THE new owners of an officers’ club dating back to the Victorian era have vowed to bounce back after it was destroyed by a blaze.

Neighbours had to be evacuated from their homes after the Colchester Garrison Officers’ Club went up in flames.

More than 40 firefighters from eight crews were called to the club, in St Johns Green, at 11pm on Sunday to tackle the blaze, finally bringing it under control at 3am.

No one was in the largely wooden building at the time and police and fire services have launched an investigation into what is thought to be a suspicious fire.

Piers Graham, from the club, said the board had held a meeting yesterday and had vowed to rebuild and keep the club running.

He added: “We are certainly not down and out, that’s for sure. The club is, in spirit, still there, and we will look to the future.

“We’re all very shocked, of course. We just want to get out of the way all the things we have to do to get the club back on its feet.”

At its peak, crews from Colchester, Wivenhoe, Nayland, West Mersea, Tiptree, Tollesbury and Manningtree were battling the blaze.

Police officers were called at around 11.30pm on Sunday and closed part of nearby Mersea Road until 2am.

By 1.30am, most of the building had collapsed and it was nearly 3am when the fire was under control.

Club members had only recently had the club transferred to them, following a ten-year battle.

Mr Graham said: “The large proportion of the original club building is burnt down.

“The peripheral parts of it are still standing, but whether they will be able to be saved, I don’t know.”

Divisional officer Danny Fearn, Colchester and Tendring Community Commander, praised crews for their valiant efforts.

He said: “This was a particularly large fire, which crews did well to bring under control relatively quickly.

“Their swift actions provided protection to a number of surrounding buildings.”

Families living next door to the officers’ club have spoken of being evacuated amid fears the blaze could reach their homes.

The edge of the club adjoins parts of two homes in St Johns Green, and residents living there and in two other homes were temporarily moved out as a precaution.

Neighbours expressed relief that the wind was blowing south, helping to prevent the fire spreading to their homes.

Dick Oliver, who called emergency services after a friend spotted the fire, was one of the residents evacuated.

He said: “We saw the smoke and then we saw the light in the background.

“I came out to see what was happening and saw the flames. I called the brigade and got my neighbours up.”

Pat Donnelley, chairman of St Johns Green Residents’ Association, was woken up at about midnight and asked to evacuate and move his car.

He said: “At that time we were through the gate so we could see the whole thing. It was big and it was well gone by then.

“It’s a very old, wooden building. I don’t think there was a chance in hell that the fire brigade would be able to put it out.

“We slept in the house at the bottom with our neighbours.”

He added: “It’s a tragedy really. It’s a historical building. I don’t know whether they’ll rebuild it – who knows?”

Another nearby resident, who did not wish to be named, said alcoholics and drug addicts often convened on nearby grass.

He added: “People next door looked and there was a fire at one end of the building and a fire at the other end of the building, but nothing in the middle. It sounds as though it could be suspicious.”

As well as facing evacuation, other residents nearby faced a power cut.

The four families evacuated were allowed home in the early hours of the morning, but shortly afterwards, a power cut affected about 35 properties in St Johns Green.