John Ross was a 35 year-old hairdresser living at 615 Ossulton Street, near St. Pancras in central London. Ross had rented rooms at the house where several other people lived, including a woman of 105 and a family with three small children. Ross himself was single and lived in the parlour behind his shop. In May 1883 a new landlord had bought the house – a solicitor’s clerk named Oliver Walton – and he allowed Ross to continue to trade from the premises, charging him 11s a week in rent. In early April 1883 Ross was about 2 weeks behind with his rent, which suggests either business was slack or he wasn’t very good at managing his finances.
The hairdresser had taken out insurance to cover the costs of replacing his stock and possessions in the event of a fire. John Eden from the Era Industrial and General Fire Insurance Company had called on him in October 1883 and sold him a policy for a premium of 2s. a year. If the worst happened Ross was to receive £40 for his household goods and stock, plus £14 for the loss of trade.
At about 10 at night on the 10 March 1884 another lodger in the property, Mrs Eliza Nicholson, was chatting with a friend in her room when she ‘smelt burning paraffin coming up the stairs’. Running down stairs she saw a light under Ross’ parlour door. She knocked but got no answer. The door was locked and so she went to try the shop itself.
That too was locked and she could get no answer from there either so Eliza carried on to the street door where, outside, she found Ross. She told him that she believed his ‘place was on fire’ but Ross merely replied: ‘I can’t help it’.
He said he couldn’t get in to warn anyone because of the smoke, which was, by now, ‘issuing through the windows’. Eliza took control, and warned the other occupants before running across the road to fetch her husband from the pub.
A fire engine was called and so were the police. Police inspector Henry Davy got there at just after 10 (10.07 he later confirmed in court) and confirmed what Mrs Nicholson had found. He burst open the door to Ross’ parlour where he found that:
‘the place was on fire—the cupboard on the left-hand side of the fireplace was on fire inside—there was a lot of old rags or clothes on the shelves all burnt to tinder, and they smelt very strongly of paraffin—the bed clothing at the foot of the bed was also alight‘.
The call reached the fire brigade at St. Pancras at 10.17 and the engine they despatched was at Ossulton Street by 24 minutes past, an impressive reaction (just 7 minutes) for a horse-drawn vehicle. Joseph Bennett later explained that had his engine arrived just 5 minutes later the whole house and everyone left in it would have gone up on flames; fortunately no one was hurt.
Ross had used the chaos surrounding the fire to escape and it took the police until the 31 March to find him. He hadn’t gone far; a police constable found him hiding under a bed in room at number 19 Ossulton Street, probably after a tip off. On the 1 April he was proceeded before the Police magistrate at Clerkenwell. He said little or nothing in his defence and was remanded, and later committed for trial at the Old Bailey.
On the 21 April John Ross was tried and convicted for arson , with Eliza acting as the principal witness. The details of his insurance claim were revealed and despite Ross’ attempt to blame the fire on a disgruntled employee (who no one else seemed to see in the vicinity) his motivation appears to have been one of cleaning up on the insurance money. Whether he cared about the other inhabitants of the building or was just paralysed with fear over what he had done is impossible to know.
He was lucky that no one had died or the charge could have been even more serious. As it was his hairdressing career was over; he was sent into penal servitude for 10 years.
[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 02, 1884]