THE son of a former policeman who dealt with the aftermath of the Booth’s blaze believes a boiler may have sparked the tragedy which claimed 49 lives.
Don Ayling says his father was convinced that a boiler exploding was the cause of the fire.
He also revealed that his father tended the makeshift mortuary after the fire and was left ‘a broken man’ by the terrible sights he saw.
H Booth and Son’s clothing factory on John William Street in Huddersfield town centre was destroyed by the inferno on October 31, 1941.
At the time it was a prominent five-storey converted warehouse that stood back-to-back with the Empire Cinema.
Mr Ayling, 86, of Salendine Nook said his father, Pc Jack Ayling, spent several days working in the damp and cold in the mortuary at a building in the Triangle area of Paddock.
He said his family was convinced that it damaged his health.
“He left the police service two years later and was an old man by the time he was 50,’’ said Mr Ayling. “He died when he was just 53.’’
And Mr Ayling, who joined the fire service in 1953, said he knew firefighters who were at the Booth’s blaze and some of them were convinced the fire had been caused by a boiler exploding in the basement and not by a pipe smouldering in a jacket pocket which was the version accepted at the inquest.
“A pipe in a jacket would not cause the building to go up as it did,’’ said Mr Ayling.
Local historian Richard Heath who has studied the fire in great detail has considered the boiler theory and was aware of rumours about it before.
But he said the widespread belief of the cause – backed up by the inquest – was that the fire was sparked by floor manager William Rhodes Senior failing to dock his pipe before popping it in his tweed coat. The pipe is thought to have smouldered and then the flames quickly spread up through the building, trapping dozens upstairs.
But survivors did report hearing an explosion as they fled.
Richard said: “The explosion happened after the fire had already started.’’
He said he could not rule out that it was the boiler exploding in the searing heat as the fire took hold.
But he added: “It was widely accepted at the inquest that the fire was as a result of the pipe left in the pocket although William Rhodes Senior, who lived on Long Lane in Dalton, always insisted he had put it out properly.’’
And he revealed there had been another incident when the same man had failed to dock his pipe properly but that time the fire was confined to the jacket.
Meanwhile, Margaret Casson still has vivid memories of the fire. She was only 14, fresh out of school and looking for work in Huddersfield.
Now 87, she said: “I remember the day of the fire well. I remember dropping everything I was doing and heading straight up to the factory.
“When I arrived at the fire you couldn’t get anywhere near to it. The police weren’t allowing any members of the public near the blaze.
“I knew several people who worked at the factory at the time because I had worked there myself for a brief time.”
After the blaze broke out the flames spread and dozens of workers were trapped on the upper floors with no fire escape.
Mrs Casson recalls how the factory was unprepared for a fire. She said: “They were jumping out of the windows of the factory, trying to escape the flames.
“The factory had no fire escapes and people really didn’t have a chance of escaping. The stairs were wooden so they caught on fire.”
She added: “I was very lucky at the time because I could have been working on the day of the fire.
“I was offered a day of work on the factories machines but had to turn it down because I had to go to the dentist.
“I didn’t think about it at the time but now looking back I realise how lucky I was. I could have been in that fire.”