A huge clean up operation is taking place at a historic Birmngham rock venue, which played host to The Beatles and Stones, which has been destroyed in a suspected arson attack.

Fire took hold at Kings Heath’s former Ritz Ballroom, now a Cash Converters store, in the early hours of Wednesday morning. At its peak, 40 firefighters battled flames and billowing smoke.

Scores of shoppers watched as they tackled the fire which closed the High Street from Silver Street and York Road for more than eight hours, forcing traffic down Institute Road.

The building was gutted little over a month after a concert was staged at a bar opposite to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ gig at the Ritz.

The young Fab Four had played at the famous venue, which also saw gigs by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Pink Floyd.

After the gig, Paul and George wrote a personal message to one adoring fan in her autograph book, “To Janet, love from the Beatles”, and signed their names with three kisses.

A joint police and fire investigation is under way into the cause of the blaze, which is being treated as ‘suspicious’.

No one was hurt during the incident. Former barmaid Patricia Eastope, 64, who was present at the Beatles concert half a century ago said: “I’m sad that it’s burned down.

‘‘Joe Regan used to own the venue when it was a dance hall and bingo hall up until it changed to Cash Converters.

“Me and my mates saw the Beatles, PJ Proby, Billy Fury and the Searchers. He had all the big names. ‘I remember when we saw the Beatles, there was a lot of screaming and it was packed.

“They had just become famous. I used to like Paul and looked at him all night – he was gorgeous. Now the whole front of the building and roof has gone. It’s a shame.”

Kings-Heath-born Toyah Wilcox was the first person to be honoured on the Kings Heath Walk of Fame which was unveiled along York Road last July.

Bob Prew, who helped organise the initiative, said the plaque now lies under the building’s smouldering rubble.

He said: “It’s devastating because the Ritz Ballroom was one of the major venues in the 1960s.

“I can’t say it’s ever going to be restored. We lost the Kingsway Cinema also on the High Street to a fire a few years ago.

“But the Walk of Fame will still continue.”

Kate Smart, Kings Heath town centre manager, said: “The community spirit in Kings Heath is unwavering and plans for a clean-up team of volunteers is now underway.

‘‘We want to help get those businesses and shops on York Road affected by today’s disastrous blaze up and running again as soon as possible.”