Fire at Raggett’s Hotel
AUTHOR: KAREN ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 14 MARCH 2021
A fatal fire at a luxury London hotel in 1845 was the subject of extensive newspaper coverage, which made people question the safety of public buildings and the efficacy of existing fire rescue services.
Writing almost forty years later, Georgiana Bloomfield, who was a witness to the fire, explained in her Reminiscences of Court and Diplomatic Life the impact it had on her:
I slept badly and suffered from one of the fire panics which I sometimes get when I am lodged at the top of a large hotel with a wooden staircase. I lay awake for hours thinking what should we do if the house caught fire … I think one reason I am subject to these fancies is that when I was a girl I saw the awful fire in Dover Street which destroyed Raggett’s Hotel.
This is a three-part story. The first part explains the events leading up to the fire and describes the real people it impacted. The second part will tell the story of the disaster. The third part deals with its aftermath.
Raggett’s Hotel at 45 Dover Street in Mayfair was situated in the heart of fashionable London. Standing just off Piccadilly, it was close to the opulent shopping emporia of Bond Street and a short stroll through Green Park to Buckingham Palace. Mayfair was where the great and the good lived during the ‘season’, or, if they did not have a London house, where they would lodge in one of numerous hotels. In Dover Street alone there were five hotels: Raggett’s, Brown’s, Batt’s, Hughes’ and Howchin’s.
Raggett’s stood between the family home at No. 44 of Edward Moxon, publisher of Wordsworth and Shelley, and Lord Maidstone’s house at No. 46. The hotel faced the Coach and Horses tavern — which is now the Clarence — and was a large cruciform building. The end of one ‘leg’ of the cross faced Dover Street: the horizontal cross-piece ran behind the neighbouring houses.
Once it had been a tavern, but after renovations, which included the extensive use of lathe and plaster partitions, it was turned into a hotel with forty rooms. Just to be clear, this was a total of forty rooms and not forty bedrooms. There was a basement, a ground floor with accommodation for single gentlemen travellers and a first or drawing room floor where the best rooms were situated. The second floor provided additional guest accommodation together with lodgings for the Raggett family and their employees. At the top of the house were the attics. Guests stayed in individual suites consisting of drawing rooms, sitting rooms and bedrooms.
The Raggett family
The proprietor was William Raggett, who was sixty-two in 1845. Raggett had been renting the property since about 1831 and ran the business with the assistance of family members. One of their number was his wife, Ann, who at the time was confined to bed on the second floor, having broken her leg some three weeks prior to the fire. The Raggetts had eight children, and in May 1845 at least five of them lived with their parents in the hotel. The two oldest were Ann, who was thirty-seven, and Frederick William, who was twenty-seven. Frederick William, who was the friend of William Frederick Wolley, the subject of a fire story that we published here a while ago, was employed as the assistant manager.
Next in age was twenty-five-year-old Thomas Henry, who was an auctioneer’s apprentice, and was known as Henry. Then came George, and after George one of the daughters, who I am guessing might have been Elizabeth, the youngest of the Raggett children. A small number of domestic servants were employed. We know of a waiter, Charles Roberson, a chambermaid, Sarah Ann Barnes, a cook and a porter.
As it was situated in Mayfair and patronised by the aristocracy, one might assume that the hotel was a little gold mine and that the Raggetts were comfortably off, but this does not seem to have been the case. William had appeared in the bankruptcy courts on numerous occasions, and, in order to protect their limited assets, the Raggetts told the courts that Ann was the legal proprietor of the hotel. They owed the hotel’s owner, William Abbott of Portsea House in Southampton, a staggering £1,000 for four years’ rent. These days this sum would be closer to £80,000.
The hotel was filling up, for the London ‘season’ was at its height ,and the aristocracy were flocking to town for balls, assemblies and concerts. Queen Victoria would turn twenty-six on Saturday 24 May, and on the afternoon of the following Tuesday, which was her official birthday, she would preside over the ‘Queen’s Drawing Room’, a ceremony at which foreign ambassadors were received and debutantes presented.
On Friday 23 May a Mr Richard Poole King arrived at Raggett’s from Bristol together his wife and sister. King, who was forty-six, and had been Mayor of Bristol the previous year, was a wealthy merchant from a family with trading interests in Africa. His wife Penelope, the daughter of a Shropshire mine owner, may have been missing her own beloved twelve-year-old daughter, who remained at home — the only one of their four children to survive infancy. His sister Elizabeth was forty and unmarried. She had a large fortune of her own, but she had lived for years with their elderly parents, who by now were deceased.
Ranking the guests
The Kings had the best accommodation the hotel could provide, made up of a first-floor drawing room facing the street with bedrooms behind and rooms upstairs for a servant. They were accompanied by a large chest of plate and their footman. The footman’s name was Benjamin Rich, who was twenty-two years old and came from Somerset. He was probably tall and good-looking as footmen were usually chosen for their appearance. Although the Kings were exceedingly well-off and were favourably thought of in Bristol, they would not have been regarded as among the first rank of society, for they had made their fortune from trade. In all likelihood the more aristocratic hotel guests would have dismissed them as nouveaux riches.
Over the weekend other guests arrived. There was an Irish peer, Thomas Oliver Plunkett, who was the 12th Baron Louth. There was an Honourable Colonel Bouverie of The Guards, and a Mr St George of Tyrone House in County Galway. These gentlemen were accommodated on the ground floor of the hotel.
