Portsmouth Theatre Royal – Major Fire

Personal Stories


by Terry Swetnam

On Saturday 28th October 1972,1 had paraded for Afternoon Duty (2.p.m.-10 p.m.) at Central Police Station, Portsmouth. After parade I started to walk from the Station towards my beat which was in the Southsea area.

After a little while I was walking along the Terraces – Landport, Hampshire etc. the location of the majority of the solicitors and insurance offices in the Portsmouth area. Who knows what thoughts were going through my mind, at that time? Possibly, what sort of day would it be? I think that Pompey football club were away from home, but the Palmerston Road area would be very busy with shoppers. At this time of the year the sea front would be deserted.

However I was soon brought back to reality, when a member of the public stopped me, and asked what was that large cloud of smoke, behind me. Looking round I did indeed see a very large cloud of thick black smoke. Obviously this was no early ‘Guy Fawkes” celebration getting off to an early start. Neither was it a back garden bon fire, as most of that area was covered by commercial properties.

I immediately used my radio and contacted the Portsea Island Police Control Centre. My radio message and numerous “999” telephone calls, were the beginning of a major outbreak of fire, the worst that Portsmouth had witnessed for four years. The site of the fire was the Theatre Royal, and at the height of the fire, the blaze destroyed half of the theatre and threatened to spread to the adjoining buildings.

On one side of the theatre was the ‘White Swan” public house (known to members of the force as ‘The Mucky Duck), and on the other side was the Prudential Insurance buildings. Later investigation would prove that boys playing with fireworks had set fire to the theatre.

Needless to say all hell broke out and every available police officer (myself included) was sent to the scene, mainly to control the traffic and the members of the public, who had come to watch this spectacle. By now the fire was raging over half the building, with the rear section well alight. The theatre itself had lain empty for years, so there was no danger of persons being trapped inside. The fire fighting operation involved using 12 pumps- the entire City Fire Brigade, together with nearly 40 Hampshire men, before the fire was brought under control.

Although it was never stated publicly, when the Hampshire Fire contingent arrived, their hose connections did not fit those of the Portsmouth Fire Brigade stand pipes etc., or so the rumours would have it. The Fire Brigade in Portsmouth, unlike the Police force which had amalgamated on 1st April 967, did not follow suit until 1st April 1974. This was one of the worst blazes that I can remember since World War 2.

A “Ghostly” Postscript.

Sometime after this fire and once the building had been made secure, the premises were to be patrolled by “Firm Guard” an organisation run by my friend, Colin Nixon, with his team of men with their Alsatian dogs. As I had helped Colin to train these dogs, I knew them well. Colin’s own dog was a ”brute” and was, as I thought not scared of anybody, or anything. But I was to be proved wrong. One evening, when Colin himself and his dog were patrolling the now derelict theatre, I was invited to take a look round. All was well until, when in the upper circle, we went to enter one of the boxes, on the left hand side of the theatre, facing the stage. Suddenly Colin’s dog, no only refused to enter the box, but backed away, with his hackles bristling.

Only sometime later, when the theatre re-opened, but without any back stage, did I discover from members of the staff, that the Theatre Royal boasted of at least two GHOSTS, one of which was said to frequent the box on the left hand side of the theatre, leading from the upper circle.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions on this mailer.