The Bridge Street fire

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Roger Guttridge has personal memories of the fire which destroyed Harding’s newsagent’s shop at Sturminster Newton in 1956

Harding’s in Bridge Street before the fire.
Historic images from Sturminster from Sturminster Newton Through Time, by Roger Guttridge and Steve Case

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of the day that Harding’s newsagent’s shop at Sturminster Newton went up in smoke and flames.
The year was 1956 and I was a six-year-old pupil at Sturminster County Primary School (now the William Barnes School) in Bridge Street.
Harding’s was a little further up Bridge Street, where Retsel House is now, so my mother and I had to walk right past the shop on our way to the school.
I remember picking my way through the mounds of charred beams, thatch and other debris – and the fire brigade hoses strung out across the road.

Harding’s on the morning of the 1956 fire.

The combined stench of fire, smoke and water damage stayed with me into adulthood, and those memories flooded back whenever I attended a fire as a reporter for the Western Gazette or the Bournemouth Evening Echo.
I also remember learning how John Harding heroically carried his sons Christopher, a fellow pupil at my school, and his younger brother Richard, to safety at the height of the fire.
Sadly, Chris and Richard are no longer with us. The picturesque thatched building was replaced by the grey and rather utilitarian Retsel House, which houses businesses to this day, including a pet shop and a barber’s shop.
In my later childhood there was a barber’s on the first floor. While waiting for a haircut, I would advance my education by exploring the revelations of an early girlie magazine called Parade. I don’t think it did me any harm, but others may potentially disagree.

Replacement building Retsel House today

The Hardings were rather unlucky with fires. The family’s previous business, the Bristol Bazaar, was in another thatched building at the corner of Ricketts Lane at the top of Bridge Street and was burned down in 1926, along with the adjoining shop occupied by Mr Pope the shoemaker.
Historically, Sturminster has had several major fires – a notable one 340 years ago in 1681 and another less than 50 years later in 1729 which destroyed 67 houses, ten barns and the Market House.
One of the replacement buildings after 1729 became Barnett’s hardware shop at Market Cross, but this too was completely destroyed in a blaze complicated by exploding paint cans, paraffin and gas cylinders.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A night (and morning after) to remember!
    We were woken to see the fire in the sky as Dad dressed quickly to run down to assist.
    We lived close to the fire-station, and he would have been alerted by the siren and subsequent multiple deployments (was the Merriwether dragged out of retirement?).
    At the age of 9 I was bitterly disappointed at my exclusion from the not-so-rapid response team!
    The following morning I was to discover that my father’s “blue cape” had not been donned in time to avert this disaster.
    As I accompanied my younger brother (6) to “Egg-factory” primary school, as it was then known, before its title was elevated to the Elyssean heights of literary heroism, we encountered the charred guts, ribs, and tonsure of Hardings’
    The road was totally blocked by smouldering thatch, etc..
    Not realising that my little bro was traumatised by the mayhem I blithely crossed the road, leaving him stranded outside Hanks’ as I proceeded on the other side past Lannings’.
    He has never forgiven me for this abandonment, and still cusses me for leaving him in the lurch
    He ain’t heavy…
    Retzel House – Stur’s contribution to brutalist architecture?
    Have you seen Preston bus station (qv).
    As to the “barrier de Reveille” (ok – it doesn’t rhyme with Seville, sensu stricto, but d’you see what I did there?) Brian Lane’s “library” was a valuable cultural and educational resource, as was Tom Gaffey’s before him.
    .

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