NEW YEAR'S DAY TRAGEDY
A Nation Mourns
Within hours the news of the tragedy had been telegraphed across the kingdom. In Scotland the Aberdeen Weekly Journal and the Dundee Courier and Argus carried the story; in Ireland the Belfast Newsletter and Dublin's Freeman's Journal. In England from the North-Eastern Daily Gazette in Middlesbrough to the Bristol Daily Mercury and London's Pall Mall Gazette, and the Morning Post all told the same sorry tale. Nearer home the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent and the York Herald carried accounts whilst the local papers - the Leeds Mercury, the Leeds Daily News, the Leeds Evening Express, the Yorkshire Post and the recently launched Yorkshire Evening Post were united in the horror they described.
Inevitably with reports made at speed and over such distances mistakes were made. Florrie Brookes was also named as Brooks and Brook and is described as being both the daughter and sister of George Brookes the sexton. Several reports gave the name of the vicar as Trower, but Revd Trower had left six months previously for Otley. Some newspapers, including The Times, stated that fifteen children were involved in the catastrophe by when in fact only fourteen were actually involved. The YEP's headline - 'Fifteen Children Die in Flames' - was equally wrong. The number who perished was eleven, though one girl, Alice Taylor (14) would die some years later from her injuries.
Journalistic errors apart, it was a national disaster and the horror and sorrow reflected in the various reports over the following days, whether they were accurate or otherwise, was genuine. The Daily Graphic went to the expense of sending its graphic artist, Gilbert Foster, to record the scene. Photographs were not used in the British press up to that point.
Foster's three illustrations showed the schoolroom, the dressing-room in a state of chaos and the doorway leading to the stage beyond with the chair that should have played such a crucial part in the escape route. Was that artistic licence? Auty insisted that the chair was not in position on the fateful evening. Whatever the truth, the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Leeds Evening Express reproduced the pictures.
The Mercury went on to report that Brameld and Buxton had been 'untiring in their efforts to alleviate the suffering'. According to Willie Benn, the vicar, a man 'of a highly strung nature and very tender and kindly disposition', had been at the Infirmary all hours whilst the 'anxiety and lack of repose have told considerably on his health'. It affected him so much so that on the Friday night he collapsed in the hospital and was detained overnight. The Revd Buckton's health was equally so impaired.
It was a tragedy that so moved the nation Queen Victoria instructed the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, to contact the mayor. He telegraphed the simple message; 'I am commanded by the Queen to inquire into the young sufferers in the recent fire who are still in hospital and to express Her Majesty's deep sympathy.'
From across the country Brameld was inundated with scores of letters of sympathy and he felt obliged to publically acknowledge them in a letter to the Leeds Mercury. He concluded, 'Human sympathy, after all, is a great help, and we all, clergy and people alike, feel strengthened and supported by it. It is impossible in the present strain and stress to answer all the letters, however much one longs to do so.'
But a few letters were anything but sympathetic, neither to Auty nor to St John's Church generally. Auty was singled out for damning and vicious accusations whilst others declared this was nothing less than Divine Judgement on the Church for allowing sinful 'Theatricals' to be performed in its precincts. Brameld was scathing in his condemnation of those who decried Auty and declared that the criticism of 'such a simple performance as we had in our schoolroom' was 'little short of downright blasphemy against our Loving Father in Heaven'.
But it was clear where the vast majority of people's sympathy lay. The amount of public distress can be judged by the number of people in the district who drew their blinds on the following Sunday and then turned out to pay their final respects at the funerals of the first four victims. Prayers for the bereaved families were said in various churches across Leeds that morning. The Vicar of Leeds came to Wortley and spoke to the packed congregation at St John's. The vicars at St Bartholomew's, St Mary's in Tong Road, New Wortley Parish Church, Armley Hall Church and the ministers at the Wesleyan chapels at Greenside and Wesley Road, all spoke feelingly about the tragedy.
That afternoon thousands flocked to the graveyards and Sunday schools in West Leeds closed early to allow the children to attend the funerals. Whether the numbers actually reached the 20,000 recorded in the press is immaterial. The fact is that thousands did turn out that Sunday afternoon to witness the first four funerals of the victims. Carrie Steel and Maggie Kitchen were buried in the churchyard; Ethel Fieldhouse and Emily Lister at Oldfield Lane cemetery. The joint funerals for Carrie and Maggie were held beginning with a service in the church being conducted by the vicar assisted by Revd Buckton. The crowd was so large vast numbers had to stand outside the building under the leafless trees of the bleak January churchyard. Ironically, among the mourners were Mr and Mrs Peter Kitchen, Maggie's grandparents, who fifty years previously were the first couple ever to marry in the church.
During the service the congregation sang 'Christ will gather in His own' and as the mourners left the building, the organist played Handel's 'Dead March' from Saul. Interment followed in the churchyard with school friends and teachers acting as bearers. Once that service was over the funerals of Ethel Fieldhouse and Emily Lister followed at the municipal cemetery on Oldfield Lane. There Brameld and Buckton conducted the service in the chapel and the rites at the grave side.
On Monday thousands again gathered to witness the burial of Clarissa Roberts despite a snow storm sweeping over the district. The funerals continued all week. Ada Whitteron's was attended by pupils from Upper Wortley school, led in their mourning by Eli Howe the headmaster. The Armley and Wortley News's reports on the sad occasions resorted to cliché; 'Women and children sobbed and strong men were moved to tears' it declared. But irrespective of Victorian sentimentality and that society's obsession with death, the district's feelings were genuinely sincere.
Others, however, saw the whole tragic affair as an opportunity to be exploited to the full. Such a one was William Robinson Lucas. He travelled from Huddersfield on the Sunday realising that large crowds, intent on paying their respects to the dead girls, would be off their guard. He made for Oldfield Lane cemetery where he quietly watched the mass of mourners occupied with the funeral rites. He singled out Minnie Thorpe, a young woman absorbed in the service, and tried to pick her pocket. Fortunately she sensed something amiss and Lucas was apprehended. The purse he attempted to steal contained just 2s. 7d. On being arrested and examined further in Upper Wortley police station, he admitted a further theft, this time of the purse from a person called Lily Stocking and which contained 1s. 5½d.
Lucas was not alone. Others also attempted to take advantage of a community absorbed in sorrow. Unscrupulous printers began to produce mourning cards and then employed young boys to peddle them in the streets of the town. A memorial appeal supposedly signed by Mr Brameld was launched. It proved to be bogus, the work of two confidence tricksters who had begun collecting in the area and authenticating their activity by showing the vicar's signature. William Brameld had never seen the petition. Their nefarious activity was exposed only when they called at the home of one of the deceased girls and asked the parents for a contribution.
Fortunately, these were rare occurrences and the general response from the public was both sympathetic and generous. A relief fund to pay the funeral expenses was set up with the vicar as chairman and representatives of the community involved. Gifts both large and small flowed into it from across the country. The Wortley Conservative Association donated £1 1s. 1d., whilst one person, whom the Church magazine described as 'A Poor Woman', gave 3d. The Yorkshire Rugby Union Committee meeting at the Green Dragon in Leeds set aside £50 to be given to aid the families of those of the girls whose recovery necessitated being sent to a convalescent home. The Sunday school teachers and children decided to furnish the church with a new lectern as their lasting tribute.
But questions had still to be answered as to how such a dreadful and catastrophic event could ever have occurred.
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