STEPPING BACK IN TIME: News Letter offices are ravaged by blaze (April 1980)

While looking through the News Letter negative cabinet over the last few months I was acutely aware that the months January to late March 1980 were absent.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 11:00 am
News Letter staff clearing up the garage where the accidental fire was believed to have started in April 1980. Picture: News Letter archives
News Letter staff clearing up the garage where the accidental fire was believed to have started in April 1980. Picture: News Letter archives

I had thought the negatives may have been misplaced. But over Easter I was able to get my hands on the newspapers for the period and the reason for the lack of negatives became very apparent – a fire had broken out in the News Letter’s offices on Friday, April 1980, which resulted in the newspaper being left more or less homeless.

Today, I have the opportunity to reproduce the the photographs which were taken on the day of the fire at the News Letter offices. They have probably not seen the light of day for more than 40 years.

And they are a stark reminder of how easily our heritage can accidentally go up in smoke.

It was a sad day for the News Letter which became headline news.

The report on the blaze detailed: “Almost a third of the office accommodation in the News Letter building in Donegall Street, Belfast was destroyed or severely damaged by fire.

“But the vital printing, computing, type-setting equipment escaped and although today’s News Letter and Farming Life are smaller than normal, Sunday News will be published tomorrow and newspaper production is expected to be back to normal next week.”

The report continued: “Yesterday’s fire spread rapidly through the building adjacent to St Anne’s Cathedral, after starting accidentally while a delivery of petrol was being made to the office garage in Talbot Street.

“The building and surrounding area were quickly evacuated when the alarm was raised and no one was injured.

“Within a short time flames burst through the roof of the three-storey building and a column of smoke poured hundreds of feet into the air.

“It was almost two hours before the outbreak could be brought under control by the Fire Brigade.”

And then there was the line which explained what truly happened to the early 1980 negatives, and no doubt other photographic material produced by the News Letter down through the years.

It read: “Among the worst casualties of the blaze were the News Letter and Sunday News advertising sales offices and the photographic offices and darkrooms, which were destroyed.”

The report continued: “The newspaper’s library of cuttings and pictures was also destroyed, but it is hoped that many of the files may be salvaged as they were protected by steel cabinets.”

Offers to help with accommodation, technical facilities and other forms of assistance came into the News Letter on the day of the blaze from other newspapers both in Belfast and Dublin.

A member of the company management said afterwards that it was ironic that after suffering the effects of nine bombs and incendiary attacks around it over the previous 11 years, that “the greatest damage had come from an accidental fire.”