NEW YEAR'S DAY TRAGEDY
Eli Auty quickly issued a statement to the press. He felt aggrieved at the criticism levelled at him and took the first opportunity the justify his actions:
I am a clerk in the employ of Messrs Arthur & Co, wholesale clothiers, Leeds. I am 26 years of age and have been associated with the school from childhood. During the past eighteen months I have been in charge of the infant school, with 80 to 100 children. ... It was not at first intended to have the Chinese lanterns lighted, but a contrary resolve was made about Christmas week the notion being to make the display more effective. ... This class of entertainment was not a novelty in Wortley ... The parents were very willing that their children should engage on this occasion ... The vicar never gave expression to disapproval of the lighted lamps in my hearing; and the curate must have known that on New Year's Eve they were used..
Less then than twenty-four hours after the disaster, Mr J C Malcolm, the coroner opened the inquest in Leeds Town Hall on the first six girls who had died. Present were Mr Alf Cooke the mayor , the town clerk Sir George Morrison and the assistant factory inspector, a Mr Dawson.
Present in the court were Revd Dr Talbot the Vicar of Leeds, Canon Brameld, Revd Buckton, the Chief Constable Mr F T Webb and Superintendent Baker, Chief of the Leeds Police Fire Brigade.
Mr Malcolm's opening remarks stressed the gravity of the situation to the jury. He began:
I don't see there is any hope the inquiry being finished today. The circumstances appear to be so grave and serious a character they will require very careful consideration on your part because if we are to take the report that has appeared in the papers we have to look upon the matter in the light that these children have been placed in what we may call a maximum amount of danger. ... the conduct of those in charge should be inquired into because there is a grave responsibility on their part. ... One reason that you cannot complete the inquiry today, even if all the information was brought before you, is that we do not yet know the full extent of the calamity.
Mr Moynihan, the resident surgeon at the Infirmary testified that the cause of death of Maggie Kitchen, Clarissa Roberts, Emily Lister, Carrie Steel, Ethel Fieldhouse, and Ada Whitteron was 'shock from burns received'.
He further stressed that the prognosis on other victims was not good. John Lister, the father of Emily admitted he knew she had taken part in the performance but he could not say he felt there was any danger in it. The fathers of the other four dead girls, Arthur Kitchen, Joseph Roberts, William Fieldhouse and Joshua Steel, all admitted that they too had seen no danger.
Mr Brameld was then called. He testified that had he known what the entertainment involved he would certainly have banned it. Charles Clegg explained how they cautioned the children about the lighted lamps and went on to describe them as 'not ordinary Chinese ones. They were about a penny each. All of them were round lanterns ... In order to make the lanterns safe we put wires on the sticks.'
The court was then informed that Mr Auty could not attend because of the injuries he had suffered trying to extinguish the flames. The corner agreed to adjourn until the following Wednesday. The mayor then added his personal sympathy to the families and added that the 'clergy and other gentlemen who had charge of the entertainment had the sympathy of all classes'. By Monday Florrie Brookes, Elizabeth Tingle and Harriet Riley had also died over the weekend.
Canon Brameld was again present on the Wednesday as were several parents of the dead children and the police surgeon, Mr Ward. The coroner announced that Dr Waite from Armley had contacted him to say that Revd Buckton was so ill he could not leave his room whilst Mr Moynihan had also stated that Auty's condition in Leeds Infirmary was still so precarious that bringing him to court at that time could be 'fraught with danger for him'.
Superintendent Dalton described the scene of the tragedy and then exhibited the remains of one of the costumes, a sample of the cotton wool used and the lanterns used. Both Charles Clegg, and Fanny Craven, a girl who had been in the dressing-room before the incident, both testified they had used the chair to climb onto the stage and Osborne Taylor, the father of one of the girls involved, claimed 'he saw a little girl trying to get onto the chair to cross the platform ... she was in flames.' Yet Auty stated emphatically to the Yorkshire Post that the chair was missing.
The coroner put it to Brameld that as vicar he was head of all the arrangements. He went on:
And it should be explained how it is that two gentlemen like Mr Auty and Mr Clegg could bring about an entertainment which is now proved to be dangerous without having your approval or the approval of the members of the committee.
I consider neither Mr Buckton not Mr Willans had the slightest responsibility as to this part of the entertainment. They never heard a word about it.
The final part of the inquest took place on Wednesday 14 January. Eli Auty appeared with his hands heavily bandaged and burn marks showing on his neck. He said he initially rejected Eleanor Coleman's suggestion as being 'rubbish' but then relented and told the vicar they intended the children to preform as Snowflakes. He did not tell him how they would be dressed nor did he ever speak to Mr Willans or Mr Buckton about it. Buckton himself admitted seeing the children with the lanterns lit on the Wednesday evening but said he saw no apparent danger.
The coroner then summed up advising the jury to put aside all feelings of sympathy or condemnation they may have had or what they had read in the press. The jury then retired for about three-quarters of an hour before returning their verdict. They declared :
The clothing of the children for that entertainment was of a most dangerous material; that the danger was greatly increased by supplying the children with lights; that the arrangements were such as to further increase the danger by having an unguarded fire in the dressing-room; by the crowded state of the room with benches, chairs and other furniture, the difficult means of access for the children to and from the stage, and the want of space on the stage for such an entertainment.
We further find that the Revd Canon Barmeld, the Revd E F Buckton, and Mr J R Willans, as members of the committee for the sale-of-work, accepted a duty and responsibility as to all the arrangements and entertainments connected therewith, as announced in the programme, and that they have not exercised such forethought, care and supervision, as such duty imposed upon them.
Though finding a verdict of accidental death, we find there has been great negligence on their part. We also find there was negligence on the part of Mr Auty and Mr Clegg, who had accepted the special care of the children; and we are not satisfied with the manner or truthfulness of Mr Clegg.
We recommend that the Licensing Authority should consider the advisability of withdrawing the resolution as to the free use schoolrooms for such entertainments.
We desire to express our admiration of the conduct of the vicar and others who were present and assisted in the rescue and removal of the children, and particularly of the conduct of Mr Auty in the trying and dangerous position in which he was placed.
The jury then handed a £1 to the coroner to be given to the memorial fund. The inquest was over. The judgment of the nation was not.
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