Sunday, 13 April 2008

Looking for clues in a Derby building destroyed by fire

A good eye for detail and local knowledge are often vital to the unearthing of clues which will reveal the story behind a photograph. On the face of it this image offers few clues as to its location and the circumstances surrounding the catastrophe which it evidently records.

Image © & courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

The photograph is a 4" x 3" (99 x 74.5 mm) print mounted in an album which belonged to Nigel Aspdin's relative, and keen amateur photographer, Charles Sydney Smith (1890-1918) of 8 Highfield Road, Derby. There is no caption to the photo, and little in the way of context, although many of the photographs in this album appear to have been assembled around 1914-1915.

The photograph is of a severely fire-damaged building, or series of adjacent buildings, with some piles of timber in the foreground, some sort of gantry in the right middle ground, and a large warehouse, perhaps three or four stories high, in the background. But where was the building, when was it burnt down, and was there some sort of connection with Charlie Smith? Charlie Smith lived in Derby, but this could theoretically be anywhere. However, Nigel spotted that the top of the warehouse, which looked very familiar to him, appeared to have a long sign on the top of the roof.

Image © & courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Enlargement of a digital image didn't help a great deal with deciphering the writing (see below), but with the aid of a jeweller's loupe and some local knowledge, Nigel was able to make out, "GREAT NORTHERN RAILWAY GOODS WHARF." The building is just around the corner from where Charlie Smith was a regular visitor to the Slater family at 19 Vernon Street, the house where Nigel now lives, so he is very familiar with its shape. The photo shown below of the original Great Northern Railway Goods Wharf building, now a derelict Grade II listed awaiting renovation and development of the site, was taken by Nigel from approximately the same position, in what is now a temporary car park.

Image © & courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

The location is shown in this satellite image from GoogleMaps.


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Nigel then found an entry in Hobson's Derby & District Directory for 1910-1911 which appeared to fit with the original photograph.

Image © & courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

He also managed to locate the buildings on a contemporary Ordnance Survey Map (1913).

Image © & courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

A search at the Derby Local Studies Library of material relating to Stafford Street and the firm of Smart & Elsom uncovered an interesting article in Derby Ram (Vol. 5, No. 11, p.8, Feb. 1997) entitled, "History on your Doorstep: Stafford Street" which included the following report from the Derby Daily Telegraph:

GREAT FIRE IN DERBY
SAW MILLS DESTROYED
EXTENSIVE DAMAGE

... the two partners in the firm Mr. A.H. Smart and Mr. W.W. Elsom, returned to the office in the evening, and with their cashier Mr. Morgan, were busy with their books when, at exactly a quarter to eight, a postman who was delivering letters told them their yard was on fire. On looking through the window the awful fact was at once manifest, for flames were already shooting high into the air. The mischief must have originated some time previously; in fact, many of the public declare that the fire was visible at half-past seven and the only explanation of the Fire Brigade not being sent for earlier is that people thought they had already been communicated with. Mr Smart and Mr Elson, on learning the news, rushed into the yard to see what could be done, Mr Morgan instantly telephoning the fire office. The brigade arrived with commendable promptitude and were soon at work, their efforts were however terribly handicapped by the encroachment of the vast crowd of sightseers. People swarmed into the yard from every direction, and it was more than the police could do to keep them back ... The extent of the damage is difficult to gauge, but the firm themselves estimate at roughly £8,000.
Nigel found the following very sad explanation of the fire in a subsequent issue of the Derby Telegraph (9 April 1906):

THE GREAT FIRE AT A DERBY SAW MILLS
---
MYSTERY OF ITS ORIGIN SOLVED.
CHILD'S CHARRED BODY FOUND.
COMPANION'S CONFESSION.

A tragic solution is furnished to the mysterious and disastrous fire which occurred on Friday night as the timber yard of Messrs. Smart and Elsom, Staffordshire, Derby. Two lads of tender years were the cause of the mischief, and one of them has paid the penalty with his life. It will be remembered that neither of the partners could offer our representative the slightest suggestion as to the origin of the outbreak; both were in the office, some 30 or 40 yards dostant at the time it was discovered, and both agreed that it was a mystery that completely baffled them. "We would rather not say what we think," said Mr. Elsom, and from this our representative could only deduce that although the firm did not desire to say so publicly without the best of reasons, they were inclined to suspect some of their own workpeople of carelessness. On this account it must be a source of deep satisfaction to the heads of the firm to learn the truth, painful though it be.

