Nero’ at town hall beano as Ilford’s Great Fire rages...

A NEWSDESK colleague who came rushing up from the office bumped into us and said Basil had already arrived there – and was in his element. The reporter also said word had been sent to the editor at his dinner in the town hall that Harrison Gibson was bur

A NEWSDESK colleague who came rushing up from the office bumped into us and said Basil had already arrived there - and was in his element.

The reporter also said word had been sent to the editor at his dinner in the town hall that Harrison Gibson was burning.

"Is it?" was the alleged reaction.

Keen to get in on the action, I went to the office about 10 that night.


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Basil had upset the works night-clicker by ordering several pages to be remade to take in stories removed from the front page to make room for the fire coverage.

He was almost gleeful. Firstly, that the fire story had come on the evening before press day, and secondly, the editor was marooned at the town hall do.

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In these computerised times what went on that night would present scant problem.

But 1959 was the heyday of hot metal newspapers and the technicalities involved much more tricky. Basil was emphatic that everything possible was done in those small hours and not left until morning.

Fact is, however, the entire front page had to wait until daylight.

Basil let me stay on, joining in the discussion on the coverage, following an assurance the next day's sport pages would be on time.

My pitch about the front page was that it should be just one full page picture of the fire's aftermath. Bill found an ideal vantage point to get such a shot of the burned out shell. Nifty work saw it back from the block-makers in time.

It's 50 years since the Great Fire of Ilford - that dramatic Tuesday evening when Harrison Gibson's High Road store burned.

There will be many still around now who, like me, watched the inferno from the pavements on the other side of the road, until being moved by firefighters, fearful the intense heat would crack shop windows and shower us with splintered glass.

Tuesday was a late night for the Recorder's sports desk. I'd got home around nine that night and almost at once had an excited call from a friend telling me Harrison Gibson was on fire and it looked a big blaze.

I knew that by chance the editor was virtually on the spot at a dinner in the town hall's Melbourne Room, just across from the fire.

So I phoned group editor Basil Amps at his Chigwell home with the fire news.

Predictably he took control of organising coverage.

Madam insisted we made tracks ourselves, before the fire was out.

Luck was with us, we saw a taxi - a rarity up our way then - and were there in minutes.

With the convoy of fire appliances multiplying it was evident the fire was a big story, if not the biggest ever, for the Recorder.

As the crews battled to contain the flames somebody near us in the crowd declared it was like The Blitz.

This reminded me that Recorder photographer Bill Byers had survived an eventful war as a London firefighter and might find this job all too familiar.

I missed out on seeing that hefty block being slid into the front page for me.

When I got to look, compositor mate Bill Bailey was locking up the former for it to go under the mangle.

"Gives a new meaning to hold the front page, lugging a block this size about," he chuckled.

Admitting my two penn 'orth in it, I asked if Bill thought it came off.

"Tell you tomorrow when the paper's out," he hedged.

Next morning Bill gave me a cheerful thumbs-up across the stone room.

Meanwhile, the editor was enduring the singular experience of having no input at all into how the fire story appeared in his paper.

"Maybe I should keep out of it every week," he said wryly, once indignation had subsided with appreciation of the done job.

He'd been in an invidious situation.

To have quit the town hall beanfeast to check what may have proved nothing much would have smacked of novice ambulance-chasing.

Besides which, he had staff well capable of efficient fort-holding. So he had our sympathy.

But that didn't stop us from referring to him as Nero for a while.

Never a job I hankered after, being editor.

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