Fire at Raggett’s Hotel: Part Three

The Rescue by John Everett Millais.  Oil painting dated 1855.  © National Gallery of Victoria

Tuesday the 27th of May dawns—the morning after the fire—and in the bright clear light the ruins of what had been Raggett’s Hotel are visible.  Half of the front and a great part of the back have been destroyed.  But there is some good news when Mr St George, who was feared dead, appears very much alive.  The evening before he had gone to Greenwich to dine with friends, and as the hour grew late they persuaded him to stay the night.  He was fortunate, and lost nothing more than his luggage.  Colonel Bouverie was also found safe and well.  He had been out all night: we are not told what he was up to.  To his relief both his man servant and luggage are located, the former having slept out of the hotel, and the latter being rescued from the blaze and taken for safe-keeping to the Coach and Horses.  The Colonel decides to return to Windsor, where his regiment is based.

At about ten in the morning Mrs Round’s brothers-in-law, Colonels Bouchier and Rolt, accompanied by her sons, arrive at the hotel.  They have been knocking on doors in Dover Street in the hope that a disoriented Susan Round had escaped the fire, and that in the ensuing chaos she had found shelter nearby.  But their search has proved fruitless, and faced with the likelihood that she is dead they want to know what progress the firemen have made in searching the building.  They are frustrated when the engineer, Mr Staples, says that nothing can be done until the building is shored up.  Only once that is done will it be safe for anyone to enter.

During the afternoon firemen enter the building, and on the first-floor landing they find two barely recognisable bodies.  It can be safely assumed that the male body is Mr William Raggett, the proprietor of the hotel, as he is now the only man who is still missing.  The female body is much harder to identify.  It might be Mrs Round, since this would fit with Constantia Round’s account of last seeing her mother being assisted by gentleman.  But perhaps it is all that is left of poor Sarah Ann Barnes, the chambermaid, who had been asleep on the second floor.

As the day wears on, crowds flock on foot and by carriage to ogle the ruined building, and Dover Street is barely passable.  A short distance away other crowds gather in and around St James’s Palace, where the Drawing Room for Queen Victoria’s official birthday continues as planned, but without Mrs Round, Miss Round and the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon.

The Rounds and their relatives hold a crisis meeting.  Having announced Mrs Round’s tragic demise in the newspapers they want her body retrieved, so that she can receive an appropriate burial.  There must be a way to confirm that the remains on the first-floor landing are Susan’s.  Burying a chambermaid in the family burial vault just would not do.

During the day the unfortunate victims are removed to the Mount Street bone house, which stands next to the burial ground belonging to the parish church of St George Hanover Square.  They will remain there until after the inquest.

THE INQUEST BEGINS
On the afternoon of Wednesday the 28th of May Sir William Poulet and the Round’s butler visit the bone house on behalf of the family.  They have the unenviable and melancholy task of identifying Mrs Round, and both are much affected by what they see, but they cannot confirm that the pitiful remains are hers.  Later, when the Round family discover that Lord Huntingdon has persuaded a fireman to climb to the first floor to retrieve his gold watch, they call for greater efforts to discover other bodies in the ruins.  They want debris in the area where the two bodies were located to be sieved, hoping that Susan’s jewellery will be found, and that a firm identification can then be made.

At five in the afternoon, at the Rising Sun tavern in nearby Charles Street, an inquest is held into the deaths of Ann Raggett, William Raggett, Anne Jones and an unknown female.  Charles St Clare Bedford, the coroner for Westminster, presides over the proceedings, and a local jury listens intently to the harrowing reports of the witnesses.

The first to be called is a visibly shaken Miss Elizabeth King, and the effects of the blaze are plain for everyone to see.  She has burns on her face, and her left hand is bandaged, and, as all her other clothes have been destroyed, she is forced to wear the same dress she wore on the night of the fire.  When asked if she was responsible for the conflagration, Miss King is “constrained to fear she caused the fire.”

A fireman rescues a baby from a blazing house.  Image in George P Little The Fireman’s Own Book (1860) frontispiece.

Lord Huntingdon, with singed eyebrows and hair, gives his version of events.  He praises the conduct of the firemen, who were under the command of James Braidwood.  And he is less than complimentary about the fire-escape conductor, although he does admit that he has not seen this sort of equipment in action before.

Frederick Raggett, with his arm in a sling, is less restrained, and says that it is his opinion that the fire conductor was drunk.  He is also clear that the candles provided by the hotel were not to blame for the fire: they only used patent candles which produced no sparks.  In his view the fire could only have started if a flame came into direct contact with the bed curtains, since there was no other source of ignition in the room.  As is usual in cases of fire, questions are asked about insurance, primarily to ascertain if anyone stood to benefit financially for the incident.   But Frederick puts paid to any suspicions.  The hotel did not belong to his family, and having no personal insurance they have lost everything they owned, and are now homeless and penniless.

