The Robinson’s Coliseum Fire – 1899
Robinson’s Coliseum stood on the site of what is now Debenham’s on Stockton High Street.
It was Stockton’s first ‘department store’ and was opened by Matthias Robinson in 1896 when he expanded his business in West Hartlepool.
The Coliseum building occupied nos 149 and 150 High Street and in December 1899 had recently undergone extensive improvements with the addition of a new arcade development which had been completed just in time for the Christmas season.
Just after midnight on the morning of Sunday 17 December 1899, Inspector McDonald and Sergeant Thompson of the Stockton Police were on duty on the High Street. As they passed the Parish Church they noticed sparks coming from the top of Robinson’s Coliseum as if a chimney was on fire. As they gazed upwards the officers were alarmed to see a sheet of flame shoot from the roof of the building.
Sgt. Thompson was immediately despatched to summon the Fire Brigade from the station in West Row while the inspector rushed to the Police Station on Church Road to raise the alarm. He phoned the fire brigade himself before rousing the policemen of the dayshift who slept on the premises. Within minutes Superintendent Liddell, Inspector McDonald and about 25 constables were on the scene of the fire and forcing their way into the Coliseum building. As they did so a manual pump and ladder under the command of Captain Gray arrived from West Row to tackle the blaze. A good supply of water was available from the hydrants on the High Street but the fire took hold very quickly and the building was soon engulfed in flames. Fuelled as it was with elaborate and expensive furniture, household goods, drapery and clothing, the fire raged with a ferocity intensified by the thousands of combustible novelties on display in the new bazaar and arcade.
The Thornaby Fire Brigade had also been summoned and were on the scene very quickly. Captain Gray, and Captain Tranter of the Thornaby Brigade, made a quick assessment of the situation and decided that the Coliseum was already beyond hope and that all their efforts should be concentrated on saving the adjoining buildings. Within minutes of the alarm being raised it looked like the whole stretch of the High Street from St John’s Road to Bishopton Lane would be lost to the inferno.
To the rear of the Coliseum was the home and painting and decorating business of a Mr Armstrong who lived there with his wife and family. They had fled the building as soon as the alarm was raised, the children having been hurriedly taken from their beds still wrapped in their blankets.
On the south side of the Coliseum stood the vicarage, the home of the Rev. Canon Martin and his family who were also roused from their beds to escape the flames which threatened their home.
Adjoining the Coliseum on the north side was the Chemists shop of Messrs W J Clarke & Son. Above this were storerooms and offices rented by Mr Somerville Woodiwis and the Singer Sewing Machine company. These premises were at the greatest risk and it was here that the fire fighters concentrated their efforts.
As the fire spread to the outbuildings and stables at the rear of the High Street the horses belonging to Mr Robinson and the pony belonging to Mr Clarke were rescued. Terrified by the flames they had to be blindfolded before they could be led from the stables and down a passageway which ran from the back of the buildings to the High Street.
Such was the ferocity of the blaze that within an hour the Coliseum was totally destroyed. Mr Armstrong’s premises, filled as it had been with tins of paint and spirits, was also beyond saving. Mr Clarke’s shop has recently been extended at the rear and this was now burning with such intensity that the lead roofing had melted and ran like liquid.
By running hoses through the front of the chemist shop on one side of the Coliseum and through the vicarage on the other side, the firefighters were getting on top of the conflagration and by 2 am the fire was virtually under control. The contents of Mr Clarke’s extension had certainly added to the intensity of the blaze but the situation would have been a whole lot worse if the flames had reached his cellar which held about three tons of spirits, mostly whisky, and several barrels of oil.
It was at this time that flames were spotted at the rear of the butcher’s shop belonging to Mr L Robinson . Fortunately, Mr Frazer, from the Castle and Anchor Inn on the other side of the road, and a few determined souls managed to stop the fire spreading by dousing it with a few buckets of water. Their early intervention no doubt prevented the blaze spreading to the adjoining properties.
At the height of the blaze the heat was so intense that onlookers on the other side of the road were forced to move away.
By 5 am the fire was virtually extinguished. All that could be seen through the clouds of steam rising from the still smouldering ruins was a mass of twisted iron and charred embers with piles of bricks where sections of walls had collapsed. In total an area of about 200 feet, from the High Street through to the back of East Street, and about 100 feet of the High Street frontage itself had been totally gutted in a matter of hours.
The Coliseum was no more. Armstrong’s Painting and Decorating business was gone, his house, being only accessible via the passage running past the Coliseum,was unable to be saved. From the street Mr Clarke’s Chemist shop appeared to have escaped a lot of the damage but the new extension was totally destroyed and the rooms above the shop were badly damaged. All of the outbuildings associated with the vicarage were destroyed and part of one of the bedrooms at the rear, along with the furnishings, was damaged.
Two houses in East St, to the rear of the High Street, were also destroyed although the occupants. Mrs Jas. Draper and Mr and Mrs Thos. Francis all escaped without injury.
The cause of the fire was never fully established although it was thought to have started in the area of the cafeteria in the Coliseum. The building itself was lit by electricity. What gas there was in the building had been switched off at the mains when the store closed at 10 am on the Saturday evening.
Those who witnessed the fire spoke highly of the conduct of the firemen from both Stockton and Thornaby Brigades and there efforts to combat the blaze. The police were also commended for the way they had assisted the firefighters.
It was calculated at the time the there had been something like £60,000 worth of damage caused. This equates to over £5 million today.
Matthias Robinson was a determined man. Within two weeks of the destruction of the Coliseum he had a large wooden construction built on nearby Wellington Street and he was back in business. The old Coliseum site was cleared and work started on a new and bigger department store.
With almost 50 departments, a restaurant and a cafe , Robinson’s new store opened to the public in May 1901. It was one of the first multi-story steel framed buildings in the country and incorporated the latest technology with the introduction of a pneumatic tube system that moved cash and receipts about the store.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the store was also fitted with an elaborate sprinkler system with the water tank held in the high tower that has dominated the Stockton skyline ever since.
After his death, Matthias’ sons carried on the family business until the early sixties when the store was bought by Debenham’s as part of a multi-million pound take-over. They continued to trade under the Robinson’s name for about ten years before adopting the Debenham’s title