Arson suspected in ‘devastating’ fire at historic Bristol shipyard

Underfall Yard fire photo courtesy Star Yachts Facebook

A 45-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of arson, following a devastating blaze that has severely damaged a historic boat yard in Bristol, destroying numerous boats and business premises.

The fire took hold at Underfall Yard on Spike Island in Bristol Harbour during the early hours of Saturday (6th May 2023). Eyewitnesses have described a plume of smoke visible throughout the city as fire crews battled to prevent the blaze spreading.

More than 20 people residing in flats close to the boat yard, near Cumberland Road, were evacuated by Avon Fire and Rescue while the fire was being contained. Firefighters eventually managed to halt the spread of the fire by relocating a burning boat away from other vessels.

Fire crews handed over the scene to the Harbourmaster and the charity that runs Underfall Yard, the Underfall Yard Trust, after lunchtime on Saturday, after dampening down smouldering remains. Pollution control has been put into place around some of the boats that sunk.

In a statement, the Underfall Yard Trust says its community of boatbuilders, engineers, craftspeople and residents are ‘devastated’ by the fire — but have already said they are committed to rebuilding the area back to its former glory. The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, has confirmed support of the trust’s pledge to rebuild.

The yard’s original construction was completed in 1809 and substantially improved by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1830s. It had fallen into disrepair when the trust was formed in the 1990s to bring Underfall Yard out of dereliction and turn it back into a working shipyard. Many of the buildings at Underfall Yard have Grade II Listed Building status.

Avon and Somerset Police, alongside specialist fire investigators, are treating the occurrence as a “suspicious incident”. Police have named the man arrested as Robert Boyd-Stevenson, of Headford Road in Knowle. He has been charged with arson with intent to endanger life, and arson with recklessness as to whether life was endangered. He has also been charged with a stalking offence. He remains in custody.

“The fire has destroyed the heart of the yard where most of the boatbuilding activity takes place,” say the Underfall Yard Trust in a statement. “Tenants’ businesses and boats have been ruined. We are supporting our tenants as best we can. Thankfully no one was killed and no one was injured, but a lot of people in the Underfall Yard community have been impacted: Our staff, our tenants, our volunteers and our neighbours on Avon Crescent and Nova Scotia Place, and our hearts are with them.

“We are grateful for everyone’s cooperation, particularly those who were evacuated as the fire service fought the fire. We are so grateful to the fire service who stopped this being a greater disaster and for the support of the Harbour Master Team.”

Posting on Facebook, Star Yachts — which is based at Underfall Yard — spoke of the ‘disaster’ that has befallen the firm.

“The visual centre point of Underfall, the big shed, has been gutted by fire, as are the back workshop space, and the adjoining lean-to and forge,” the boat builder writes. “Five wooden boats were destroyed, and one practically so; the fanciest a varnished 33 ft pre-war motor cruiser, the biggest a 48 ft smack yacht, the newest a clinker sailing fishing boat, and everything in between. It could have been worse if a 52 ft gaffer hadn’t been put on the slip that morning … Lastly a venerable Nicholson 32 didnt survive close proximity to the inferno.

“Our other shed survived better with a partially burned roof but drenched chaos inside, and, hopefully, a mostly intact new-build, a few weeks before completion. We can certainly be grateful that a lived-on dutch barge and other boats afloat survived.”

The boatbuilder says the way forward is ‘daunting’ but has thanked well wishers for their ‘heartwarming’ messages of support so far.

Greenwich-based National Historic Ships UK is urging any owners of historic boats impact by the fire at Underfall Yard to get in touch. “Will do everything we can to help,” the organisation says in a Tweet.

The Bristol Post reported on Monday (8 May 2023) that the trust had received a ‘deluge’ of donations and support after the fire. A JustGiving fundraising page has been launched for anyone wishing to contribute to the rebuild effort.

One donation comes from RichieS, who says: “The Underfall Yard is a fantastic, picturesque and historical part of the beautiful harbourside, I visited it a lot of times, and I would like to visit it in the future too.”

Another donor who remains anonymous adds: “The Underfall Yard means so much to local people and those who are visiting Bristol. My thoughts are with the craftspeople who have lost everything.”

Underfall Yard Pump Room
Underfall Yard Pump Room. Image courtesy BlytheVarney, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Underfall Yard has played an essential role in Bristol’s Floating Harbour’s maintenance and operation, which dates back to the early 1800s. The yard houses several maritime businesses involved in boatbuilding, marine engineering, metalworking, and training.

Spotlight Job

Project manager (marine civils/construction engineer)

DOE, Hamble (near Southampton)

A confident, friendly, suitably experienced project engineer is needed join a growing team. You must have a minimum of 3-5 years post graduate, practical site experience in construction, ideally from a civil engineering background.

Full job description »

Comments are closed.