Fire at Raggett’s Hotel: Part Two

Coloured aquatint showing firemen with ladders.  © Science Museum

The time is shortly after midnight on Tuesday the 27th of May 1845.  Over the past few days Raggett’s Hotel in Dover Street has been filling up with wealthy guests as they arrive in London for the season, many of them invited to the Queen’s Drawing Room.  One of the guests, Miss Elizabeth King, makes a terrible discovery in her bedroom.  Heart pounding, she hurries on to the landing.  “Fire!” she shouts.  “Fire!”

Charles Roberson, the head waiter, has just come down after serving Mrs and Miss Round a late supper on their return from the theatre.  He is fondly contemplating his bed when he hears Miss King’s cries.  Running back upstairs to see what has happened he is met by Miss King, who is in a panic, and fears that she has accidently set fire to the bed-curtains in her room.  Acting quickly Roberson tries to enter the room, but it is impossible, and he is driven back by smoke and flames.  Now all he can do is alert everyone to the danger, then get them to safety.

Lord Huntingdon, chatting companionably with his mother-in-law outside her bedroom door, hears the commotion.  When he realises that the hotel is on fire he urges his wife Elizabeth and her mother to get out as fast as they can, but Lady Huntingdon is distraught, for their son and heir, three-year-old Francis, is in a room on the floor above with his nursemaid, Anne Jones.  Having reassured his wife Huntingdon races upstairs.  He does not know that the nursery where little Lord Hastings and Mrs Jones are sleeping is directly above Miss King’s bedroom, the locus of the fire.  Meeting both Charles Roberson and Frederick Raggett he begs them to help rescue his son, as by now the flames have taken hold of the rooms on either side of the nursery.  Raggett will not help: rescuing his bed-bound mother is his priority.  Roberson tries, but the door handle is so hot that it cannot be opened, and he leaves to continue raising the alarm.  Eventually Huntingdon manages to get into the room, and shouts at Anne Jones, who is still asleep, to get up at once.  Since she is only half-awake the nursemaid cannot grasp the gravity of their situation, and she begins to dress the child, explaining that she does not want him to catch a chill in the night air.  Huntingdon snatches up the little boy.  There is no time to lose, and a chill is the very least of their worries.

There are now flames in the passage outside the bedroom.  Huntingdon quickly weighs up the situation.  One option is to make for the staircase, which gives the only way out to the street.  But if the staircase is impassable, they will surely perish, and the safer option is to shut the bedchamber door, trusting that they will be rescued from the back of the building.  Deciding to be in charge of his own destiny he dashes forward through the flames, which are so close that they singe his hair and eyebrows.  On the stairs, in the dark and the smoke, he feels someone—possibly Anne Jones—touch his arm.  But it is now a matter of life and death and he does not stop.

Coughing and choking Huntingdon staggers into the street with his son in his arms.  He is directed to Batt’s Hotel, just up Dover Street and past the alley leading into Dover Yard, which is now being used as a rescue centre.  He leaves his child in the care of the hotel proprietor, and refusing help for his own burns he goes back out into the night to locate his wife, his mother-in-law and Anne Jones.

London fire engines, or “the noble protectors of lives and property”.  Coloured aquatint by James Pollard.  © Science Museum

Police Constable 44C, whose name is John Fisher, is on his beat.  He turns from the still bustling Piccadilly into the relative quiet of Dover Street, where he notices smoke drifting from a first-floor window on the south side of Raggett’s Hotel.  He twirls his rattle to raise the alarm.  And he sends people to call for the fire engines and fire-escapes.

At about twenty to one Joseph Widdowson Welborne of 38 Albemarle Street is returning home from an evening out.  The moment he spots the fire he commandeers a cab and instructs the driver to take him to the station of the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire opposite St James’s Church in Piccadilly.  On his arrival he finds the station conductor chatting to a local policeman.  He tells them about the fire, and insists that the escape be unlocked straight away, but he is frustrated at the conductor’s failure to do so.  He remonstrates with the conductor over his lack of urgency, and is shocked when the man swears at him and threatens to knock him down.  Welborne is a silk mercer who employs a large workforce, and he is not used to being spoken to in this way.  The policeman urges him not to be offended, as the conductor is drunk.  Eventually the fire escape is unlocked and wheeled back down Piccadilly towards the blazing hotel.

The conductor is not the only person who fails to cover himself in glory: an unnamed livery stable keeper at the Gloucester Tap refuses to lend any ladders for the rescue efforts until he gets his horses out.  But those who do not do their duty are outnumbered by those who do.  Charles Roberson, for example, after repeated attempts to wake the hotel porter, who is fast asleep, finally rescues him from the conflagration.  And members of the public also put their lives on the line, many of whom are not known by name, such as the omnibus conductor who is waiting for the Knightsbridge bus when he sees the flames.

