NEW YEAR'S DAY TRAGEDY
On Monday 17 November a meeting of the Ladies' Working Party chaired by Revd Brameld was called in the schoolroom. It was decided that St John's would hold a sale-of-work and that the vicar along with the new curate, Revd Buckton, and Mr John Russell Willans, one of the sidesmen, would form the committee. They decided to hold no formal meetings but fixed the date for the last two days of December 1890 and New Year's Day 1891.
A varied programme was drawn up; a 'Fine Art Gallery' was offered, the Wortley Orchestral Band under a Mr Robinson would be invited to play and John Willans promised to direct The Lodging House, what the Armley and Wortley News described as, 'the notable play'. It was felt that it would also be appropriate to involve the children in some way and the suggestion was made that they could be employed to perform in a concert. The obvious person to put in charge of this part of the evening would be Eli Auty, the young Band of Hope leader, of 12 Oldfield Street and a man who had been associated with the Church since childhood. Charles Clegg, a warehouse man at Goodall & Backhouse Co, and who lived at 7 Western Grove, Lower Wortley and Eleanor Coleman, a 17 year-old servant girl to a Mrs Steele of 112 Thornhill Road were given responsibility for organising the performance. What the concert should entail was left to them.
Eleanor first approached the Band of Hope children to see if they would participate but as the response was poor Auty told her he would arrange to get the volunteers. The net was spread wider and at least one child, Clarissa Roberts, from Whingate Wesleyan Chapel was involved. Her mother would later insist that neither she nor Clarissa were happy about the involvement but that they had been pestered to the point they gave in.
It was Eleanor who came up with the idea for the content of the concert, a tableaux to represent the winter season. She had witnessed a performance of children performing as Snowflakes at Lower Wortley United Methodists six months earlier and everyone knew that similar performances had taken place at Mount Pisgah the United Methodist Church on Tong Road and at Southfield Primitive Methodists. She explained to Auty and Clegg the requirements; the children would carry lighted candles in paper Chinese lanterns and wear jackets and hats covered with cotton wool. Canon Brameld was never told about the cotton wool costumes or lighted lanterns but the parents certainly knew about the dresses.
They in fact had been asked to supply the costumes, made of calico covered with cotton wool. They had to be long enough to reach the children's feet. In fact, as testified at the inquest later, 'with the exception of their feet, the whole of their bodies and limbs were covered, the wool being 'tdased out.'
What followed when Eleanor had made the suggestion is not clear. At the inquest, both Clegg and Auty stated that they initially wanted nothing to do with the idea, Auty claiming, 'It was a load of rubbish.' Clegg argued that he, too, had said he wanted no part in the performance. Eleanor vehemently protested that, 'Mr Auty said he would very much like to have Snowflakes,' and that Clegg had not objected nor that she had repeatedly gone to Clegg's house to persuade him. Whatever actually transpired, the fact is that both Clegg and Auty did finally agreed to be involved in the production. The details of the performance were then drawn up for the vicar to include them in the printed programme.
The programme itself announced '" Snowflakes" by ye younge children of ye schools'. It would entail the children parading about the very small stage carrying their lighted lanterns and singing carols. Ethel Fieldhouse, one of the older girls and a recent Sunday school prize winner, would recite 'A Day in the Snow,' and Caroline Steel - she was always known as Carrie - would deliver 'Call Me Early Mother Dear', Tennyson's famous poem. Its words would take on a poignant meaning subsequently:
If you're waking call me early, call me early, mother dear;
For I would see the sun rise upon the glad New Year.
It is the last New Year that I shall ever see,
Then you may lay me low i' the mould and think no more of me.
Auty, with Clegg assisting, rehearsed the children on the Saturday. Auty had offered to make the lanterns and Eleanor advised him to fix a wire arm at the top to keep the lantern free. Once made they were taken to Clegg's house where both men tried them out. Auty was not satisfied. He decided to cut a wider aperture for the candles to make them apparently safer. Eleanor also insisted that she warned the children to carry the sticks with the lanterns upright at all times. Clegg denied ever having heard her say this. Auty had certainly made it clear to the girls that should their paper lantern catch fire it should immediately be thrown away.
The schoolroom was an L-shaped building with an exit next to a gate onto Lower Wortley Road. The largest room was to hold the sale-of- work. At right angles to this building and parallel to the road ran the rest of the building that was divided into two smaller rooms. The first of these butted onto the sale-of-work room. It was here the performance would take place. The room contained a very small stage which had been temporarily extended. The extension, however, had been erected in front of the door which led into the third room, the dressing-room. The only exit from here was made by climbing onto the stage using a chair as a step, whilst the door opened into the dressing-room. The main problem in an emergency was that it would be difficult to open as the performers tended to congregate in front of it as they waited here to go on stage.
Local legend has it that it was locked. It was not. This idea probably circulated because in the December edition of the parish magazine the vicar had complained that latecomers to Sunday school were disrupting classes and that the doors would be locked once lessons started.
The stage itself was congested; a piano, a table, a pair of chairs and a pair of steps restricted the area. In order to reach the stage from the dressing-room it was necessary to climb up via a step, in reality a wooden chair. The dressing-room itself was also over-crowded with benches, chairs, two sewing machines, a harmonium, and other pieces of furniture whilst on the end wall an unguarded fire was burning in the grate. The room was illuminated by a single gas lamp with six mantles.
In December William Brameld prepared the January edition of the parish magazine. The words he wrote would have an ironic ring by the time they reached the homes of the parishioners. 'I begin the New Year with real hopefulness, and great thankfulness to ALMIGHTY GOD.'
The run up to Christmas was typical of any year. The 'Messiah' was being performed at the Coliseum in Cookridge Street, the Jewish Board of Guardians were holding their third annual charity ball, the press was full of adverts for the local stores; Schofields offered evening dresses in the 'newest fabrics', Marshall and Snelgrove advertised a variety of goods suitable for Christmas presents, and the Grand Pygmalion on Boar Lane, Leeds' first and largest department store, announced 'Extraordinary value in High Class Xmas and New Year Cards'.
In Leeds the news that caught the imagination was that a driverless engine had somehow smashed into the buffers at Central Sation, mounted the platform and killed a woman. And people too occupied with the festive season very probably ignored the news about Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish politician, and his many problems or that an Indian rising in USA had seen the cavalry sent in to quell it. After all it was Christmas and matters nearer home were of greater importance.
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