Local historian Keith Johnson recalls the night a terrible blaze in the heart of Preston shocked townsfolk more than 150 years ago
As Bonfire Night approaches we are all well aware of the dangers that lurk when one plays with fire.
The shocking calamity of Grenfell Tower showing the destructive nature when flames take a grip. In recent weeks the Lancashire fire crews rushed to our Market Place to extinguish a sixth floor blaze in the tall tower of the Cubic, the former Crystal House structure, demonstrating their excellent fire fighting skills.
This is the very site where the much cherished Gothic Town Hall was burned down in March 1947 and back in early Victorian times it was the scene of a terrible tragedy when buildings in the Market Place were ablaze.
Shortly before 1am on March 21, 1860, two of the staff of the Preston Guardian newspaper, after completing a late night shift, headed home through Preston town centre. On reaching the top of Cannon Street they heard a lot of noise emanating from the Market Place.
Curious as to the cause of the disturbance, they hurried to the Market Place whereupon they saw the premises of Mr Thomas Boyd Dick, grocer and tea dealer, in flames. The establishment formed part of a high pile of buildings on the north side of the square behind the Town Hall, and was four storeys high. The second storey resembled a furnace and the flames were ascending with fearful rapidity.
At the windows of the third storey stood some people who were not clearly visible because of the dense smoke. They were frantically shouting for aid, and hesitating between destruction from within or the perils of a leap into the street. In the square below, screaming and running wildly about were some half dozen witnesses, among whom were three women, whose agonising shrieks lent a horror to the scene. One of the newspaper men raced to the fire station, only to discover the alarm had already been raised.
Mr Marriott, the superintendent of the brigade, and five of his men had fastened the ropes to one engine, the bell summoned the remainder to their post and in an instant they were on their way down Lord Street to the scene. Within minutes the water pipes were attached to the fire engine and an immense volume of water was pitched upon the flames which speedily began to quell. Prior to the arrival of the fire brigade, three of the those trapped had made the awful leap for life. The heat and smoke being unbearable, they saw no alternative, and Mr Dock, with his infant child John Scott Dick in his arms, dropped into the street amid the exclamations of the terror stricken beholders. In his fall he came in contact with a projection over the shop window and, as a consequence, lost hold of the six month old child, the pair of them crashing to the ground. Mr Dick was picked up and taken to the White Horse public house, where the landlord rendered all the assistance he could. The infant, like a little waif, being taken to the care of Mrs Benjamin from the nearby tailor’s shop.
Also making the desperate leap was a young servant called Jane Annas, who fell a considerable way into the Market Place, and was carried immediately into one of the shops opposite, in a barely conscious condition.
At this time there were very few people about and the scene was one of confusion and dismay. A messenger was despatched to the nearest surgeon, Mr Richardson, in Cannon Street, and he was speedily on the spot, followed by other leading medical men.
Mr Dick kept inquiring as to the infant who had shared his fate, and the child was moved to the White Horse where he was tenderly nursed by the landlady. The servant, who had received a serious bruise upon the forehead, was also taken to the White Horse.
The inquiries as to the fate of Mrs Dick were numerous and touching, and it was first supposed she was still within the burning building. However, there was great joy when it was discovered she had escaped via the back part of the premises. She had a scorched face and her hands were burned in a pitiful manner; but outbuildings broke her fall. Being in her nightdress, she was wrapped in blankets and also conveyed to the White Horse.
The firemen using four hose pipes discharged a great volume of water through the windows into various rooms and over the top of the edifice, in order to stem the progress of the flames upwards. They were anxious to save life, for the terrible truth became known that in the front room of the uppermost storey, were sleeping another female servant, Elizabeth Billington, and the elder child of Mr andMrs Dick, a four-year-old boy called Quentin. All the while Mr and Mrs Dick frantically inquired after the fate of the child and servant caught up in the blaze.
The firemen worked tirelessly and eventually Mr Marriott and some of his crew entered the premises. They made their way up the stairs, keeping the hoses upon the flames and making every effort to reach the room where the two were sleeping.
Shortly before 2am the flames were subdued sufficiently to enable the firemen to enter the room. The fire had not touched that part of the building but the ascending smoke and heat had done the damage.
The little boy lay dead in his crib in one corner, suffocated, and in the other corner of the room was the corpse of the unfortunate woman, her flesh scorched. She had, to all appearances, risen from her bed and tried to get to the window, but had been struck down before she reached it. The bodies were wrapped in sheets and carried to the White Horse where the survivors were receiving attention.
A large quantity of wood had been used in the construction of the building and as a consequence it had burned very quickly. The fire was believed to have started in the sitting room immediately over the shop and the property damage was mainly confined to the second and third storeys.
From an early hour of the morning there were vast crowds of spectators around the premises, which
appeared a disastrous wreck. Those gathered expressed great sympathy for the
victims and those caught up on the tragedy. The morning bulletin stated Mr Dick still lay in a precarious state while Mrs Dick appeared to be much disfigured and the servant woman was more
seriously injured than was first thought.
The fire brigade was praised for its excellent efforts, the main regret was that the brigade was not provided with fire escapes as used by other brigades in larger towns. It was felt that, had they possessed apparatus of that kind, they may have been able to prevent the loss of human life. On the Saturday morning the body of 14-year-old Elizabeth Billington was interred at
Goosnargh and on the following Monday a funeral procession made its way to Preston Cemetery, where young Quentin Dick was laid to rest.
That afternoon at the Police Court, the final inquest in to the two deaths took place and it was reported the victims were progressing well. Fire officers and policemen gave evidence and recalled the horrors of the night. Inspector Marriott told the gathering he had examined the premises, including the sitting room were the fire originated. He had found a defect in the flue behind the fire grate, in the brickwork where the wooden joists ran close by.
Part of the joists had burned away and in his opinion sparks from the fire in that grate had been the likely cause of the blaze.
The inquiry lasted for more than three hours and the coroner, Miles Myres, stated he was satisfied the deaths had been caused purely by accident. After conferring together for a few minutes the jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death by burning or suffocation’.
They accompanied their verdict with a recommendation that more suitable fire escape ladders should be provided for the fire brigade, a matter that was promptly dealt with in the months ahead.
Despite the tragedy the business of Mr T B Dick, established in 1850, continued in the Market Place until 1884 when they moved to premises in Heatley Street.