is nearly ready, as work can be found there for large numbers of people.

At 2.30 it was feared Mr. George Denton’s factory would catch fire, and the brigade played upon the buildings.

At 2.40 Messrs. Everingham and King’s shop was almost gutted. Succoth Chapel is endangered. Mr. Cartwright’s shop is on fire. The leather goods, &c., from Messrs. Cunnington’s and George Denton’s factory are being removed. Portland-road is strewed with household goods. Goods are being stored in the Rectory grounds, the Public-hall, and Messrs. Morris’ grounds. The goods from the Union Bank are being removed.

At 2.43 Succoth Chapel caught fire and is now burning furiously. There is no hope of saving the Alfred-street schools. A house in Duck-street is on fire. Wellingborough Fire Brigade have arrived here. Two or three cottages in Drawbridge yard, at the back of Mr. Desborough’s are on fire.

At 2.45 the shops occupied by Mr. Arthur Smith, barber, and Mr. Chapman, boot dealer, had caught alight, and the whole of the houses at the rear were in imminent danger.  The inhabitants are busily engaged in removing their goods. Scarcely any water is available.

At 3.15 the Higham Ferrers Brigade had arrived. The Alfred-street Infants School was completely gutted, and from the other schools all the books, &c., were removed into the playground. A sensible precaution was taken by chopping away the roof between the girls’ school and the boys’ school.  The teaching staff, with Mr. Mantle and other members of the School Board were working hard. The inhabitants of Duck-street at 3.15 began to take precautionary measures. Mr. Seckington and Mr. H. Staniland were the first firemen on the scene of the fire.

At 3.30 strenuous efforts were being made to save the premises of Mr. G. Wilmott, fruiterer, on the Succoth side of High-street. The Irthlingborough fire brigade have arrived. All the factories are closed. Mr. Woods’ house adjoining the Alfred-street schools is on fire. The walls of Messrs. Cave’s factory abutting on Alfred-street have fallen in. During the whole afternoon the heat of the sun was terrific, everything being in a most inflammable condition. The Restaurant and the Rose and Crown Inn have escaped serious injury almost miraculously. 

The front of Mr. Cartwright’s shop collapsed at about 3.55.  At this time the interior of Mr. Wilmott’s smaller shop was burning furiously.

The mechanics & engineers shop The engine room South end and interior of engine house Interior taken from Alfred Street North West Corner from College and Alfred Streets
Interior & Exterior of the Factory after the fire

More pictures that came to us in 2012, the one below showing the factory before demolition began.
Showing the shop fronts view to the church
before demolition began crowd looking on

dust settled
As the dust settled.....

the next day
Checking the next day
Back of Cave's in Alfred Street
Back of the factory from Alfred Street

< The two pictures that came to us in 2018 >
still burning
Rose & Crown end of the facade
NW corner chimney brickwork
North West corner - College/Alfred Street
and detail of the brickwork

William E Sargent, partner in the shoe
factory of W Sargent & Co. took these
pictures of Cave's Fire 1901

The ladies outside the school in the picture below.
The rear entry from Alfred Street into the factory
Alfred street looking to College Street ...
... and looking towards Church Street
High Street looking towards the Church ....
.... and down to the Rose & Crown

Cave's 1901 Fire – was reported in the Daily Chronicle and the Times on 20th July 1901, also the Morning Leader, The Morning Post, and the Daily Mail.

The Daily Chronicle on 20th July 1901 gave the most detailed account as follows:

A terrible fire broke out yesterday at Rushden, one of the most thriving and increasing towns in Northamptonshire. In about four hours a large Army boot manufactory, more than a dozen shops, a bank, the Board Schools and other property were destroyed. The damage is roughly estimated at £100,000 – probably it will be more.

The outbreak occurred in the modern shoe manufactory of Messrs. Cave and Sons Limited, one of the largest Army boot contractors in the country. The fire was discovered during the dinner hour, when the factory was empty. Rapidly it spread to all parts of the building. The members of the Rushden Fire Brigade were quickly on the spot, but their efforts were impotent, on account of the scarcity of water. Nothing could be done to save the factory and in half an hour the fire spread to the adjoining premises. Brigades from all parts of Northamptonshire were telephoned for and three were soon on the way, but the brigades at Northampton and Kettering, learning that was no water, declined, it is said, to proceed.

Meanwhile the inhabitants of Rushden did their best. Buildings were broken down with the object of delaying the spread of the conflagration, but for some time absolutely without effect. Hundreds of persons were employed in removing furniture and goods from buildings in the vicinity of the fire, all other work in the town being completely at a standstill. Every shoe factory ceased running and tradesmen shut up their shops. The worst fears were realised. One building after another fell a prey to the flames.

Flames spread across the road.

The first structure to ignite after Messrs. Cave’s factory was the branch of the London City and Midland Bank, which adjoined, and fronted the High-street. Messrs. Edwards’s china warehouse was the next. The flames then crossed the road, and within an hour and a half of the discovery of the fire both sides of the chief thoroughfare were like furnaces, the flames being aided by a fresh breeze. Higham Ferrers, Irthlingborough and Wellingborough Fire Brigades, which had arrived, seconded the efforts of Rushden brigade in battling with the fire, but it was not until half past four that any material check was accomplished. Another hour sufficed to so master the fire as to prevent its further spreading, but the flames continued to feed on the devastated buildings throughout the night.

In less than four hours the fire destroyed:

Messrs. Cave and Son’s magnificent factory of five storeys in height, and its valuable machinery and workmen’s tools.

