Fatal Fire at Vyse Sons and Company Limited Factory
The remains of Vyse Sons and Company hat factory in 1930 [FSD/PH5/2]
On 25th February 1930 Luton suffered a disaster when a hat factory in the town centre caught fire. The premises was at 47 to 53 Bute Street and belonged to Vyse, Sons & Company Limited. Here is the story as told by the Luton News on 27th February.
Luton is reeling under a blow of paralyzing intensity. To the world at large the awful consequences of the great fire at the premises of Vyse, Sons & Co. Ltd., Bute-street, on Tuesday, are a tragic event, calling for sympathy and mourning; to Luton it is a haunting calamity, the memory of which will not pass with this generation.
Never has such a disaster been experienced by the town within living memory, for the loss of life outweighs all financial consideration, and it is quite true to say that there is not a household in the town and district that has not felt the imminence of the Shadow of Death this week.
To lay hold of the threads of events that transpired so rapidly on the fateful day, and present them in ordered sequence is impossible, for eye-witnesses from first to last have but a confused consciousness of what they saw, so speedily did the dreadful images come and go.
Viewed from a distance, without the knowledge of the tragedy involved, the spectacle was deeply impressive. Great floods of smoke rose high in the heavens covering the town as with a pall until daylight was almost turned to blackness, then they scurried away across the town as though fleeing from the broad, lurid tongues that leapt far above the highest buildings – flames that threatened for nearly an hour, multiplying in length and breadth, until it seemed as though the whole of the environments of the town’s main trade artery must be engulfed.
IN THE EARLY STAGES
Those at hand saw little of majesty in the scene, but were overwhelmed by the sense of awe and dread, and though now and again there were feelings of relief as those who had been menaced with death were delivered, the piteous appeals for help that pierced the roar and hiss and crackle of the flames reacted with tortuous anguish upon the increasing assembly, for the multitude knew their utter helplessness. People flitted to and fro trying to devise some method of egress for the victims, but fire and fumes barred the way all too effectively.
To the efforts of the firemen were added those of willing helpers, and God alone knows how many real heroes actually endeavoured to avert the doom that eventually overtook the imprisoned.
Men and women wrung their hands in agony of apprehension and helplessness; many prayed aloud or silently as a last resource. Parents and children concerned for the welfare of relatives went frantic with joy as they embraced the fugitives.
Meanwhile the firemen struggled desperately and manfully at their hopeless task, often entering into the very jaws of death. Policemen were patient and persuasive with the anxious and courteous to the curious, and in the circumstances the behaviour of the crowd generally was admirable.
GRIM AND GAUNT DESOLATION
When the great blaze had been subdued, and a mere skeleton of brickwork and twisted girders rose above the heap of smouldering ruins, the knowledge that somewhere among the ashes were charred and broken bodies that had begun the day with the joy and laughter of life, a reverent hush fell upon the people, and the only noise was that of the firemen and police as they went about their business on the scene of chaos and destruction.
Thousands of people visited the street during the day, and after nightfall, but as the hours passed they gradually diminished in numbers until the firemen and police were left to their vigil amidst grim and gaunt desolation.
Yesterday morning the utter state of destruction was revealed. The firemen began their dismal duty of searching the debris. A wood screen was hastily flung up, so that they were obscured from view long before the discovery of the first body. Articles of clothing were withdrawn from the sump-like waste, including a coat that was practically undamaged, and near at hand the first human remains, charred and almost unrecognisable. Remains of two others were discovered in the early afternoon, a fourth was brought to light a little later, and when, towards evening work was on the point of being closed for the day, the remaining two were located.
So ended a gruesome task, and in the mortuary they await formal identification.
To some readers there may be significance in the fact that this fire was the thirteenth to which the Brigade were summoned this month. The majority will fervently pray that it may be the last, and that it will remain unparalleled in the history of the town.
The victims were: -
- Mary Jane Betts, 75, widow, of 57, Ashton-road, Luton.
- Grace Deller, 23, of 5, Tower-road, Luton.
- Phyllis Jones, 21, of 74, Butlin-road, Luton.
- Doris Holt of 4, Bigthan-road, Dunstable.
- Edward Hucklesby, 40, single, of 27, Havelock-road, Luton, and
- Kenneth Soper, 25, married, of 12, Ascot-road, Luton.
- Amos Punter, 58, of 85, Ashton-road, Luton.
- Arthur William Hare, 42, of 25, Langley-road, Luton.
Mrs. Mary Jane Betts, by such a tragic death, ended many years of service with Messrs. Vyse. For a long time she worked at the company’s headquarters in Wood-street, E. C. She was the first bride to be married in St. Andrew’s Church, Woodside, but for six years she had been a widow. Despite this, she managed to support an invalid sister, Miss Lee. She was exceedingly active of her age, and is understood to have started to escape, and then returned to retrieve her work basket, which contained various personal possessions.
