NEW YEAR'S DAY TRAGEDY

 

New Year's Day 1891

The sale-of-work was opened at 3 o'clock on Tuesday 30 December by Mr Greenwood Teale, one of the Church's patrons. Everyone agreed it was a roaring success. There a was a brightness about the proceedings as enthusiastic crowds bought up what was on offer from the various stalls; stalls loaded with 'things both useful and ornamental' and other fancy stalls fitted with all kinds of 'dainty articles'. By the time it closed that day £74 3s. 10d. had been raised.

The following day, the Hon Mrs Talbot performed the ceremony. On the Wednesday, New Year's Eve, the sale was almost as great a success as the previous day raising a further £37 5s. 7d. It was decided to present the first performance of the Snowflakes that night. It was such a triumph that Brameld was told 'The 'Theatricals,' were a great success. It was decided the children should perform again on the evening of New Year's Day.

In view of subsequent events, apparently no-one remarked after the performance of the dangers of the lighted lanterns and the cotton wool dresses. The vicar himself had not been present as he had been otherwise engaged. At the rehearsals which he had seen the lanterns had not been lit. He later bitterly reflected that had he known the performers were to carry lighted paper lanterns, 'I should have prohibited it, for I should certainly have considered it too dangerous.'

On the Thursday evening, about 150 people gathered for the children's performance. A Mrs Dixon of Amberley Road, the mother of Florrie Brookes, had gone to help to dress the children, but had left the room when the dressing was almost complete. Charles Clegg also left room to ensure that everything was ready on the stage. For some reason Eleanor Coleman was also not in the dressing-room. Later, the sexton, Mr Brookes, would testify that the all the girls 'were laughing amongst themselves and knocking about.' Left alone with fourteen excited young girls in the congested room Eli Auty was relieved when Fanny Craven, the 14 year-old pianist for the Snowflakes and her sister, Phoebe, arrived. He urged them to stay but his words were drowned out by the exuberant chattering of the girls. They left. Now Auty was alone again.

At about 7.15 pm a bell was rung in the sale-of-work room and the announcement made, 'This way for the Snow Girls.' The people began to gather for the performance paying the 2d. entrance fee to Byron Cowling. It was as Mrs Dixon left the dressing-room that Auty began lighting the girls' lamps.

Standing at the farthest corner from the door was 9 year-old Emily Tyrer. Auty had taken Florrie Brookes' candle to light Emily's and then turned away. Accounts differ as to what happened next. One version has it that unfortunately Florrie accidentally dropped her lantern on Emily's coat and the inflammable cotton wool immediately burst into flame. As she lay in Leeds Infirmary later, Emily repeatedly insisted, Florrie 'could not help it'.

Auty himself recounted another version:

We had lighted thirteen or fourteen lanterns and were about to illuminate the last one, when a spark fell upon the cotton wool jacket of Emily Tyrer. My theory as to the rapid spread of the fire is this; one of the girls was holding a naked light for me while I lit the lanterns, and I am afraid in her terror she rushed to the door with the light and stumbling over the other girls set them ablaze. It was the work of an instant.

burnt room
The dressing-room. This was the furthest corner of the room from the door and the place where the fire started. Note how congested it is.

Clarissa Roberts mother was later reported in the Bristol Mercury & Daily Post as vehemently denying this, claiming that whilst Clarissa lay in hospital the girl clearly stated, 'Oh Mamma! The girl whose lamp was alight threw it at me and burned me!'

There seems no doubt, however, what followed. Auty realising what had happened, swept Emily into his arms to extinguish the flames. He realised how quickly the fire had spread to the other girls as it engulfed their inflammable costumes in seconds. Crowded by the exit they desperately struggled to open the door and escape. Screaming , they jostled to scramble onto the stage but the chair that should have been there acting as the step was missing. By now their dresses were fully ablaze. Auty clambered onto the stage and tried to lift them but, as he later told a reporter from the Yorkshire Post, 'Whenever I tried to lift them up they slipped out of my hands.'

