The major fire which severely damaged an historic Birkenhead building is believed to have been started deliberately.

Police have also revealed that the building, the former home of Everest moutaineer Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine, had been burgled just 24 hours before.

The blaze at the former ESWA Sports and Social Club in Park Road South caused the road to be closed for several hours as fire crews tackled the flames.

The alarm was raised at around 5.20am yesterday.

Following an investigation by Merseyside fire service, arson is the suspected cause.

Group manager Rob Pritchard: "If fire appliances are attending deliberate fires it can delay the response to other emergencies.

"We will work with the police to help them find those who deliberately set fires."

The fire was extinguished by 2.40pm and there were no reports that anyone was injured.

Claughton councillor George Davies said the blaze had shocked him: "I really hope the structure can be saved as it is a fine Victorian building.

"It was also eligible to be a blue-plaque building in honour of Sandy Irvine."

Council leader Cllr Phil Davies said: "The fire and potential loss of the Irvine home is terrible news.

"It is without doubt one of the most important buildings in the park area."

Before becoming a Co-op workers’ club and latterly the ESWA club, the three-storey Victorian villa was the family home of Andrew Irvine, who joined George Mallory in an ill-fated attempt to climb the world’s highest peak.

Mallory's own home was in Slatey Road, around the corner from Irvine's residence.

Irvine and Mallory were last sighted on June 8, 1924, only a few hundred yards from the summit of Everest.

Arguments have raged over whether they died before reaching the summit or were descending from it.

In 1999, an expedition discovered Mallory’s well-preserved body at 26,760ft, but Irvine remains lost.

The ESWA club closed in October, 2012, due to rising costs and the building has not been in use since.

Wirral Council's senior conservation officer Matthew Crook said although the building was not English Heritage listed, in his view it would have easily met the necessary criteria.

He said: "The house has highly-developed architecture and is probably the most iconic in the Birkenhead Park area.

"If the damage is terminal, it would represent a serious loss to the Victorian heritage of Birkenhead."

Andrew Clare, who lives in Oxton and used to run the club, was called to the scene just after 6am.

He said: “I’m absolutely gutted by what’s happened.

"I’d been working there on and off for six or seven years and have great memories of the place.

"The building meant a great deal to a lot of people.”

Karen Munn was the building’s keyholder and the social club’s secretary. She told the Globe: “It’s heartbreaking to see the building like this.

"It’s such a beautiful house and had all the original features."

Neighbours recall being woken by the sound of fire engines and opened their curtains to see smoke billowing from the building’s roof.

One said: “It’s such  a shame, such a lovely building with so much history.”