Brentwood Throwback Thursday: A fire rages at Wilson's Corner

The fire raged at Wilson's Corner in September 1909.

The fire raged at Wilson's Corner in September 1909. - Credit: Brentwood Museum

Our Brentwood history columnist, author and vice-president of the Brentwood Writer’s Circle, Sylvia Kent tells us about a raging fire that destroyed a Victorian department store.

One of Brentwood’s busiest landmarks must surely be Wilson's Corner. One hundred and thirty years ago, William Arthur Wilson bought the prime site on the corner of Ingrave Road and Shenfield Road.

His dream at the time was to build the first large departmental store in this part of Essex. And he succeeded.  Within a short time, by 1890, Wilson had constructed his three-storey red brick building, topping it with a splendid ornate clocktower.

The Wilson family and their huge corner store became well known, certainly an impressive symbol of the town’s Victorian prosperity, selling everything from furniture to footwear. Advertised as Wilson’s Great Eastern Stores, customers travelled from London and across Essex to visit this huge emporium.

Then disaster struck. Around 6am on Saturday, September 4, 1909, fire broke out in the paint store of the great building. Although the local fire brigade was summoned in the usual way by sounding the emergency bugle which traditionally hung on the wall of the Hart Street fire station, captained by James Fair, they could not put out the flames. They were hampered by lack of water, reputedly due to the mains not being fully opened.

Wilson's Corner circa 1936.

Wilson's Corner circa 1936. - Credit: Brentwood Museum

Even by alerting additional fire teams from the County Asylum at Warley, the Ind Coope Brewery at Romford and even from Great Burstead, the fire took hold.

An appeal to Warley Barracks brought a crew of soldiers, who trundled their manual engine two miles across the commons. The special brigade officers stationed at the Highwood School brought their leather hoses and carts, but failed to stop the fire.

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Fortunately, no lives were lost, but Wilson’s wonderful building was completely burned to the ground.

As the fire raged, the heat was so intense that windows of adjoining shops shattered. Across Ingrave Road, the lifelike wax dummies posing in the hairdresser’s window resembled screaming women as they melted in the tremendous heat.

Many years ago, I interviewed local resident Norman Potter who remembered:  “I was born in 1909, so was only a baby then, but my mother told me that she was pushing me along Ongar Road when she saw the smoke from Wilson’s corner and the clocktower was just about to fall.

"The heat of the fire was so intense, it cracked the William Hunter Memorial which you can still see today.”

Norman was one of 100 interviewees who kindly gave me many memories and anecdotes for my book Brentwood Voices published by The History Press in 2001.

Wilson's Corner today.

Wilson's Corner today. - Credit: Brentwood Museum

 By 1911, the enterprising Mr Wilson had rebuilt his store and a new magnificent clocktower adorned the building. He was back in business. The Wilson family traded and prospered until the late 1970s when the Cooper’s furniture store took over.

After Cooper’s departure in 2003, the building lay empty for a few years before again it was rebuilt by a business consortium and this historic structure became a modern complex of interesting retail artisan outlets. 

To discover more about Brentwood’s past, my latest book Brentwood in 50 Buildings, released by Amberley Publishing in Stroud, is available.

ISBN 978-1-4456-9213-5 and Amazon. Signed copies can be obtained from me at