A drunken cabbie crashes into a fire escape

Metropolitan Fire Brigade scaling ladder drill, 1873

I thought I knew what a fire escape was. A long ladder or staircase attached to a building that allowed those inside to escape down it should there be a fire. However in the 1860s these ladders were not fixed, but mobile. Scalable ladders (escapes) were positioned about every half a mile throughout London so that they could be moved quickly to wherever they were needed.

The escapes were funded and organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) which had been founded in 1836 because London’s other main firefighting organization (the London Fire Engine Establishment) was only really concerned with saving insured property in the city.

As well as proving escape ladders the RSPLF also offered rewards to firefighters who demonstrated particular bravery in saving people from fire, as today’s fire brigade does on a daily basis.  The efforts of the RSPLF eventually led to the formation – in 1865 – of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a year later the new service acquired all of the LFEE’s equipment, gratis. By contrast, the RSPLF charged the MFB the significant sum of £2,500 for its escapes and insisted that the new organization employed all of its ‘escape men’.

Quite possibly the escapes situated across the capital were a reassuring sight for Londoners, but they may also have constituted a hazard, as this case at Marlborough Street Police court suggests.

A fire escape conductor named Bennett was standing next to his box and ladders when he saw a hansom cab careering towards him. It was about two in the morning and Bennett jumped aside as the cab crashed into the ladders, doing about £18 worth of damage. That may not sound much but in today’s money it is about £1,000.

As a policeman watched the driver, rather than untangling himself, tried to press on dragging the ladders with him. PC Carpenter (219C) ran over and dragged the man from his cab. The driver was clearly drunk at the reins and wasn’t even able to stand up straight. PC Carpenter arrested him and took him back to the nearest police station.

On the morning of Tuesday 31 January 1865 Edward Whitford appeared in court before Mr Tyrwhitt charged with being drink in charge of a cab and of committing criminal damage. The RSPLF were represented in court and listened as the magistrate fined the driver 20(or a month in gaol). He couldn’t expect the driver to pay for the damage to the escape however, but reassured the RSPLF that ‘he had a remedy elsewhere’. Perhaps he was aware that within a matter of months the new Fire Brigade would be taking to the streets and the RSPLF’s property would be being transferred to them, albeit at a cost to the public purse.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1865]

Echoes of Saddleworth as arsonists set Wimbledon Common on fire

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At the beginning of the week the Fire Serve in Greater Manchester declared that they had finally put out the fires that have devastated Saddleworth Moor in the past few weeks. Although they warned that the continuing hot weather might precipitate further outbreaks of fire, the situation is now under control.

The exact cause of the fire hasn’t yet been confirmed but there were sightings of men or youths on the 24 June apparently deliberately setting fires. Of course it goes without saying that anyone who starts a fire that might endanger people, homes, wildlife and the environment is either completely devoid of morals or intelligence, or is in need of psychiatric support.  It remains to be seen whether any prosecutions will follow.

Sadly arson is not that uncommon an offence, nor is there anything particularly new in what those people did in the north west of England. In July 1881 four men were charged at Wandsworth Police court in South London with ‘wifully setting fires’ on Wimbledon Common.

Now, readers of a certain age may associate Wimbledon Common with much more positive examples of outdoor activity but it is fair to say that Frederick Deverell (a porter), William Grain (a lighterman), William Booth (a plumber) and Alfred Byrant (a painter) were no Wombles. SHOWBIZ Wombles 1

Deverall and Grain were seen lighting matches and throwing them into the furze on Sunday evening (the 17 July, 1881), while Booth and Bryant were sighted doing exactly the same on the Monday. The common had been set on fire several times that month and so the offenders could expect to be dealt with severely if they were caught.

All of the parties denied any deliberate wrongdoing, claiming it was an accident. Mr Shiel, the presiding magistrate, didn’t believe them however and fined Booth and Bryant £5 each, with a month in prison if they were unable to pay the fines. He clearly deemed that Deverall and Grain’s crimes were the greater however, as he indicted them to stand trial in front of a jury where they might be given a longer custodial sentence if convicted.

The pair were lucky. They were tried at the Old Bailey on 2 August and acquitted. Both were young, just 17, and the situation on the common was confused with lots of visitors and some people camping out in the summer holidays.

