Lost Edinburgh: C&A Modes Fire

The C&A Modes fire in November 1955. Picture: TSPL
The C&A Modes fire in November 1955. Picture: TSPL
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PRINCES Street has fallen victim to several big fires over the years, but few as dramatic as the blaze that ripped through C&A Modes in 1955.

The C&A Modes department store fire on Princes Street on the 10th of November 1955 ranks as one of the worst that the city of Edinburgh has ever witnessed.

Incredibly it had only been a matter of hours since another spectacular fire had consumed the CW Carr and Aikman boot and shoe warehouse on nearby Jeffrey Street - the sheer enormity of both blazes and short time span between them testing the local fire service to the limit.

The fire wasn’t the first to afflict this particular address of Princes Street. The previous building on the site housing Renton’s drapery had been devastated in an equally terrible inferno in 1909. Cranston & Elliot drapers and a new hotel were subsequently built on this site.

Dutch fashion retailers C&A began trading in the premises during the 1920s when they converted the former hotel and drapers into a department store. The building had yet to celebrate half a century of existence when disaster struck.

The brave firefighters that arrived on the scene in November 1955 truly had their work cut out as the façade of the grand department store billowed furiously with smoke. The building’s contents, mainly fashion wares, acted as the perfect kindling. Trams and buses continued to roll by in the early morning mayhem as stunned onlookers witnessed the flames gain the upper-hand. The heat generated from the C&A’s fire is reported to have been so intense that the building’s metal window frames buckled as the firemen, perched high on their turn-table ladders, doused them with jets of water from their hoses. No lives were lost but any hopes of salvaging the structure were futile as the flames licked relentlessly from street level to its upper row of windows. The conflagration continued until late in the evening when it was apparent that only a blackened shell remained. A fire sale commenced by the weekend, selling off what little stock had not been consumed in the fire. The scorched mannequins on the ground floor provided a stark reminder that the true cost could have been far greater.

A new C&A’s department store rose from the ashes in 1956, located on the same spot as before. It stood on the city’s main thoroughfare for just as many years as the previous structure managed - albeit with a new frontage added during the early 1980s.

Despite continuing to thrive in Edinburgh, C&A announced its intention to withdraw from the UK market in 2000 and the Princes Street premises closed the following year. The 1956 structure was soon demolished to make way for the glass-fronted H&M store and offices which stand on the site today.

Thankfully, advances in both technology and safety measures since the 1950s, have greatly reduced the frequency of large scale fires such as the one witnessed at C&A Modes. A number of years passed before we learnt that preventing a fire is as imperative as learning how to fight it - sadly this doesn’t extinguish the threat altogether.