A FORMER working men’s club was severely damaged in a fire started by suspected arsonists.

Firefighters were called to Highfield Working Men’s Club in Ratcliffe Street, Darwen, last night and found the whole area shrouded in smoke.

And after battling the blaze for more than an hour, firefighters said they believed the cause to be suspicious.

They said CCTV footage showed two youths leaving the premises. Police cordoned off the area, with Ratcliffe Street closed from Sudell Road to Phillip Street and the bottom of Edmund Street was also taped off.

Two fire engines attended the blaze, which started at 5.40pm, and an aerial ladder platform was used to tackle the flames from above.

Crew manager Pete Derbyshire, of Darwen fire station, said: “We had multiple calls from residents.

“When we arrived it was fairly intense and the smoke filled all the streets around.”

Crew manager Derbyshire said it appeared the arsonists had got in through the roof and set fire to an upstairs section.

He said: “It looks like they have climbed up on a cage round the back and got in either through a skylight or by removing some tiles.

“It is one of the original parts of the building and is made of mostly wood, whereas the rest or the building is mainly corrugated iron, which has accelerated it.

“They have probably lit some paper or toilet roll to start the fire. “The flames were pretty severe when we arrived.

“It was a very dangerous thing to do and, had the fire sparked quickly and they had become trapped, we wouldn’t have known anything until it was far too late.”

Mozz Hussain, who works at Edmund Street Off Licence across the road from the club, said: “I was just sat behind the counter watching TV and I looked up and saw all the smoke.

“I was very shocked. I couldn’t see any flames but there was lots of smoke.”

The club closed last year after suffering years of financial difficulties. It was used in the 1980s BBC series Vox Pop.