On the evening of the fire a Mrs. Dickenson, of 28, Talbot-street, Derby, reported to the police that her child, Reginald Dickenson, aged six, was missing and the first impression very naturally was that he had been in the crowd watching the fire, and was ignorant of the time. On Saturday morning there was still no news, and the mother's alarm increased. Meanwhile, workmen were engaged at the scene of fire removing some of the debris, and on Saturday afternoon they came across some charred remains in the smaller of the two mills that had been gutted, and in which, by the way, the fire is known to have started. The discovery was made by an employee of the firm named Arthur Walker of 56, Shaw-street, and although the remains were quite unrecognisable, they were submitted to the police surgeon (Dr. G.D. Moon). The latter thought that they were the remains of a human being, but would not say positively until after a closer investigation. A professor of anatomy, who happened to be spending the week-end in Derby, also inspected the remains, and he and Dr. Moon came definitely to the conclusion that they were those of a child from five to eight years of age. All that were left were the pelvis, part of the spinal column, and a portion of the left shoulder.

This shocking discovery, coupled with the fact that a small boy whose home was in the locality was missing, caused the p[olice to institute a closer and more minute search. Supt. Riley, the senior officer of the fire brigade then on duty, Police-constable Loydell, and the man Walker carried out this gruesome task, and after very carefully removing the rubbish, they picked up the buckle of a child's brace, the heel of a child's boot (which was studded with some special kind of boot protectors), several buttons, and a small portion of shirt material. There was no clothing visible, but it is a remarkable fact that this patch of shirt material should have survived the terrific heat to which it was subjected, and it was fortunate, too, that the pattern ahould still be easily distinguishable. It was this and the small requisites of attire already mentioned that enabled Mrs. Dickenson to identify the remains as those of her missing son.

Certain information which had come to the knowledge of the police led them to pay a visit on Sunday afternoon to House 2, Court 6, Kensington-street, which is also in the same locality, where a lad named George ..., aged nine, resides with his father who is a labourer. The lad made a statement, which the police took down in writing. He said that he and Dickenson, after tea on Friday, went out together, and about seven o'clock proceeded up Great Northern-road and climbed over the foot of the bridge there, thus gaining access to the premises of Messrs. Smart and Elson. All the workmen had left the timber yard, and they climbed up a ladder, in this way reaching the interior of the smaller of the two principal saw mills. They collected some shavings and chips of wood together on the floor, and he ... struck a match and set them on fire. They at once blazed up and both he and Dickenson became terribly frightened, his little companion beginning to cry. The soke became very dense, and they tried to climb their way out. He ... ran to the other end, and climbed up a ladder, and gaining an aperture, jumped out onto a stack of coal. He had burned his hand and the side of his face, but made his way home at once, telling his mother he had met with the injuries by setting fire to a piece of paper in the Cattle Market. This story she had no reason then to disbelieve. The little boy Dickenson had been left alone in the burning mill, and without doubt he must have run as far as the window and then fallen down, suffocated by the fast-rising clouds of smoke. There he lay till the flames consumed him, practically reducing his body to a cinder.

The boy ..., in the course of his statement, also said that a fortnight or three weeks previously he and little Dickenson got into Messrs. Smart & Elsom's wood yard and made a bonfire of some wood but the fire died out. Of this fact the firm have some corroboration, for the following morning they found traces of the fire, and being unable in any way to elucidate the mystery, they caused a printed notice to be posted about the premises threatening to prosecute any persons who were caught trespassing.

We are informed by the police that it is not proposed to take any proceedings against the lad ..., on account of his yout. "If such a course had been contemplated," Superintendent Clamp informed our representative, "we should not have taken his statement in the way we did, and we should have cautioned him as to the consequences of his answers to our questions." The remains of ...'s luckless companion, which were first of all carried to Dr. Moon's surgery, were subsequently removed to the public mortuary, and await the Coroner's inquisition.
Many thanks to Nigel for providing this interesting example.

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