The coroner adjourns the inquest until Friday.  There is still a body missing, presumed to be that of Sarah Ann Barnes, and searching continues throughout Thursday the 29th of May.  But the aim is also to recover items of value: Lady Huntingdon’s extensive jewellery collection, which is worth some three thousand pounds; the even more valuable jewels belonging to Miss and Mrs Round; and a chest containing gold and silver plate, the property of Mr King.

Amongst those searching are twelve firemen led by an officer named George Fogo, along with Lord Huntingdon, two of Mrs Round’s sons, and her butler.  The remains of one of Lady Huntingdon’s jewellery boxes are found, with contents worth about two hundred and fifty pounds.  Then some belongings of the Rounds are retrieved, including the diamond brooch that Mrs Round would have worn to the Queen’s Drawing Room.  Eventually Mr King’s plate chest is located, but its removal is prevented by the arrival of the owner of the building, William Abbott, who says that everything in the ruined hotel legally belongs to him.  Given the circumstances there is some surprise and disgust at Abbott’s mercenary attitude, and Lord Huntingdon, the Round brothers and Mr King all ask him to reconsider.  In the end he partially relents, and allows the aristocratic Huntingdon and the well-connected Rounds to keep what they have found so far.  But he refuses to hand over Mr King’s plate chest.  Either he has less respect for the wealthy merchant, or the plate chest is particularly valuable, and worth hanging on to.

THE INQUEST CONTINUES
On Friday morning another female body is found in a room over the hall.  Much of the readjourned inquest that day concentrates on identifying which body belongs to Mrs Round and which to Sarah Ann Barnes.  The Round family have decided to bury both corpses in one grave if they cannot be told apart, which is pragmatic, but not the preferred option.  (What Sarah’s relatives think does not appear to matter.)  Dr Thomas Davies of Brook Street in Mayfair, who has treated Mrs Round for many years, is consulted, and he states categorically that, although she was corpulent, the bones found on the Friday belong to a much bigger woman.  Also the jawbone contains decayed molars and protruding front teeth, and, as Frederick Raggett confirms that this sounds very much like the unfortunate chambermaid, it is agreed that the bodies found on Tuesday are those of William Raggett and Susan Round.

In all five cases the jury give a verdict of accidental death, and they urge the coroner to write to Sir James Graham, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, to ask what will be done to stop such a tragedy happening again.  With the inquest concluded, an undertaker by the name of Louis Pecqueur removes the bodies of William Raggett, Ann Raggett and Ann Jones to his premises in Paddington Street in Marylebone.  That of Susan Round is taken to her brother-in-law Joseph Green Wilkinson’s house at 38 Wimpole Street, where it will remain until it is removed to Essex for her funeral next Tuesday.

THEN THE BURIALS
On the following morning—Saturday the 31st of May—an appeal is printed in the newspapers.  The Morning Post has this:

CALAMITOUS FIRE.—An APPEAL in behalf of the aged WIDOW and FAMILY of the late Mr RAGGETT, who perished in the calamitous fire, 45, Dover Street on the night of the 26th of May … He had been through a long and laborious life struggling against adverse circumstances … Thus, his aged widow and family are left in a state of utter destitution and have not a farthing for food, clothing, lodging or even for the interment of their unfortunate relatives.

On the following afternoon, on the day of Anne Jones’s funeral, the weather is very hot and sunny.  At three in the afternoon the cortege is watched by a great crowd as it leaves the undertaker’s premises for the St John’s Wood burial ground, just across the road from Lord’s Cricket grounds.  Behind the hearse is a single mourning coach and the carriage of the Earl of Huntingdon, who is accompanied by his brother, Captain Hastings.  The service is taken by their cousin, the Reverend Hastings, and poor Anne is consigned to the ground far away from her home in Wales.  Then on the Monday William and Ann Raggett are buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.  Their cortege consists of two hearses followed by two mourning coaches for the three Raggett sons and a son-in-law.  Again, crowds gather to witness this mournful event.

Later that evening the St James’s station of the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire convenes a meeting, the purpose of which is to assess the efficacy of a service that is supported by some eight hundred people who live and work in the parish, and who make voluntary subscriptions to pay for local fire-escapes and conductors.  After the actions of the conductors have been reviewed, one is sacked and another is severely reprimand.  A report is submitted on the use of equipment: the Kings and Benjamin Rich were rescued with short ladders, and Miss Round and Mrs Devonshire with the fire-escape.

