Fire at Gaddesden Place Part 2 of 3

a old grainy image of the gaddesden place building grand front facade after the fire was put out the windows are black and gaps through the front door can be seen the brick work is covered in black markings
The destruction caused by the fire at Gaddesden Place.

In our last newsletter, Fire at Gaddesden Place Part 1 of 3 we introduced the tragic events of 1st February 1905 and the fire which cost Sir Thomas Halsey his home, his belongings and the lives of two men working there.

In this second instalment of three, which the Gazette described as ‘The Shocking Sequel’, we will set out what happened, including the accounts of the police constables and firemen in charge that day.

It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that the fire began to diminish, and the different brigades began to leave and return to their stations. There were still several firemen who stayed on site, as areas of the building were reigniting in places.

‘I was greatly surprised to learn that men were down there. I did not consider it safe’, were the words of James Burles the second officer of John Dickinson and Co’s fire brigade. So why were a group of men still in the dangerous building?

James Neil Cornes was the bailiff to Sir Halsey. He reported that at 2:30pm the butler came to him and asked if he could have some carts to transport the wine from the cellar. When the carts arrived, the butler seemed to have changed his mind about removing the wine. James Cornes witnessed Sir Kerr, the tenant of Gaddesden Place at the time of the fire, say to the butler ‘Whatever you do don’t run the slightest risk, lose absolutely all the wine rather than a life.’ However, at this point the butler said he had been assured by the firemen that the cellar was safe from the fire. ‘I am solely responsible for all the wine, and that’s why I didn’t like to move it out of my charge.’ These were some of the last words the butler said to James Cornes, before he and the other men entered the cellar at 5:45pm.

There seems to have been a lot of indecision regarding the wine, as there are accounts from different people in the Gazette who said that the wine had been taken out, put back, taken out and put back again. The last account is from two fire firemen who were also in the cellar at the time the cellar ceiling collapsed.

Sidney James Clark, a Berkhamsted Brigade fire fighter described that, while the supply to the water stopped on debris in the passage, the butler had asked him, ‘What do you think of this lot; do you consider it is safe?’ Sidney Clark’s reply was ‘No, I don’t think it is’, and so the butler replied, ‘Go upstairs and call some men; I will have the wine taken out again.’ Moments after this Sidney heard the butler exclaim, ‘My God’, and the crash came immediately after.

There were five men in the cellar at the time. The butler William Paton aged 45, the footman James Henry Jones Smart aged 21, P. C. Limbrick, Fireman Sidney Clark, and an older man, an ex-postman called Alfred Dolt. Alfred, Sidney and P.C. Limbrick escaped through a broken window.

a grainy image of inside the cellar show the curved ceiling and bricks piled up in the centre of the room.
The scene inside the cellar once William and James had been recovered taken by local photographer Culverhouse. © The Dacorum Heritage Trust Ltd

From outside, they could hear the screams of the footman. Sidney returned to the cellar and saw that another Lieutenant, who had heard the crash and the subsequent cries for help, was holding the footman’s head. The men attempted to lift him from the debris, but he was too firmly fixed and hot ashes kept falling down upon him. They managed to free him using pickaxes. He was covered with dust and his clothes burnt to his skin. He was conscious, asking for water, so a carriage was called and he was sent to West Hertfordshire Infirmary. He died at 9am the following morning from the injuries he sustained in the cellar.

It is understood that the butler, William Paton’s death was instantaneous, caused by a broken neck from the collapse of the ceiling.

Immediately after the inquest the body of James was carried in a hearse to Boxmoor Station, and taken by train for Ketley, near Wellington, Salop, where his funeral took place. A beautiful wreath from Sir Kerr and family, and another from the servants, were placed upon the coffin. However, it was decided by William Paton’s brother to spare the butler’s family further pain and expense by holding the funeral at Great Gaddesden and not his hometown of Dalry, Ayrshire, Scotland. Arrangements were therefore made for a funeral, attended by the deceased’s brother (Mr Campbell), Sir Kerr, M.P., and the servants, who had been residing at various cottages in the village since the fire. It was described as an impressive service, held in a crowded village church: ‘the service was deeply impressive, many persons being moved to tears.’

The grey bricks tower high showing the church against the backdrop of a clear blue sky
We attempted to find the grave of William Paton at St John's the Baptist Church in Great Gaddesden. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful. © The Dacorum Heritage Trust Ltd

It is hard to read the accounts of that day and not feel frustrated. Why did William Paton enter the cellar? He had been warned by several firefighters and others on site of the danger, but he still instructed groups of men to carry cases of wine back and forth. The only thing we can perhaps think about is the context of that day and the pressures on a butler, subservient to the whims and demands of his master. Sir Halsey, the owner of Gaddesden Place, had visited the site that day.

We know that Sir Halsey was visibly distraught and ‘keenly distressed’ by his visit. The Gazette details his visit as ‘the demon of fire, was well-nigh unbearable, and Mr. Halsey bent forward visibly affected. He viewed the remains of the house from all sides and conversed with’ those present. The insurance company estimated the damage to the house as £125,000; in today’s money this was close to £10million.

Perhaps seeing the damage firsthand and the weight of the thousands who had come to view the scene had an effect on William. Possibly, he felt the weight of responsibility of what could be saved and wanted to help protect Sir Halsey’s very expensive collection of wine, to ease his distress.

We know that following the major fire at Gaddesden Place, it was understood that the local Hemel Hempstead Fire Brigade required an improvement in resources, and funding for a new engine was needed. But what were these improvements and how did they fund this? This is what we want to find out for the next newsletter. Until then, we will do a bit more research and report back!


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