Nevertheless there does seem to have been sufficient witness testimony from the police (who were there in plain clothes) and the head keeper of the common to have convicted them so perhaps the fact that they received good character references saved them from a lengthy spell in gaol. I hope those responsible for setting the fires on Saddleworth Moor are not afforded such generosity if they ever come before a jury.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, July 20, 1881]

Fire and murder in the East End but business as usual for Mr Lushington

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

John Tenniel’s Nemesis of Neglect, Punch (29/9/1888)

On Friday 31 August 1888 the Standard newspaper reported on the ‘great fire’ that had raged at the London docks the night before. Workers had knocked off at 4 that day as usual but at 8.30 in the evening someone noticed the smell of burning. It took until nine for the authorities at Whitechapel to be alerted whereupon officials there ‘ordered every steamer to proceed to the scene’. By the time they got there (coming from all over the city) a massive fire was underway.

The fire was raging in the South Quay warehouses which were ‘crammed with colonial produce in the upper floors and brandy and gin’ at ground floor level. With so many combustibles it is not surprising that the 150 yard long building blazed so violently. The conflagration not only drew the police and fire brigade to the site it also attracted thousands on Londoners  in the East End to step out of their homes to see the fire.

The Pall Mall Gazette also featured a report on the fire within its fourth edition that day. It described the warehouse as 200 yards long and said 12 steamers were engaged in fighting the blaze. It reported that soon after the first fire was brought under control a second broke out at the premises of Messrs. J. T. Gibbs and Co. at the dry dock at Ratcliffe, damaging workshops, goods and a nearby sailing ship, the Cornucopia.

As dramatic as the dockyard fires were they were eclipsed by an adjacent report on the same page which read:

HORRIBLE MURDER IN EAST LONDON

ANOTHER WHITECHAPEL MYSTERY

This of course refereed to the gruesome discovery made by police constable John Neil as he walked his beat along Buck’s Row (now Durward Street) parallel to the Whitechapel High Street. PC Neil had found the dead body of a woman later to identified as Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, the first ‘canonical’ victim of murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The Gazette’s reporter must have seen the body in the Whitechapel mortuary because he was able to describe it in some detail for his readers.

‘As the corpse lies in the mortuary it presents a ghastly sight […] The hands  are bruised, and bear evidence of having been engaged in a severe struggle. There is the impression of a ring having been forced from one of the deceased’s fingers, but there is nothing to show that it had been wrenched from her in a struggle’, ruling out (it would seem) robbery as a motive.

No one, it seems, had heard anything despite there being a night watchmen living in the street. It was a mystery and as more details of Polly’s injuries emerged in subsequent days the full horror of the killing and the idea that a brutal maniac was at work in the East End gained ground in the press.

Meanwhile it was business as usual for the capital’s Police Courts; at Thames Francis Greenfield was charged with cruelty to a pony. He was brought in by PC 73K who had found the man beating the animal as he exercised it around a circle, presumably training it. The poor ‘animal was bleeding from the mouth, and there was a wound on the side of its lip’. The constable was told by several bystanders that Greenfield had been ‘exercising’ the beast for well over an hour. Mr Lushington, the magistrate, adjourned the business of his court  to go and see the pony for himself. When he returned he sentenced Greenfield to 10 days imprisonment with hard labour for the abuse.

Having dealt with that case the next reported one was of Philip McMahon who was in court for beating his partner, Emily Martin. The pair had been cohabiting for four or five years and it wasn’t the first time he had hit her. After a previous incident, when he’d blacked her eye, she had forgiven him and had done so several times since. Then on Monday (27 August) he had come up to her on the Mile End Road and grabbed her by the throat. He tore off a locket that she wore and assaulted her. He declared he was leaving her and when she tried to reason with him and implore him not to go he hit her again, knocking her senseless. Mr Lushington gave him 6 months hard labour.

Both cases testify to the violence and cruelty that was often associated with the working class residents of the East End of London. This allowed the press to construct a picture of Whitechapel as a place that had abandoned any semblance of  decency. The area became the ‘abyss’, a netherworld or living hell, where life was cheap and personal and physical corruption endemic. The “ripper’ became the embodiment of this vice and crime-ridden part of the Empire, given form by John Tenniel’s nemesis of Neglect, published on 29 September 1888 at the height of the murder panic. As with the modern press, historians and other readers need to be very careful before they take everything written in them at face value.

[from The Standard , Friday, August 31, 1888; The Morning Post, Friday, August 31, 1888;The Pall Mall Gazette , Friday, August 31, 1888]

for more Ripper related posts see:

Cruelty to cat grabs the attention of the press while across London the ‘Ripper’ murders begin.

“Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

A lucky escape for some as a hairdresser sets fire to his business

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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]