FIREFIGHTERS saved a historic Grade II listed building in Colchester High Street from destruction after contractors inadvertently started a fire in its roof.

Five fire crews, three from Colchester, one from Wivenhoe and one from Tiptree, were called to the Albert Hall Building at about 5.10pm on Thursday.

They found a fire had started in the building’s roof and spread towards an ornate glass dome which was helping to ventilate the blaze.

The flames were spreading down the voids on the first floor towards the basement, filling the building with smoke.

Fire crews used scaffolding and hoists already in place on the building - which now includes the Co-op bank - to move equipment and personnel to tackle the fire.

Essex Police closed the High Street to traffic whilst crews worked at the scene.

The fire was extinguished by 8pm, although firefighters revisited the premises to check for hotspots.

Colchester Fire Station manager Danny Partridge said: “I’m in no doubt the initial crews saved this building. Their rapid actions and the robust and dynamic tactics they demonstrated in tacking the fire were exceptional and made all the difference.

“The building has suffered severe damage to the roof and the voids on the first floor, though thankfully the ornate dome is still in tact and there was minimal water damage.

“We now know the fire was caused accidentally by contractors who were carrying out work.

“We think the initial sparks may have happened some time before but the fire went unnoticed.” We did hear reports that people in the area may have suspected that there was a fire nearby but were unsure.

“My message to anyone would be to call us out if you have any suspicion at all that there’s a fire - even if you’re concerned it might be a false alarm it’s always best for us to come and check.”

The building was built in 1845 by Raphael and Joshua Brandon but adapted in 1925 as an art gallery.

Colchester Historian Andrew Phillips said it was an important building in Colchester’s history.

“Originally it was built as a corn exchange and it had wonderful statues on the outside which are now at St Mary’s.

“In 1937, it became a full time repertoire theatre putting on 30 shows a year.

“The man who ran Colchester Repertory Theatre was called David Forder.

"He totally revived it and persuaded the town it needed a new theatre which led to the Mercury being built.

"Fires can be bad in historic buildings like this.

"People often blame councils for the decay of historic buildings, but fires are equally as likely a cause of them disappearing."