1901 fire Everingham & King's
Ruins of Everingham and King's drapery and William Desborough's shop
Photo and caption from the C W Desborough collection in 2022

The devastation
A Policeman standing guard
The Board Schools, with the master’s house.
The London City and Midland branch Bank.

Mr. Litchfield’s furniture warehouse.

The drapery shop of Messrs. Evingham and King.

Mr William Timpson’s boot shop.

Messrs. Edwards’s china warehouse.

Mr. Desborough’s fruiterer’s shop.

Mr. Chapman’s boot shop.

Mr. Smith’s hairdressing establishment.

Mr. Cartwright’s general stores.

Messrs. Thomas and Potter’s furniture warehouse.

The Rushden Court Estate Offices.

Messrs. Moody’s tailor’s shop.

An empty shop, and

A dozen or more private residences.

Very little of the contents of most of the shops was saved. In addition the Succoth Baptist Chapel and a score of shops and houses were more or less damaged. A great deal of furniture was necessarily broken in its removal.

Inefficient Water Supply

Twenty years ago Rushden was a small village, but it has grown with remarkable rapidity owing to several successful shoe manufacturers establishing factories there. The growth in population has been so phenomenal that it has been impossible for the local authorities to keep pace with the increase. The water supply at present is only that of an overgrown village. The brigades, in consequence, were all but powerless. The intense heat emitted by the immense body of flame was another great impediment to effective work, it being impossible, except by entering adjacent houses, to approach within measurable distance of the flames.

Last evening many of the inhabitants took back their furniture, fears of the further spreading of the fire being allayed. Much, however, had to remain in the open for the night. About 500 work people of whom 400 are employed by Messrs. Cave, have been thrown out of employment, and some thirty tradesmen will be prevented from continuing their businesses until they can make fresh arrangements, which of necessity will be difficult, for Rushden has always suffered from an inadequacy of houses and business premises. Probably 200 people are rendered homeless. It is proposed to open a relief fund for the poorer sufferers. Nearly all the property and most of the contents are, fortunately, insured.

We are asked to state, as far as the London City and Midland Bank is concerned, that all the books, cash, and securities were saved.

Another account taken from The Boot and Shoe Trades Journal adds a few more details:
The Boot and Shoe Trades Journal p.95, Julv 26, 1901.

(one page only - incomplete)
Litchfield, second-hand furniture stores; Messrs. Thomas and Potter (Northampton), upholsterers and cabinet makers; Mr. Wm. Timpson (Kettering), boot shop; City and Midland Bank; vacant shop; Rushden Court Estate office; Messrs. Edwards and Son's china warehouse; Desborough, fruiterer; Everingham and King, drapers; Cartwright, general stores; Chapman, boot shop; Smith, hairdresser; Willmott's, greengrocer (only partly).

How the outbreak originated is a mystery, and must, we are afraid, remain so. Messrs. Cave were not fully insured, though nearly so. Most of the shopkeepers were only partially insured, and, as may be expected, the little cottage occupiers are heavy losers by the way in which their furniture has been totally or partially destroyed. An attempt to put into practical form the sympathy displayed was made on Saturday and Sunday by the handing round of collecting boxes amongst the crowds of visitors, and by means of these a good sum was realised, but some more organised relief fund will doubtless take the matter seriously in hand at once. A county relief fund has been suggested, and, no doubt, it would be heartily taken up, but there will also be a more purely local effort. During Saturday morning the employees of Messrs. Cave met at The Cottage, and arrangements were set on foot for meeting the more immediate necessities of the greatest sufferers. It was then decided that the committee of the Sick Benefit Fund in connection with the firm should take in hand this form of relief. Messrs. Cave are deeply distressed at the awful havoc made by the fire. As Mr. Paul Cave said, "Our loss is great, but it means more to these poor fellows, and they deserve all the help that can be given them." The number of employees affected is 900—700 indoors and about 200 outdoors. Messrs. Cave and Sons are insured in the Caledonian Insurance Society, and estimate their damage at £100,000. In addition to this there are the shops burnt down and the cottages and Board Schools, bringing the total to about £120,000. At Messrs. B. Denton and Son's, which was saved, the damage by water, etc., is estimated at between £400 and £500. With regard to the future, nothing is yet settled as to Messrs. Cave's plans. As Mr. Paul Cave said, "It means beginning all afresh. Practically everything has gone—all patterns, all lasts." The firm hope to complete their contracts. Only last week they had a contract for 30,000 pairs of boots, and there are 80,000 more on order. With the August Bank Holiday and the Feast approaching, the prospects of the employees are not bright, and it is hoped some steps will be taken whereby they can be given at any rate partial employment. The safe, which contained the wages, amounting to about £800, which were to have been paid to the men on Friday evening, has been located, and is apparently little the worse for the fire. The safe fell upon the door side, and has been partially covered with debris, but, so far as the inspection has been carried out, the contents are intact.

Messrs. Wilkins and Denton ask us to state that, although their factory has been damaged by smoke and water, and some inconvenience caused by the removal of goods, no material delay will ensue in the execution of their orders.

Messrs. J. Cave and Sons, Ltd., have sent out a circular saying, on account of the disastrous fire on Friday last, when all their books, papers, etc., were destroyed, they will be greatly obliged if all interested will kindly furnish them with a full copy of their ledger accounts with them since January 1 this year, in order that their books may be written up.

We understand that a relief fund for those thrown out of work in connection with the above fire has been started, and below is a list of the donations already received:—The Bishop of Peterborough, £5; Rushden Conservative Club, £42; Mrs. Sartoris, Rushden, £10; Miss Sartoris, Rushden, £5; Mr. George Denton, Rushden, £25; Mr. J. Gane, Rushden, £5.

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