The people who lived in the East End of London in the late 19th century had many terrors to deal with other than Jack the Ripper. Indeed, some of the horrors and dangers that were present every day in Victorian London were, in many ways, more terrifying than the Whitechapel murders, and yet they were, more often than not, treated with curiosity as opposed to fear.
Fire was a constant and deadly threat in an age when houses were heated by open fires, lit by candles, gas or oil light, and in which people smoked almost ceaselessly
A DELAY IN HELP ARRIVING
If a fire broke out in the dead of night – or at any time, for that matter – residents couldn’t simply pick up the phone and call the fire brigade. They would have to send somebody as quickly as possible to fetch the firemen, who would then make their way to the scene of the blaze as fast as they could, but in cumbersome horse-drawn fire-engines.
Of course, the delay between the fire being discovered and the arrival of the firefighters meant that a fire, when it broke out, had plenty of time to rage out of control, and thus, when the firemen arrived, resue was all but impossible, and their duties would be confined to bringing the fire under control as soon as possible and then combing through the embers for any remaining traces of the victims of the conflagration.
FIRE IN WHITECHAPEL
One such fire broke out at a premises on Whitechapel High Street on 19th September, 1893.
The Christchurch Times gave its readers a breathless account of the tragedy as it unfolded in its edition of Saturday, 23rd September, 1893:-
“A calamitous fire occurred on the morning of the 19th inst. at 99, Whitechapel High-street, a confectioner’s shop tenanted by Mr. Joseph Hermann, a German pastrycook.
Sleeping in the house were five other persons – a lad named Frederick Monk, aged 18, who assisted in the bakehouse; a housekeeper named Mrs. Hillsworth, who was about 50 years old; her daughter, a girl of 13; and two female assistants, Miss Hester Hensley, aged 19 years, and Miss Jennings, aged 20.
All these, with the exception of Mr. Hermann, had retired to rest by half-past eleven o’clock on Monday night, while Hermann went to bed an hour later.
Five of them never left the building again alive, and the lad Monk was the only person who has lived to speak of what took place when the fire was discovered.
The four women slept on the third floor in the front part of the building, the lad Monk in the back part of the third floor, and Hermann himself occupied the front room on the second floor.
There is little doubt that the fire originated in the back room on the second floor, and probably smouldered for some hours.
SMOKE COMING FROM THE PREMISES
In the early daylight, two men proceeding to their work – a railway man going to Bishopsgate-street and a lamplighter – saw a thin cloud of smoke issuing from the upper part of the house, and, after calling the attention of the police-constable patrolling the thoroughfare to it, ran off simultaneously to the Commercial-road East to call the firemen.
The police-constable – 96 H. J. Glynde – knocked loudly at the door and woke Monk, who found his room full of smoke.
He at once ran down to the bedroom of his master and shouted to him that the place was on fire.
Hermann was instantly aroused and ran upstairs to awake his female assistants, while Monk went downstairs. Even as he went the smoke was getting thicker and thicker, and he reached the street in a half-suffocated condition.
AN OUTBREAK OF OPEN FLAMES
The mere fact of his opening the front door sent a draught up through the house which instantly sufficed to blow the outbreak into open flames, and those at the top of the house, when they essayed to follow Monk down the staircase, were met with a tremendous burst of fire.
There can be no doubt that Hermann succeeded in his purpose of awakening the females, and that, while he was in the act of doing so, the staircase caught fire.
The horrified spectators, who were beginning to gather in crowds in the street, for it was Whitechapel market day, and people were already astir, saw for a few moments the faces of the victims’ at the front windows of the top floor and heard their cries.
THE FIREMEN ARRIVE
The brigade, on their arrival, instantly set to work to do the best they could under the circumstances. It was obvious that any attempt to enter the top floor was out of the question. Search in all the other rooms proved futile.
A shocking spectacle presented itself when the members of the brigade at last entered the ruins of the front room, where the charred remains of the five persons were lying amidst the debris. What were evidently the remains of Hermann and two of the women were found lying immediately under the windows, where they had apparently been overcome by the heat as they were crying for help. The remains of one of the other women were on the ruins of the bed, fearfully burned, and the fifth body lay close by.
THE ORIGINS OF THE FIRE
Directly the fire effectually subdued, steps were taken to remove the remains to the mortuary, there to await an inquest.
An examination of the premises by the firemen failed to show the origin of the fire.
The lad Monk, asked to give a description of what he knows as to the fire, stated to a representative of the Press:- “It must have been a little after five o’clock when I woke up through hearing a loud knocking at the door. I was terrified to find that my bedroom, which is the back room on the third floor, was full of smoke. I did not wait to dress myself, but ran downstairs to wake up the boss, Mr. Hermann, who slept on the second floor.
As I went down, the black smoke was already beginning to fill the narrow staircase.
THE SMOKE GOT THICKER
Mr. Hermann did not lose a moment, but jumped out of bed, and ran up the stairs to wake Mrs. Hillsworth and the girls, who slept up there.
The smoke got thicker and thicker, and was so dense that I could not bear it any longer, and I then ran down and reached the street in a nearly suffocated condition.
After I managed to get out, the flames must have seized hold of the stairs and cut off the chance of the others to escape in the same way that I did.
I am quite unable to explain the origin of the fire, but I should think from the way it came bursting into the room that it must have been smouldering all night.”
MR. HERMANN WAS TO BE MARRIED
A peculiarly sad feature of the catastrophe is the fact that Mr. Hermann, the proprietor of the shop, who was only 26 years of age, was about to be married, and a festive party in honour of the event was held on Sunday night.”