The grave of Sarah Ann Barnes in the churchyard of All Saints Church in the village of Southill in Bedfordshire.  © Tina Schofield

On Tuesday the 3rd of June Mrs Round is buried in the family vault in the parish church  near her home at Danbury Place in Essex.  Sarah Ann Barnes lies in the churchyard of All Saints Church in the village of Southill in Bedfordshire, where she was baptised, but I have been unable to discover when exactly she was buried, or who paid for her funeral and rather fine gravestone.  The inscription reads:

To the memory of Sarah Ann Barnes, daughter of Thomas and Frances Barnes, born May 26th 1802, lost her life by fire in Dover Street, London on the night of 26th May 1845

On Monday the 9th of June William Abbott puts the salvage from the hotel up for sale by auction.  Among the sale items are feather beds, four-poster beds, furniture, chimney glasses, carpets, china, wine, rubble and burnt wood.  The burnt wood will be used as a fertiliser or a soil conditioner.

View of Clifton by William Westall.  Aquatint dated 1830.  © British Museum

AND WHAT BECAME OF THE SURVIVORS?
Benjamin Rich left the employment of Richard King, and the position of footman was taken by a brother called Joseph.  He moved to Colemore, a small village in Hampshire, to work as a house servant for the curate, which was doubtless a quieter and less exacting occupation.  Meanwhile the Kings returned to their daughter in Bristol, and by the late 1840s they had moved to a mansion called Kensington House in Brislington in Somerset.  Penelope King died in 1849 at the young age of thirty-eight, and within three years the widowed Richard married a woman almost as young as his daughter, going on to have five more children.  A master of the Bristol Merchant Venturers, and a member of the Bristol city council, he died in 1874 at the age of seventy-five, leaving the princely sum of seventy thousand pounds, which now would be worth about four-and-a-half million.  As for his sister Elizabeth, we cannot know how she felt about her part in the accidental deaths of five people and the destruction of Raggett’s Hotel.  One imagines that she must have suffered a degree of guilt and shame, for she donated a hundred and fifty pounds, which would now be worth about ten thousand, to the collection for the destitute Raggett family.  She lived the rest of her days at 5 Pembroke Villas in Clifton, attended by two servants, until her death in 1889.

Constantia Round may also have suffered regrets and guilt for not being able to save her mother.  She would wait until 1848 before she married Henry Alexander Story, a commander in the Royal Navy who had been widowed twice.  He brought a daughter to the marriage, but Constantia never had children of her own, and she died in France in 1892, leaving over fifteen-and-a-half thousand pounds.

Before the fire at Raggett’s Colonel Bouverie had had a long and distinguished army career.  He was once aide-de-camp to Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington.  He died in 1852, and his obituary in The Times made the following poignant connection:

Just as he was preparing to leave his country seat, Woolbeding House, near Midhurst in Sussex, to attend the funeral of his old commander-in-chief, the Duke of Wellington, apparently in his usual health, he suddenly fell ill from excitement and sorrow, and died on 14 Nov. 1852.

Etching of Danbury Place in Essex.  © British Museum

Francis Theophilus Hastings, 12th Earl of Huntingdon, returned to Ireland.  There he was Deputy Lieutenant and magistrate for County Waterford, and he had three daughters by his wife Elizabeth Anne before her death in 1857.  Huntingdon lived on until 1875, and was succeeded by the son he had rescued from Raggett’s Hotel, Francis Power Hastings, the 13th Earl.  The latter was a keen sportsman and a supporter of his masonic lodge, but he died at the relatively young age of forty-four in May 1875, only a month after being declared a bankrupt.  Charles Roberson, the waiter who had tried to break into the blazing nursery, has proved invisible as a consequence of the misprinting of his name as Robertson or Robinson and the absence of clues to his age and place of birth.  I just hope that he was not the Charles Roberson who found himself in court in 1856 for attempting to steal a Newfoundland dog from a house near Hyde Park.

And the two gentlemen who had ventured forth into the London night before the fire broke out?  Lord Louth returned to live at Louth Hall in Ireland, but he never made old bones, and died in Brighton in June 1849 aged only thirty-nine.  And Mr St George, who was saved by a visit to Greenwich, was probably the Christopher St George of Tyrone House in Galway who had been born in 1810.  He was Member of Parliament for Galway between 1847 and 1852, and Deputy Lieutenant for Galway.  He died in 1877.