Miss Grace Deller, milliner, aged 23, was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Deller, of 5 Tower-road, hart-hill, Luton.
Miss Phyllis Jones was a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Jones, of 74, Butlin-road, Luton and only attained her majority on January 1st. On Saturday week she entertained a number of friends, including some of her fellow milliners, at a party to celebrate the event, and her birthday presents were still set out on a table in the front room at her home, when she met her death. A well-known worker at St. Peter’s Mission Church, she had been for three years a member of the Parochial Church Council.
“Phyllis was a beautiful girl, beloved by everybody” said her mother. “It is terrible. We cannot realise that she will never come back”.
Miss Doris (“Dolly”) Holt was one of the four daughters of Mr. and Mrs. K. Holt of 4, Bigthan-road, Dunstable. She was a popular girl, and had a large number of friends in both Luton and Dunstable, and she and her sisters, who all work in Luton, were well-known passengers on the L. & N. E. R. between Luton and Dunstable.
Mr. Edward Hucklesby, who was employed as head clerk, was 40 years of age, and the son of Mr. and Mrs. H. E. Hucklesby, of 27, Havelock-road, Luton. He was a member of Wellington-street Choir, the Co-operative Society Choir, and Luton Choral Society. Mrs. Hucklesby said, “I kept his dinner hot for him, and di not know there had been a fire until 2 o’clock. My son is never late, and I could not think what had become of him. From what I have heard, he lost his life either through going back for his books – he was very devoted to his work – or else trying to find what had become of a friend”.
Mr. Ken Soper was a son of Mr. Walter S. (“Wally”) Soper of 241, High Town-road, Luton, who was a director of Luton Town Football Club until two or three years ago and a well-known High Town resident. The family have an added sorrow in that fact that deceased’s mother is lying seriously ill at her home.
Mr. Amos Punter has been for many years a regular worshipper at Luton Parish Church, and is the father of Mr. George Punter, F. R. C. O., L. R. A. M., A. R. C. M., L. T. C. L, organist of Sutton Wesleyan Church who was for many years assistant organist to Mr. Fred Gostelow at Luton Parish Church and at Luton Hoo. He was very well-known in the staple trade.
Mr. Arthur William Hare, who is a married man with two sons, is an ex-Bandmaster, and now leader of the Salvation Army Luton II Corps male voice party. He has been connected with Luton II Corps for 16 years, and was an active organiser.
This morning they were both in extremely critical condition.
THE PRESUMED CAUSE OF THE FIRE
Mr. Alec Staddon informed us officially that the showroom floor was stained on Monday ready for beeswaxing as soon as the polish was ready for use. Hare was given the task of preparing the beeswax, and was heating it over a lighted gas ring. It is presumed that some of the liquid spilt over and came into contact with the flames, and it immediately burst into flames, setting light to Hare, who tried to put out the flames without success When the fire began Mr. Alec Staddon was talking to his brother, who is a member of the staff of Messrs. S. Hubbard Ltd., on the telephone. Suddenly he smelt and saw smoke, shouted “The place is on fire”, instantly placed on the receiver, and ran away to investigate. His fears were well founded, and a telephone message was immediately sent to the Fire Brigade.
Valuable time was lost through the call not being given from the alarm point at the Guildford-street corner of Bute-street, which is within a very few yards of the building. Had this been pulled, it would not only have called the Brigade, but given the approximate location of the fire to every member of the Brigade who received the call. Instead, the telephone bell rang, there was a shout, and that was all. The duty man had to secure the attention of an Exchange operator to ascertain the number of the caller, and then attempt to get a call. When this evoked no answer, he discovered, by further inquiry, that the number was that of Messrs. Vyse Sons & Co., Ltd. and immediately turned out the Brigade.
A series of telephone calls followed from the occupiers of neighbouring premises, which were endangered, and someone pulled the alarm, but valuable minutes had been lost.
Chief Officer Andrew was, at the time, investigating some troubles in the Lee Ward, where hydrant-marking plates and lines from the alarm posts have been tampered with. Talk with him was quickly established and he came in at once on the tender he was using at the time.
In the meantime Second Officer Jesse Plummer, passing the George-street end of Bute-street, saw there was a serious fire, and that an engine had turned in from the other end of the street. When he got to the fire nothing was said, at first, about people being still in the building, although flames were already shooting across the street.
Then screams were heard, but it was impossible to get near the spot from which they appeared to originate. This was on the “Engine” side of the factory, which, erected 27 years ago, runs back well over 100 feet, and largely consisted of four floors and basement.
JUMPING SHEET BURNT
Although restricted space made manoeuvring difficult, the turntable long ladder, which was backed into the “Engine” yard, was raised to one of the windows, from which it appeared the rescue could be made. In the window framework of wrought steel, it jammed, and could not be moved, so a jumping sheet was spread on the glass roof one floor below the window, where there were some of the girls, and they were urged to jump on to this. They failed to do so, and ultimately fell back inside.
