ONE hundred and thirty years ago this week one of the greatest fires that has ever struck St Helens occurred at Pilkington's glassworks.

The St Helens Examiner dubbed the inferno a "vast conflagration", declaring, "never in its history was St Helens the scene of such a brilliant illumination."

Arson was suspected and as efforts were made to extinguish the blaze, a huge crowd cheered the spreading flames. "Let it burn the _____ lot down" became the cry of the mob.

The seat of the fire was not the Watson Street glass-making factory but its extensive sheds.

These stored around 500 tons of straw, which Pilks needed to pack glass and the sheds extended from Watson Street to the banks of the canal.

The blaze had begun shortly after 10.30pm on September 9th 1893 when 7-year-old Henry Shepherd dashed into his father's Watson Street cottage, crying: "Father, there's someone running up the yard."

His dad James Shepherd was the watchman for Todd Brothers' nearby iron works and going to his door he saw one of Pilkington's straw stacks ablaze.

The 41-year-old tried unsuccessfully to put the fire out with his hands and then informed the watchman at Pilkington's who raised the alarm.

Pilks had its own works fire brigade and that was soon on the scene with its manually operated water pump.

But St Helens Corporation had embraced more modern methods of fire fighting and owned a steam fire engine called a steamer.

The Corporation's more powerful appliance soon arrived and the firemen quickly decided that the sheds could not be saved and all they could do was try and contain the blaze.

There was concern that Beckett's timber yard on the other side of the canal could catch fire and it might then spread to nearby cottages.

The St Helens Newspaper wrote: "The heat was terrific, and this will be realised, when we state that even at eleven o’clock, before the fire was at its height, and when the horses took the steamer to this point [near the timber yard], their hair was singed, while the steamer was blistered all along the side which was exposed to the heat."

St Helens Star: An extract from the St Helens ExaminerAn extract from the St Helens Examiner (Image: St Helens Examiner)

For over two hours volunteers assisted the firemen by passing buckets of water along a line to soak the timber yard and prevent the fire spreading.

The brilliant illumination in the normally dark St Helens attracted thousands to the scene.

"In many parts of the town it was possible to read a newspaper in the street," commented the Newspaper.

What was described as a "sea of faces" assembled on the canal bank and the crowd cheered each time the fire spread.

Some persons obstructed the firemen and one of their hosepipes was cut and the steamer's suction pipe was pulled out of the water.

The police were attacked and what the Newspaper called a "desperate struggle" took place to prevent officers from being dumped into the deep and dangerous canal. When police reinforcements arrived they were stoned with some receiving facial injuries.

Robert Edwards from Napier Street was assisting the police and for his efforts was struck by a brick that knocked him unconscious into the canal. People shouted for the glass works to be set on fire and one man called for "the whole of the _________ town to be burned down".

The firemen's hosepipes poured water onto the blaze for twelve hours before they were satisfied the fire was out. Then came the reckoning!

On September 15 two miners called William Martindale and Richard Mills were sent to prison for two months with hard labour.

They appeared to have been the unlucky ones, having been identified on the night and arrested later.

No one seems to have charged with arson but coal miners were then in the middle of a bitter strike and some extremists among them were thought likely to have started the fire.

Stephen Wainwright's new book 'The Hidden History Of St Helens Volume 3' is available from the St Helens Book Stop in Bridge Street and online with free delivery from eBay and Amazon.