But others are, and the list of heroes includes the omnibus conductor’s colleague, a timekeeper by the name of James Thompson, and Lord George Cavendish, and the Hon Charles Cavendish.  And then there is a man by the name of Collins, the valet to Lord Maidstone.  He lives next door to the hotel, and is leaving the Coach and Horses public house—now The Clarence at 4 Dover Street—when he too spots the flames coming from the back of the hotel.  Well acquainted with the Raggett family, and familiar with the hotel, he does not hesitate to dash in to help people out of the building and to remove what he can—including Colonel Bouverie’s luggage—to the Coach and Horses for safekeeping.  But eventually he is forced to leave when the heat grew too intense.  Later he will be haunted by the screams of those trapped upstairs.

Four firemen in front of their fire engine.  At this time fire brigades were funded by insurance companies in order to protect property.  In contrast the Royal Society for Protection of Life from Fire was founded in 1836—with stations all over London—for the purpose of rescuing people.  Image in The Illustrated London News 4 January 1862.

Hearing the commotion Richard and Penelope King come out from their bedroom, but reluctantly, as they are dressed in nightclothes.  In the drawing room they are met by the terrified Elizabeth, who urges them to join her in escaping the danger, which is imminent.  But whereas she is still wearing her day-dress, Richard and Penelope are concerned that it would not be decent to be seen in public in night attire, and they hesitate.

By now the wooden staircase, which is the only means of moving between floors, and their only means of escape, is well alight.  But Elizabeth King, whose instinct to survive is stronger than any fear of the fire, is not deterred, and, even as the flames take hold of her dress and sear her hands and face, she all but throws herself down the stairs.  Fortunately some brave souls waiting below pick her up and carry her from the building.

Indecision and modesty leave Richard and Penelope trapped on the first floor.  The stairs are no longer accessible.  The couple close the drawing room door, hoping to keep the fire at bay, and stand at the window overlooking Dover Street, which now offers the one chance to escape.  Even though crowds are gathering below, help seems to be a long time coming.

Susan and Constantia Round have also heard shouts from below, and they go out on to the second-floor landing to peer down through the smoke.  Then, coming through the dark, Charles Roberson looms into sight.  He tells the Rounds that a fire has broken out and that they must flee for their lives.  In the ensuing chaos, whether through fear or on account of the dark, Mrs Round stumbles and falls.

Constantia desperately tries to lift her mother, who is large, and when she is unable to she begins dragging her back into the room.  At that moment a man appears, and, when he assures Constantia that he will take care of her mother, she goes in search of her attendant, Mrs Devonshire.  By now the stairs have become too dangerous, and so the two women take refuge in one of the second-floor bedrooms that overlooks Dover Street, where they find Ann Raggett shaking with fear.

Watercolour drawing of the first steam fire engine constructed in England in 1830 by John Braithwaite and John Ericsson.  © Science Museum

Next door to them is the bedchamber where Benjamin Rich, the Kings’ footman, has been sleeping.  Now woken by shouts he opens the door, only to be met by a wall of fire.  Slamming the door shut he hurries to open the window.

Time seems to stand still.  Rich sees the anxious faces of his master and mistress peering up at him from their first-floor window.  He sees Ann Raggett and Constantia Round and Mrs Devonshire at the window to his left.  He sees Miss Raggett begging him to help them.  But before he can even think of doing so the force of the inferno bursts open the bedroom door.

The young footman now has two choices.  Both are deadly.  One is to remain in the room and be roasted alive.  The other is to escape out of the window, and, even though a fall from the second floor would surely be fatal, it is this course of action that he chooses.  He climbs out, and hangs for dear life from the window sill.

He is now in agony, trying to keep his grip until help arrives.  But the ferocious fire has spread from the door to the windows, and, as flames begin to lick his hands, he is in too much pain to hold on to the sill.  He falls, and the crowd in the street below first shrieks in horror, and then gasps in relief, for miraculously he lands on a first-floor balcony.  With some difficulty he clambers on to a nearby lamp-post, from where those at street level save him.

Inspired by Rich’s escape, and perhaps realising that life is more precious than decorum, Richard and Penelope King finally take action.  They climb on to the balcony, and are saved.

By the time George and Elizabeth Raggett, who have been asleep on the second floor, have become aware of the disaster enfolding beneath them, escape by the stairs has been rendered all but impossible.  Taking advantage of their intimate knowledge of the hotel they make for a trapdoor leading on to the roof.  From there they manage to cross to safety on a neighbouring roof.

Down on the ground floor the brothers Frederick and Henry Raggett are shocked by the speed at which the fire is spreading.  They realise that their poor mother Ann, who is trapped on the second floor with a broken leg, will perish if they do not act promptly.  With no thought of their own safety they make their way upstairs, plunging through a darkness that is relieved only by the hellish light of the fire.  Locating their mother, who is overcome with relief and gratitude, they start to carry her downstairs.

But they struggle with her dead weight, and at the first floor they stumble, choking from the heat and the smoke.  All three collapse on the floor and gasp for breath.  Shortly afterwards Frederick manages to draw on inner reserves, and picks his mother up again, but alone, because now there is no sign of Henry.  Eventually the pair reach the relative safety of the ground floor, where the rescuers take care of the elder Ann Raggett, helping her to Batt’s Hotel.

