Dramatic photos show the day the army battled great fire of Constitution Street in 1978

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AS the east coast suffered one of its worst winters on record, heat was in short supply at Leith seeds warehouse Lawson Donaldson in early 1978.

Indeed, with blizzards having practically ground the Capital to a halt, the workers could be forgiven for wishing an end to the sub-zero temperatures.

Eric Clelland's photographs provide a unique colour record of the 1978 blaze.

Eric Clelland's photographs provide a unique colour record of the 1978 blaze.

But at midday on January 10, they got a little more than they bargained for when their warehouse at 135 Constitution Street burst into flames.

So dramatic was the ensuing inferno, it was something of a minor miracle that the firm’s 40 employees – two of whom were rescued from the blaze through a top floor window – managed to escape without injury.

The building, which straddled Constitution Street and Wellington Place, was not so fortunate. Within a matter of hours, the fire had inflicted more than £1.5 million worth of damage – just shy of £9m in today’s money.

As the blaze broke out and began to spread, so too would an acute sense of panic among those in the building – the country’s firefighters were several weeks into a UK-wide strike over pay.

The fire caused millions of pounds worth of damage.

The fire caused millions of pounds worth of damage.

Hundreds of nearby homes and offices had to be evacuated as the fire took hold.

In the absence of Lothian and Borders’ finest – who were attending a strike rally at the old ABC cinema on Lothian Road – the army with their “Green Goddess” engines raced to the scene through the icy slush.

Ex-soldier Hank Harp, then a 17-year-old new recruit from Tidworth Barracks, was one of the first to arrive at the stricken warehouse.

He was placed on hose duty and immediately asked to set up a pump and stand pipe. Over the next three hours, a large crowd gathered on nearby Leith Links to watch Hank and his fellow soldiers battle the intense heat.

Lawson Donaldson's warehouse was torn down after the fire.

Lawson Donaldson's warehouse was torn down after the fire.

“We were young kids, we did all the messy work – the wet work,” Hank, now 58, explains.

“It was pretty darn big, but being a soldier at the time, you got told to jump and you asked ‘how high?’. It was automatic.”

Last November, Mr Harp, who hails from Crewekern, Somerset, made a pilgrimage back to Constitution Street for the first time since the fire.

He recalls being given a daily gift from the owners of the whisky bond, which stood adjacent to Lawson Donaldson.

The firemen's strike came during one of the coldest winters in years.

The firemen's strike came during one of the coldest winters in years.

“We were called back each night to douse the wall between the whisky building and the warehouse,” says Hank, “Because of this, the whisky guys sent us a crate of whisky every night.”

A handful of firefighters eventually arrived on the scene to aid the army, adhering to the strict code to attend fires which posed danger to life.

Memories of the blaze remain strong for Iain Carvel. He had been working on the top floor at Lawson Donaldson at the time and narrowly managed to escape with a colleague.

“The fire started in the loading bay due to a faulty forklift truck charger, according to the insurance people afterwards,” recalls Mr Carvel, 64.

“I smelt smoke, so went out into the main building and could see the whole ceiling ablaze. My colleague and I opened the window and called out to people in the front street.

“The ground floor went up in about 20 minutes and we were trapped 50ft up.”

Iain Carvel and his colleague were rescued from an upper floor window.

Iain Carvel and his colleague were rescued from an upper floor window.

The building next door to Lawson Donaldson’s was occupied by camping and outdoor gear specialists Graham Tiso, whose employees tried to assist the pair.

“Tiso had ropes but they couldn’t get them to us because the gap was too big. Eventually, the Green Goddesses got their ladders up to us – but only just. If the building had been two or three feet higher, they wouldn’t have reached.”

The army’s senior fire fighting officer, Major John Williams, was recorded stating that there had been several explosions heard since the start of the fire.

Iain Carvel confirms: “One of the things Lawson Donaldson had stored in their warehouse was sodium chlorate – an accelerant.”

The fire was seen as far afield as Fife. However, it escaped the attentions of Iain’s parents in Northfield.

“My parents didn’t even know about it till I got home,” laughs Iain. “There were no mobile phones back then to pass the news around or anything.

“I’ve worked in health and safety for many years and I’ve always been concerned about fires for many years because of that blaze.”

One member of the public watching the chaos unfold that afternoon was Leith local Eric Clelland. He had a camera with him and captured a handful of evocative images.

“I was fortunate enough to get some decent shots at the height of the blaze,” Eric explained, “These days, I suspect that I wouldn’t have been allowed as close as I was then.

“The photos have remained at the bottom of a box of family photos for the last 40 years.”

Lawson Donaldson’s charred remains were later razed and replaced by flats and a sheltered housing complex. A narrow section of the old warehouse, adjoined to the former Graham Tiso premises, still stands as a reminder of the 1978 inferno.

Mr Hank Harp, who battled the blaze with the army.

Mr Hank Harp, who battled the blaze with the army.

Iain Carvel was working on the top floor of the building when the fire broke out.

Iain Carvel was working on the top floor of the building when the fire broke out.

The fire started due to a faulty forklift truck charger.

The fire started due to a faulty forklift truck charger.