Charles Clegg, who was on the stage at the time, quickly responded as did George Brookes, an Oldfield Lane butcher and the part-time sexton and caretaker at the school. He whipped off his jacket and began to smother the flames. Others, seeing the situation, grabbed whatever coats they could off a nearby rack and rugs from a stall and began wrapping them around the girls in the hope of stifling the flames.

As smoke billowed across the room Osborne Taylor, a local forgeman, used his arm to smash through a window to let some air in as he looked for his daughter, Alice. He saw her as she called out, 'Oh father, come to me!' and he pulled off what burning wool he could from her clothes.

chair & stage
The door leading onto the stage. Note how it opens inwards and the chair is in position to act as a step. Auty insisted in his testimony that it was missing on the night.

Revd Buxton, the curate, seeing the disaster unfolding yelled, 'Fire!' whilst Byron Cowling looking up from taking admission fees at the front door saw two girls, their dresses in flames, scrambling across the stage and then tumbling to the floor. Three more panic-stricken, shrieking children, clothes also engulfed in flames, came fleeing after their friends. Buxton and Cowling smothered the blazing dresses as best they could.

Fanny and Phoebe, the two pianists, were on the platform when the first burning girl appeared. Frightened that they too might be set on fire, they fled. Ethel Fieldhouse, her clothes burning, ran after them. Carrie Steel's shoemaker father was sitting at home when his young son burst in screaming, 'For God's sake come to school, sister's burning to death!' Steel raced to the school but by then his daughter had gone. With her clothes still flaming, she had fled half a mile away to her grandmother's house.

Canon Brameld would later testify that from the time Auty noticed Emily's dress on fire to every flame being extinguished the time that elapsed was scarcely more than five minutes.

To two local doctors were hastily summoned. Dr Henry Waite of Armley was at Greenside Wesleyan Chapel half way through giving a New Year lantern slide show when he heard the news. Ten minutes later he was in the schoolroom. There chaos reigned. Through the smoke filled room 'demented people', as he described them, were rushing about getting in each others way. He declared he 'never saw anything like it.' Florrie Brookes, had managed to reach home and here a Dr Scott was summoned to treat her. 'Her features were scarcely recognisable,' he explained and admitted that she was so badly burnt, he thought for a moment that in desperation she had stripped off her clothes and then realised the clothes had actually been burnt away.

Wortley Police Station was alerted, Leeds Police Fire Brigade telegraphed and by 7.30 the first engines were on their way. Horse ambulances were supplemented by cabs to transport the injured to Leeds Infirmary whilst other casualties were carried on the on the top of the fire tenders.

It was a hopeless task for the Infirmary staff. Maggie Kitchen (10) was the first child who died passing away at 1.20 on the Friday morning. Clarissa Roberts (11) followed her at 6.20 that morning and minutes later Emily Lister (13) succumbed. At 6.45 Carrie Steel (9) perished followed at eight o'clock by Ethel Fieldhouse (14). By the time the Monday inquest met Ada Whitteron (11) had also expired.

Florrie Brookes (9) who was also known as Dixon, Elizabeth Tingle (12) and Harriet Riley (12) died over the weekend. Julia Anderson (9) and Emily Tyrer (9) whose real name was Sanderson but who had been adopted by her aunt and uncle, and used their surname died in the days following. Three survived the ordeal; Sarah Kitchen (14), Maggie's sister, lived to be sixty-five and Miriam Stokes (10) reached sixty but both were badly scarred and suffered all their lives from the trauma. Alice Taylor (14) would die some years later from her injuries.

Charles Clayton (27) a warehouse man of Western Grove, Osborne Taylor (46), of Western Grove, a forgeman and the father of Alice, Annie Tyrer (42) and the guardian of Emily, and Charles Clegg all suffered from burns to the hands. Eli Auty's injuries were so serious he was detained in Leeds Infirmary whilst Revd Ernest Buckton also underwent medical treatment.

 

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