The Gray’s Inn Road Fire
The Case for Constable Carter
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 22 NOVEMBER 2021
If you read my article on Frederick Furnivall — it can be accessed here — you will remember the wood engraving of ballast heavers that appeared on the cover of The Cottager and Artisan in October 1863. The depiction of four sturdy labourers, conveying a wholesome respect for honest toil, is quite simply magnificent. Standing in front of a bust of their benefactor, the late Prince Albert, the heavers represent the best sort of manliness.
The ‘heroic’ cover image was a hallmark of the Cottager’s approach to Christian journalism, and alongside the ballast heavers we might add the lifeguard of the Royal Humane Society, or ‘iceman’, who appears here in another London Overlooked article. But an icon of virtuous masculinity that appears more often than almost any other is the fireman, and I have included a particularly fine example further down the page. The fireman embodies many virtues. He has knowledge of the nature of fire — how it spreads — and of smoke — how it suffocates. He has the agility and the surefootedness to climb a ladder in the most challenging of circumstances. He has the raw courage to plunge into a blazing building. He has the simple and unshakeable urge to preserve human life.
Joseph Andrew Ford
And, indeed, the story that follows begins with a blazing building. The building in question was at 98 Gray’s Inn Road, where in the small hours of Saturday 7 October 1871 a fire broke out on the premises of William Brown, who was a chemist.
The fire had started in the kitchen that Brown used as a store room, and the threat to human life was very grave, for No. 98 was divided into twelve rooms, which between them accommodated a good number of residents. We get a fair idea of who these residents might have been from the 1871 census, which was taken six months earlier: a decorator and his wife, a dressmaker and her two book folder sisters and their widowed mother, a brazier and his wife and their four children, of whom three were compositors, and an elderly solicitor’s clerk and his wife.
Dramatic as the incident undoubtedly was, what made it especially noteworthy and ensured it a place in the annals of fire brigade history, was the extraordinary courage of Joseph Andrew Ford of the Holborn Fire Station. Ford, who rescued six residents of the burning house and made the ultimate sacrifice in rescuing the sixth, was hailed at the time as a remarkable man who put duty before life itself. As is only right and proper, his story has been told many times before, and the reader who is interested to learn the details might take as a starting point the excellent article on the London Walking Tours website, which can be accessed by following this link. Here, though, you will discover the other story to emerge from the blaze in Gray’s Inn Road, namely that of Police Constable George Carter of the E or Holborn Division Reserve, who was a second significant actor in the drama.
At the time of the incident George Carter was in his mid thirties. He was not a Londoner in the strict sense of the word, having been born and brought up in Samford Spiney in Devon. Before coming to London, a move he made at some point in the 1860s, he had worked as a copper miner at Devon Great Consols, and one imagines that hard physical labour of this sort was a useful background for the life of an officer in the Metropolitan Police. Although we do not know why he relocated, it is reasonable to suppose that he was hoping to improve his personal circumstances.
And they would have been pretty dreadful, for George was already working in the mines at the time of the 1851 census, when he was sixteen. At that age he might have been stationed on the surface, washing the ore. However, it is possible that he was already employed underground, where he would toil in the shafts and galleries in suffocating darkness, breathing in acidic vapours and risking life and limb from the gunpowder explosions that constantly pounded the rock face.
Out of the frying pan
Recruitment to the Metropolitan Police was a rigorous process, and a candidate had to be examined by the Surgeon-in-Chief, who assessed his physical suitability. How demanding the life of an officer was can be judged from a report published not long after George Carter joined in 1874, in which it was estimated that forty percent of recruits left of their own accord in the first year. Men resigned either because they disliked their duties or because they were dissatisfied with their pay. In addition, significant numbers were dismissed, especially in the first two years of service.
The life of the London policeman was far from easy. He worked long shifts, walking the beat at a constant rate of two to two-and-a-half miles an hour in all weathers. He was not allowed to rest while on duty, and he had to be ready to deal with criminals of every description. He was on duty seven days a week, on his feet for up to ten hours for a day beat or eight for a night beat.Walking where he walked and meeting the people he met, he was exposed to all sorts of temptations, and the slightest misdemeanour came at a heavy cost. If dismissed — and no reason for his dismissal had to be given — he lost his entire pay. He might be fined — the 1874 report specified fines of ten pounds — or sentenced to a month in prison with hard labour.
Carter lived only a few streets from Gray’s Inn Road at 22 Brunswick Square with his wife, Ellen, and their young daughter, Jane. He may well have thought that life there, where their immediate neighbours were on one side a family of jewellers and on the other a well-heeled widow with two student sons, was considerably better than it had been in a Devon mining district. Even so, he was permanently exposed to the many perils that lurked in the streets of the metropolis, and, if there was ever a moment when he might have felt that he was being tested to the limit, it was when flames began to rip through the premises of William Brown, shattering the windows and filling the street with clouds of acrid smoke.
The fire had been discovered at about two in the morning by Morris Elms, a police constable of the G or Finsbury Division. When Joseph Andrew Ford arrived on the scene, dragging the fire-escape he had charge of along the street, Elms helped him place the ladder against the building, and he and a Finsbury colleague, Police Sergeant James Haines, watched as the fireman braved the billowing smoke and the flames gushing from the windows.
Meanwhile a second escape had been brought up, and Carter joined Ford in his gallant efforts to save the victims of the blaze. Carter saw what happened to the fireman — his foot became entangled in the wire netting of the canvas chute, which was on fire — and he was lucky not to meet a similar fate. The heat was terrific, and he was forced to slide down one of the lever ropes to safety, scraping the skin off his hands in the process.
For his pains
Twelve days later, on Friday 19 October, a remarkable scene took place in the Bow Street Police Court in Covent Garden. Presiding over the court was Sir Thomas Henry, the Chief Magistrate. Having dealt with the night charges, Henry publicly commended Carter for the courage he had shown on the occasion of the Gray’s Inn Road fire. He had been given the details by James Jacob Thomson, the Superintendent of E Division, who was anxious to have the exceptional actions of police officers from both Holborn and Finsbury recognised and rewarded. Accordingly it had been decided to present Carter with a cheque for two pounds from the Police Reward Fund.
Henry made a pompous comment to the effect that the true significance of the award lay less in its monetary value than in the gratitude and approval it betokened. However, two pounds would have been in the region of a fortnight’s wages, and, when he stepped forward to receive the cheque, Carter expressed his delight at being singled out for recognition. But little did he realise that trouble of a most unpleasant and personal nature was already brewing … TO BE CONCLUDED
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