TRACING THE RAGGETTS
The Raggetts are easier to trace.  The subscription for their welfare raised over three thousand pounds, an amount of money a well-paid government clerk would only earn after twenty years, a skilled engineer after twenty-seven, and a grocer’s assistant after a hundred.  And the lump sum was more valuable than these annual salaries, as it could be invested to produce an income.  The list of subscribers published in The Times on the 30th of June 1845 included Queen Victoria and the Queen Mother.  Others who donated were Miss King, the Round family, Colonel Bouverie, fellow hoteliers, members of the aristocracy, and such representatives of the local business community as Mrs Floris, Hatchards and Fortnum & Co.

After the year of mourning that conventionally marked the loss of a parent, and no doubt receiving some money for dowries, two of the Raggett daughters married.  Charlotte followed family tradition by becoming a hotel or lodging house keeper in Jermyn Street.  Caroline married Edward Reed Sintzenich, the house auctioneer and surveyor her brother Henry was apprenticed to at the time of the fire.  Their mother Ann, who had been expected to expire from the shock of the fire, lived to the ripe old age of eighty-nine, with her unmarried daughter Elizabeth as her companion.  Living on an annuity paid from the subscriptions she resided in turn with Caroline and George and their families.  She died in 1872, and was buried in a family grace in Brompton Cemetery.

Image of the post mill at Great Gransden in Cambridgeshire by William James Müller.  Gift of Archdeacon Francis Henry Dumville Smythe, 1957.  © Te Papa: Museum of New Zealand (1957-0009-185)

Frederick William Raggett remains a somewhat shadowy figure.  At the time of the fire in 1845 he had a wife and two young sons who all lodged in Lambeth.  But by 1851 one son was living in Battersea with his older sister Jane, and the other was at school in Chipping Barnet, which leads me to suppose that by then their mother was dead.  Certainly I can find no trace of her.  Frederick was also in the wine trade, and in 1863 he took over the lease of the Prince of Orange public house in Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel.  He died in 1867 in Great Gransden in Huntingdonshire, and was buried at Brompton.  His brother George, who escaped the fire over the roof with their sister, seems to have been a canny businessman, and only months after the disaster he announced that he had set himself up in the wine trade at 166 Piccadilly.  Later he moved to 80 Jermyn Street in the heart of London’s clubland to run a wine and spirit business, living in what must have been cramped conditions with his wife and children, his mother Ann and sister Elizabeth, and his business associates and servants.  In 1855 he bought a wine and spirit business, Blockley’s, based at 21 Duke Street.  He went on to market two beers—Raggett’s Nourishing London Stout and Raggett’s Burton Pale Ale—making enough money to move to Essex Villas in Kensington and to keep a country house called The Priory at Warfield in Berkshire.  When he died in 1897 he left twenty-four thousand pounds.

THE TRUE HERO
But what of Henry Raggett, who was the true hero of the story?  The sad fact is that he did not get his just deserts.  In 1847 he wrote an indignant letter to a newspaper in which he complained that the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire had seen fit to award Police Constable John Fisher a silver medal for rescuing Mrs Devonshire.  As you will remember, it was not Fisher who had saved Mrs Devonshire, but Henry.  He had also saved Miss Round, and, although at the time he received a glowing commendation for his heroics, neither a medal nor a reward was forthcoming.  And here was Fisher the rattle-waver getting both!  Just not fair.

Another image of a gallant fireman saving a baby from destruction by fire.  Image in George P Little The Fireman’s Own Book (1860) page 15.

Subsequently Henry decided not to continue in the house auction business, instead joining his brothers in the wine trade.  In 1851 he married Georgina Hawkins, and within ten years they had six children.  But 1862 brought Henry one disaster after another, first with the death early in the year of his one-year-old daughter Florence, then with the death of his wife in September, and then with the bankruptcy that followed the collapse of his business a month later.  What family support he received is unknown to me, but by 1865 he and his younger son Frank had left England for a new life in America.  I imagine that they hoped to shake off the bad luck of London by making a fortune, but the dream obviously came to nothing, for Henry had to find work as a nightwatchman for a drug company in Boston.  By 1868 he was suffering from dropsy, a cause of which can be liver failure resulting from alcoholism.  I have no further evidence for this, but I cannot help wondering if Henry’s work in the wine trade, combined with so much personal misfortune, had driven him to seek comfort in the bottle.

In 1868, two days before Christmas, Henry died.  He was only forty-four, and he was buried in an unmarked grave in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.  A sad end to his story.  But his sons Frank and Arthur Henry settled successfully in America, while his three surviving daughters, who were all schoolteachers, remained in this country.  I hope that they knew how brave their father had been on that dreadful night in 1845.

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