Following upon the big fire at Wrest Park has now come one of the most devastating fire which Luton has ever experienced. In the early hours of Wednesday morning [September 20th, 1916] one half of the extensive premises of the Davis Gas Stove Co Ltd, known as the Diamond Foundry, was burnt down to the ground.
Buildings on about two acres of ground have been absolutely gutted, stores have been totally destroyed, and the damage will amount to many thousands of pounds, estimated at over £30,000. But fortunately there were no serious injuries.
It was one of the most alarming of outbreaks, attended with great peril to adjoining property on account of the stiff breeze, and the blaze was one of the fiercest which the townspeople have ever witnessed. Altogether it was a scene which will long remain in the memories of the thousands who were awakened from their sleep by the ringing of the alarm bell, the glare in the sky, the throb of the [fire] engine at work, or the crash of falling roofs from time to time.
It is surmised that the fire originated in the gas-testing shop, but there is some doubt about it, for other evidence seems to show that the large stores went first. At any rate it was right in the centre of the great range of buildings on the portion of the site nearest to the town that the fire started.
At about 2.30 am the night watchman on his rounds saw nothing, yet shortly after three it quickly became evident that the fire had got a hold and in a short space of time there was a tremendous blaze.
Then followed a scene of great excitement as many employees rushed to the works. The works brigade members are all connected by automatic bells in their bedrooms, and these were set ringing, as was the big works bell. This sent the alarm round the neighbourhood.
The works brigade rapidly got the hose out, and soon had several jets of water pouring into the furnace. But the fire had quickly got a tremendous hold, and the workmen were almost powerless against it.
The alarm had in the meantime been sent to the Fire Station. Unfortunately a small fire occurred in Lansdowne Road about the same time, and Second Officer Andrew had to send men and the hose reel there. Yet in an incredibly short space of time he and his men had the motor engine outside the Diamond Works.
The buildings mainly consisted of a range of one-storey shops with top lights and corrugated iron roofs, there being a series of roofs over each department. They included woodworking, enamelling, fitting and other workshops. There was a large quantity of enamel on the premises, and this of course helped the flames very considerably.
The Luton Brigade on their arrival saw the immensity of their task at once, for the whole range of buildings immediately at the rear of Clifton Road were a mass of flame, and the strong wind carried the sparks on to the men.
"I have never seen anything like it," said Second Officer Andrew afterwards. "We simply had to fight our way through the sparks."
There was naturally a great crowd of people in the vicinity. A crowd assembling on the Great Northern bridge at the top of Clifton Road had a fine view as the wind drove the flames in the direction of the Dallow Road corner.
Just against the Davis Institute it was impossible for spectators to stand because of the dense smoke and the constant shower of sparks and burning embers. Yet it was here that the Brigade concentrated their energies for the first hour while the works brigade devoted themselves to preventing the spread of the flames to the large buildings abutting on the right-of-way which runs through the works from the offices.
It was evident that but for the great majority of water poured on the Dallow Road end that the houses abutting on the frontage of Clifton Road would have been in great danger of destruction.
Further along Dallow Road large numbers of people took up positions on the bank of the vacant building sites, and in the lurid glare of the fire could be seen big groups of people away up on the hillside under the trees, looking down upon the wonderful spectacle.
It was undoubtedly the biggest blaze that Luton has seen for many a year. The whole range of buildings from the Dallow Road end to the railway bridge seemed to be one seething cauldron, for the machinery and the parts stored in great stacks quickly became red hot, and the large amount of wood in the buildings went like so much tinder.. Many of the roofs fell in, and as they went, one after another, the flames burst upwards, and the wind carried the red hot embers for great distances, flying over Ashburnham Road.
The motor engine was set at the bottom of Grange Road [now St Peter's Road] and was kept hard at it pumping gallons and gallons of water. Hydrants in the streets all round the works and in the works themselves were brought into use.
Between the burning buildings and the houses on the corner was the petrol and benzine store and, with the flames rapidly coming onwards borne by the breeze, it provided the strongest element of danger. This had to be kept from the flames at all costs. It was a terrible fight against odds, but the firemen won and the petrol store was saved.
"By dint of cussed hard work we managed to stop the fire extending to the whole works," said Second Officer Andrew yesterday. "But, as it was, thousands of pounds damage has been done, as you can see. The thing that surprises me is that there is any Diamond Foundry left."
Managing Director Mr H. Newsom Davis later surveyed the wreckage of his factory with his managers. "The stores constitute the most costly loss," he said. "I cannot tell you the damage but, of course, it means thousands and thousands of pounds. It is difficult as yet to know the results of the salvage. The stores are gutted, and the fitting shops are down.
"Yes, we are fully insured. If the wind had been blowing more to the south the fire would certainly have carried the whole works. We were lucky to save a large warehouse in which lie tons and tons of material.
"Several departments with new machinery recently installed have gone. The foundry is not touched, and, in fact, we are casting today. The sheet and metal works are all right, and part of the enamelling works and the box-making department remain.
"Fortunately, the number of men thrown out of work will not be so large, for a good deal of the property is warehouse property, but the women will be affected, probably about 200.
"We are already trying to scheme out to see what we can do to rebuild, and no doubt we can repair some of the machinery. We shall then get things going again."
Mr Davis paid tribute to the fire brigades "who had slaved and strained every effort to stop the fire spreading," and also to a large number of workmen who on Saturday had voluntarily undertaken to give up their leisure and put in full time in clearing-up operations with the hope that it would not be long before production could be resumed. The firm had already ordered new machinery, and there were generous offers of assistance from other local engineering firms.
The Davis Gas Stove Co Ltd, among the pioneers of stoves and appliances for heating by gas, was largely responsible for new development in the Dallow Road area, which had been fields. For some months before the Diamond Foundry began operations in January 1907 there had been extensive development of the 15 acres between Dallow Road and the Great Northern Railway that it occupied.
The old Langley Foundry in Luton had previously done work for the Falkirk-based company from Scotland. The Dallow Road complex was designed to replace the Falkirk and Langley foundries. Two cupolas, used alternately, melted about 70 tons of iron daily, with raw materials delivered to a private railway siding.
[The Luton News: Thursday, September 21st, 1916. The Luton Reporter: Monday, September 25th, 1916]
Slideshow: The Diamond Foundry complex before the blaze. Staff pictured with founders Henry and Charles Davis (front centre, Charles with a walking stick).