Meanwhile Henry has recovered from a brief spell of unconsciousness.  Unable to find his mother and brother he can only think of saving himself.  Once in Dover Street he is faced with the full horror of the disaster.  He hears the shouts of firemen fighting flames that reach almost halfway across the street, and the screams of people still desperate to be rescued.

The first fire escape, invented by Abraham Wivell, who numbered hairdressing and portrait painting among his accomplishments.  In 1866 the Quarterly Review commented that people shuddered at the thought of being suspended forty feet off the ground but were quick to cooperate in the event of a real fire.  Image in The Leisure Hour 20 September 1860.

But now the fire escape has arrived, and with considerable difficulty the operator positions it between the second-floor windows.  Beneath the ladder is a canvas bag made of stout sailcloth, which is protected by copper wire netting.

A better position for the ladder would be at a window.  But there is a chance, God willing, that with the help of the conductor the poor souls in the blazing hotel can slide down inside the bulging canvas.  There is a chance that lives can still be saved.

As the fire escape conductor climbs up the ladder, Henry Raggett, looking up from the street, can discern three women at a window, one of whom is his sister Ann.  A few minutes later the conductor disappears from sight.  A man in the crowd begins a half-hearted ascent, but after a few rungs he gives up, put off by the flames belching from the windows, and alarmed by the height of the ladder.  But young Henry is made of sterner stuff.  Pushing his way through the crowd he begins to climb.

Up above Ann Raggett is not only relieved to see the fire escape but also determined to be saved first.  Impatiently she climbs out of the window.  But the ladder is just out of reach, and so she makes a leap for it, missing her footing and falling through the air to the basement area below.  Her lifeless body is speedily carried to 8 Dover Street, the home of William Fergusson, a surgeon and professor of surgery at King’s College London.

Perched on the ladder Henry is aware that someone has fallen, but he is determined, and refuses to be discouraged.  Not without considerable danger to himself he first helps Miss Round to descend, and then saves Mrs Devonshire.  Neither would have been able to use the fire escape on their own.  But when Henry steps off the ladder he is embraced by Frederick, who gravely tells him that, although their mother is safe, their poor sister Ann is dead, and the fate of their father and siblings is unknown.  He tells his brother that he fears the worst.

Lithograph portrait of James Braidwood.  © British Museum

By two-fifteen in the morning the fire is at its most violent.  There are twelve fire engines in attendance from across London.  They are under the control of the legendary fire chief, James Braidwood.

Braidwood realised early on that Raggett’s could not be saved, owing on the one hand to the quantity of wood, lathe and plaster in its fabric, and on the other to the fact that the main door was wide open, thus providing a draught of oxygen to fuel the fire.  Efforts are now concentrated on stopping the blaze spreading to adjoining properties.  Firemen stationed on neighbouring roofs are attempting to extinguish the flames from above.

At about this time a message with the offer of assistance arrives from Buckingham Palace, sent directly by Queen Victoria, who has seen the flames herself.  But by three in the morning the fire has been largely put out.  There has been a little damage to the fabric of Mr Moxon’s house at no.44, and to some of Lord Maidstone’s furniture, but their houses have been saved.  The police are in attendance to manage the crowds and assist the fire brigade, and, although the building is too hot and not safe enough to be searched inside, an inspector by the name of Aggs goes to the back of the building with some of the firemen to assess the extent of the destruction.  On the roof of the kitchen they find the disfigured body of a young woman, who is identified by Lord Huntingdon as Anne Jones the nursemaid.  Tragically she is only recognisable by her red hair and wedding ring.  Judging from where she is lying under the window of the nursery, either she returned to the room to collect something, or she was overcome by the smoke, and was unable to follow Lord Huntingdon.  In her desperation she must have hung out of the back window for as long as she could, but as no rescuer came she fell to her death.

At four-thirty in the morning all the residents of the hotel are mustered in order to identify who is still missing.  There is no sign of three of the guests: Mrs Susan Round, Mr St George and Colonel Bouverie.  Also absent from the roll call are the chambermaid and the proprietor, namely Sarah Ann Barnes and William Raggett.  A manservant of Colonel Bouverie may be in the hotel—nobody is sure.  Friends and relatives hope that in the confusion they have escaped.  Maybe—just maybe—they are being sheltered somewhere in Dover Street.

Frederick Raggett can draw some comfort from the knowledge that Charles Roberson has saved the hotel cash box and books.  But not much.  His sister is dead, his father is missing and his mother is so overcome by her experience that the doctor doubts that she will survive the shock.  Anne Jones is known to have perished, and others are missing, presumed dead by the authorities.  The hotel is ruined, and everything the uninsured Raggett family ever owned has gone.  Frederick, wondering what will become of them, is in despair … TO BE CONCLUDED

© london-overlooked 2021


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