My Grandfather: Hero or Villain?

by Northern Life

By Andrew Jefferson

Could an innocent cigarette after a long shift have been behind the destruction of the historic ‘royal’?

Andrew Jefferson explores how his grandad’s seemingly insignificant actions may have transformed the seaside promenade in this small Yorkshire town.

I live in a small seaside town in Yorkshire (which shall remain nameless) and on my daily walk I pass the magnificent theatre and concert hall which I will call the Royal for the sake of anonymity.

It’s as I pass this building I always think of my grandfather Alfred (whom I never actually met) and an incident in his life that is shrouded in mystery.

My family history is mixed. On my mother’s side I can trace the family back over 1,000 years through a line that includes Knights of the Realm, bishops, landowners, great uncles who were cousins of William the Conqueror, cousins who went to Henry VIII’s wedding to Anne Boleyn and much more. (Where did it all go wrong?)

My dad’s side, however, hail from a village a few miles away and I’ve uncovered a history of illegitimacy, unemployment and general fecklessness. Most of the family were bootmakers or cordwainers.

I often wonder which side of the family I take after: my mum’s knights and bishops or my dad’s load of cobblers.

Anyway, Alfred. Alfred was born to a family of shoemakers. He was one of four children.

Back in 1855 his great uncle Robert had taken off to seek his fortune. He boarded a ship in Liverpool and ended up in Michigan.

Alfred was born in 1895 and as soon as he was old enough, he too decided he would take off and seek his fortune in the big wide world. So off he went. And ended up eleven miles away on the coast.

I’ve never been able to find a photograph of Alfred but I’m told he was good looking (runs in the family), intelligent (runs in the family), and articulate (runs in the family). He was unfortunately also mentally unstable, and addicted to alcohol and tobacco. (Definitely not in the family).

He married his sweetheart, Margaret, at a very early age and they settled in a small terraced house near the seafront, a short walk from the Royal.

Sweetheart she may have been, but she was a bit of a tartar, sharp of tongue and, I’m told, not a particularly pleasant woman. She gave Alfred a hard time. She didn’t allow him in the house to smoke. And when you smoke 60 a day that meant he had to spend a lot of time out in the backyard in his own private fumarium, (which doubled as the outside toilet).

Alfred’s instability prevented him from holding down a full-time job. He worked as a cellar man in a local pub, then at a local restaurant as a chef – both jobs kept him near his favoured pub.

Then at last things changed.

Alfie finally got himself a full-time job. Caretaker at the Royal. Could things be looking up? A permanent job – just around the corner from home.

Alas, it didn’t last long. In January 1932 the Royal burnt down.

The fire was spotted at about 5am three hours after the local Agricultural Society had wearily drifted home after their annual dinner/dance and whist drive.

Only three hours earlier “a jostling crowd of merry dancers” had been led by a local dance band.

Mrs Gough could hardly have dreamt it as she slept content in the knowledge that she’d won the women’s whist competition by some margin.

Every unit of the local Fire Brigade turned out – a new motor engine and an old horse-drawn steam pump.

The local paper had a field day.

“£50,000 damage in early morning blaze!”

“Lighted cigarette believed to be the cause”

“Orchestra lose all instruments”

Observers reported that “flames spread with great speed”

And Mr Dunn, who lived nearby spoke somewhat expansively of “tongues of fire hundreds of feet high”.

By 7am the building had been reduced to an “unhealthy mass of twisted ironworks, smoking debris and blackened masonry”.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Royal was rebuilt in record time by local contractor Mr Smallwood who secured the £27,000 contract on the condition that the building would be “ready for dancing” in 54 days.

And so it was.

On Saturday 30th July 1932 in front of what the local paper called a “great crowd of interested spectators” numbering some 2,000 the Royal was declared open again. 10,000 people visited the building in its first week.

So what’s this story really all about? Well, I can’t help thinking that the circumstances are a bit of a toxic mixture.

A building built substantially of wood… a fire caused by a discarded cigarette, a chain-smoking alcoholic caretaker who would probably have been the last person out of the building that night, tired, half-cut, having a last cigarette before going home to his smoke-free wife.

Was Alfred the villain of the piece?

Did my grandfather burn down the Royal?

But here’s the thing.

If the Royal hadn’t burned down in 1932 what would be in its place now? What would I be walking past on my daily walk? A car park? An ugly brutalist communist-style hotel? A monstrous carbuncle (to coin a phrase) of a theatre?

But what we do have is one of the finest theatre/dance hall complexes in the whole country.

And the only reason that magnificent building exists is because someone burned down the Royal in 1932.

So if it was Alfred (and I’ll deny all knowledge should an investigation be launched) maybe he’s the hero, not the villain. Maybe that very building which is treasured by so many is there because of my grandfather.