NEW YEAR'S DAY TRAGEDY
Even before the jury's verdict had been announced passionate views on the incident had been expressed. Superintendent Baker, head of the Leeds Fire Brigade had commented the day after the incident, 'I don't wish to say anything against the vicar or anyone ... but I think it was a dangerous thing to dress children in such material'. The Railway Passengers' Assurance Co wrote to the Morning Post 'expressing the hope that this deplorable accident will lead to the disuse of cotton wool at Christmas and other festivities.' The Daily News was astonished 'that anyone should have exposed the unfortunate children to the risks which resulted so lamentably'.
The Leeds Mercury was initially more circumspect. 'We shall not presume here to anticipate the judgement which must be finally passed on this calamity, but the thought will suggest itself to everyone that a tableau of this kind was exceptionally dangerous.'
Canon Brameld, perhaps anticipating the fury that Fleet Street would heap on the organisers was reported as saying 'Mischief and injustice was, he thought, done by persons speaking and writing without a grave sense of responsibility.' Similarly the Armley and Wortley Sunday School Union passed a resolution against 'the harsh and cruel criticism of the press, especially the London press as altogether unnecessary and unwarrantable'.
But the press were not to be silenced neither before or after the verdict was announced.
The Daily News declared that 'some censure was inevitable' and that the findings of the jury faithfully represent the view of the case universally taken by the public.' The Standard observed that the 'carelessness and foolhardiness ... almost passed belief'; 'culpable folly' was The Times editorial's judgement on the committee's actions; the Daily Telegraph claimed those involved showed 'gross carelessness'; the Newcastle Chronicle lamented the lack of 'reasonable prudence'; the Birmingham Post contended that a better situation 'could scarcely have been devised' to bring about such a disaster. Only the Daily Graphic saying that a valuable lesson had been learnt and the Liverpool Courier arguing that 'good may come of its fatal consequences' showed a more positive view
But if the vicar and the committee hoped for a more sympathetic response from the local press they were mistaken. It was equally vitriolic and the Yorkshire Post fulminated on the 'fearful risk that these children ... were permitted to run'; the Armley and Wortley News remarked on a 'lamentable lack of caution'; 'only the reckless and stupid' would have embarked on such a scheme was the view of the Leeds Evening Express; the Yorkshire Evening Post lamented the 'palpable lack of forethought and caution which led to the sad affair'. The Mercury which had showed some restraint now fired off a damning salvo, 'The whole affair was a melancholy blunder as well as an accident. ... No-one was willing to take upon himself the responsibility for the disaster which it was.'
Revd Canon William Arthur Bromeld, a sensitive man, and a well-respected preacher, scholar and author, bitterly resented some of the findings of the inquest.
Brameld himself was furious and stated his case in the February edition of the Parish Magazine; 'It seems strange that indeed how a large portion of the press, and especially the London press, could so severely and unfairly prejudge the case, before the evidence had been given.' He went on to criticise that jury for condemning the entertainments committee.
'It has grieved me deeply that he [Mr Willans] and Mr Buckton should have had to share with me the scathing rebuke administered by the jury ... I must be content humbly to accept to what the jury said about me. I have no desire to shirk any responsibility. The Vicar of a parish is no doubt in a general way responsible for everything.'
He went on to defend Clegg, arguing that 'he was over anxious to tell all his story.' He ended agreeing with the need to introduce compulsory licensing of premises.
For years people in Wortley spoke of the horror of that New Year's Day in hushed and reverent tones. It passed into the folklore of the district but by the end of the twentieth century few people either in Leeds or in the township itself were even aware that such a disaster had ever occurred. A memorial still stands in the churchyard reminding people of the eleven young girls who died so tragically that January evening; but perhaps it should also act as a timely reminder to everyone that occasionally the best intentions of decent men and women if carried out without due forethought can have consequences every bit as devastating as the deeds of the most vicious criminal or the most malevolent fiend.
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