During the afternoon of Monday 26 May Mrs Susan Constantia Round arrived from Brighton. With her were her daughter, Constantia Catherine Anne, and a maid by the name of Mrs Devonshire. To Mrs Round’s irritation her preferred hotel, the rather smarter Mivart’s, which later became Claridge’s, was completely full. Fortunately accommodation was available at Raggett’s, and so she was given a first-floor drawing room at the back of the hotel, a second-floor sitting room and second-floor bedrooms. These were a compromise: the best rooms were already reserved.
Susan Constantia Round, who was a wealthy woman in her own right, was the wife of John Round, a banker and Member of Parliament for Maldon in Essex. Their daughter, who was twenty-two, would be attending the Queen’s Drawing Room on the following day. Although Constantia had made her debut in 1841, which was four years ago, it was still necessary to do the season as she had failed so far to find a husband and was therefore in danger of being regarded as ‘on the shelf’ in spite of her youth. Her mother recognised the honour of the invitation, but probably dreaded the length of time they would be on their feet in St James’s Palace. She was fifty-six and overweight.
Later that day Elizabeth Anne, the Countess of Huntingdon, arrived at Raggett’s from Ireland, where her family had estates in County Waterford and Galway. With her was her son, Francis Power Plantagenet, who was known by his courtesy title of Lord Hastings, and her mother, Mrs Power. Her husband, Francis Theophilus Henry Hastings, the 13th Earl of Huntingdon, was at the hotel to greet them. They had invitations to the Drawing Room and a ball and other festivities, and they had brought with them over £3,000 worth of the Countess’s extensive jewellery collection and trunks stuffed with fine court clothes. They had taken a first-floor drawing room at the front of the hotel and first-floor bedrooms for themselves and Mrs Power. Their three-year-old son and his nursemaid, Mrs Anne Jones, would share a room on the second floor.
That evening the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon and Mrs Power went to the St James’s Theatre in nearby King Street. The St James’s, which had opened in 1835, was known for putting on plays by visiting French companies, and the Queen would attend just such a performance on the evening of the following Friday. They left Anne Jones to put Lord Hastings to bed in the long room at the back of the building. Mrs and Miss Round also had tickets for the St James’s. Before they set off, Mrs Round arranged for a supper of roast fowl, dry toast and tea to be served on their return.
The various gentlemen ventured out into the London night. Mr St George went down to Greenwich to visit a friend. However, just what Colonel Bouverie and Lord Louth got up to is unknown. But there was plenty of entertainment for a chap who was on his own. There were theatres and balls, or restaurants and gentlemen’s clubs, or a brisk walk to the Haymarket, where ladies of the night plied their trade.
By eleven-thirty the hotel was quiet. On the second floor Benjamin Rich had retired to his room at the front of the building. Ann Raggett too was asleep, dreaming of the day when her broken leg would heal, while her husband William and daughter Ann were heading to their rooms as well. Twenty-eight-year-old Ann Jones had finally got Lord Hastings to sleep and was glad of some rest herself. She might have thought of her late father, a publican and maltster in Pipton in Breconshire, and what he would make of his daughter staying in such a grand establishment. Or she might have thought of her husband at home.
Also on the second floor the unnamed porter was snoring loudly in his bed, lubricated, one may imagine, by a pint in the Coach and Horses after a day of heaving luggage. The hotel chambermaid, Sarah Ann Barnes, who had had her forty-third birthday, was in her room too. We do not know if she had been celebrating. She might have recalled scenes from her childhood in Southill in Bedfordshire. She might have recalled the faces of her long-dead parents, Thomas and Fanny. Or she might simply have concentrated on the pain in her teeth, wondering if the time had come to have another of her decaying molars pulled.
Downstairs a small sleepy group waited for the Rounds and Huntingdons to arrive back from the theatre. In charge of the group was the assistant manager, Frederick Raggett, who had come a long way since his early brush with the law, when as a troublesome thirteen-year-old he had been arrested for stealing and pawning silver from his employer at the Burlington Hotel. With him was Charles Roberson, who would lead guests to their rooms by candlelight and take any late night orders. Also in the group was the unnamed cook. And finally Henry Raggett, who was twenty-four and apprenticed to an auctioneer, but who helped in the hotel during his spare time. They all hoped that the guests would be back soon: it would not be long before their daily round began again.
A few minutes after midnight Susan Constantia Round and her daughter returned from the theatre. They were escorted upstairs by Charles Roberson, and, as he was serving their meal, Mrs Round considerately told him to leave the dishes to be cleared in the morning so that he too could go to bed. Then the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon and Mrs Power returned. Leaving his hat on the drawing room table, the Earl went into the passage that led to the bedrooms, where he chatted briefly with his mother-in-law about the plays they had seen. His wife went into the bedroom.
A hellish sight
Richard and Penelope King were in bed, and Elizabeth King, left alone, decided to make some liquorice tea. She might have had a stomach ache — even constipation. She went into her bedroom to get some water. She lit her way with one of the tall candles her brother had requested: he had no time for the half-used short candles that the hotel tried to foist on its guests. Elizabeth’s room at the back of the hotel was quite pokey. There was little space to walk between the wainscot walls and the bed, which had quilted dimity bed-curtains to keep out the cold.
As Elizabeth warmed the water in a small metal cup over the drawing room fire, she became aware of a crackling noise, which seemed to be coming from the bedroom. She opened the door and was met by the hellish sight of smoke and flames. Her first thought was to reach for a blanket to stifle the flames, but, as the blaze made this impossible, she slammed the door shut. ‘Fire!’ she shouted. ‘Fire!’ … TO BE CONTINUED