In their vain endeavours to effect rescue in this way the firemen kept the jumping sheet there until the fierce heat compelled them to retire, by which time the jumping sheet was so badly burned that it is now unrecognisable.
TURNTABLE LADDER DAMAGED
The turntable ladder, wedged in the steel framework of the window, was partly burned through and the woodwork broke completely, as it was wrenched clear, and only remained connected to the rest of the machine by the steel stave, and has been sent to the Greenwich works of the makers, Messrs. Merryweathers, for repair.
RAGING INFERNO IN A FEW MINUTES
It seemed to take only a few minutes for the whole place to become a raging inferno, with windows crashing, flames coming through the roof, and the whole area a sea of fire and smoke which made it seem practically impossible that the premises which were the origin of the fire should be the only ones doomed.
Harpenden and Hitchin Brigades were called upon by Chief Officer Andrew for assistance and promptly responded. The Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard and Hitchin Brigades also arrived, railway firemen joined in the fray, and the additional man-power so provided was very welcome. As all the hydrants in the neighbourhood were in use, two brigades got to work from the river, which runs close by, St. Albans did not respond to an appeal.
Probably for the first time in history, the London Fire Brigade offered Luton any assistance that was required, but it was then possible to express thanks and say that the worst period being past, there would be little useful work they could do by the time they got there, and that there was then plenty of strength available for the work still to be done.
The help of the Luton Hoo Fire Brigade was also tendered by Chief Officer Herring, but Chief Officer Andrew was then able to make a report that the Brigades which had already arrived made it unnecessary for Luton Hoo to come.
Similarly the Private Fire Brigades’ Association offered help, and agreed to provide men for the watch throughout the night.
All that was known in the early stages of the fire was that two men, one of whom had been running about in flames, had been removed to hospital in a very serious condition, and that some women had been seen to fall into the flames while trying to get away.
Within half-an-hour of the outbreak, the roof had fallen in and everywhere was such a raging furnace that there could be not the slightest hope for anyone who had been trapped.
WILLING BUT HELPLESS
Gallant attempts at rescue work were made by a number of men, who were early on the scene and these undoubtedly assisted materially to keep the death toll as low as it was. They would have done more in this direction but, as one said afterwards, “We were willing, but helpless”. Some they knew had gone to their doom, for they had seen them fall into the flames, but even after they could do no more they could still hear screams from someone who was still alive.
In the early stages the screaming was of such volume that it seemed as though a very great number of people must be trapped, but it would seem that it was partly due to the hysterical condition of some who, having narrowly escaped with their lives, were appalled at the horror which had overtaken some of their fellow workers.
The flames continued to roar, and a vast cloud of smoke drifted over the town, carrying with it debris, which was a further cause of anxiety. Some of it travelled as far as the Lansdowne-road district, but this was chiefly charred paper. The more dangerous debris was that which fell on buildings in the close vicinity, and needed constant watching. Some of it travelled across Williamson-street, and set fire to cartons at a Guildford-street factory, evidence of the danger which prevailed at the time
FALLING BRICK AND STONEWORK
Just before one o’clock part of the façade of the building fell with a great crash, and other parts of the framework of the building appeared to be in imminent danger of collapse, as big cracks developed. These were closely watched, to see how far they would continue to widen, although, before this time, the occupants of “The Engine” and “The Cooper’s Arms” had been warned to leave.
A burning beam crashed down within inches of two firemen during the afternoon, while they were playing into the basement, to which the fire had, by that time, been reduced, but subsequently there was no trouble caused by debris falling into the street.
Before the fire was got in hand, however, it very severely damaged part of a new building recently erected at the rear of their Williamson-street premises, by Messrs Clydesdale & Sinfield. Chief Officer Andrew got some volunteers to work on that side, and has a narrow escape when a burned-through floor collapsed under him, and let him partly through.
Messrs. Arnold Strange and John Gutteridge, and employees of Messrs. Sunman and Hewson Limited, became very alarmed as to the safety of the premises of that firm, and they assisted in the voluntary work.
The depot of Messrs. T. Wall & Sons, Friary, Acton in the yard of the “Cooper’s Arms” was also partly involved, and a beam over one of the windows was almost burned through. Here. However, the fire was stopped before it got any very great hold, and this was particularly essential, as otherwise the fire would have carried on to the premises of Messrs. Shoosmith, Guildford-street, which extends right up to the buildings occupied by Messrs. Wall & Son, where the refrigerators and other equipment suffered considerable water damage.
Somewhat remarkably the premises of “The Engine”, although they adjoined the burning building, escaped almost undamaged. The principal danger was the possible collapse of the wall, which towered above the building, but this fortunately remained standing. “The Cooper’s Arms” on the other side, was much less fortunate, for although there was no damage by fire, and but little by falling wreckage, the house was rendered uninhabitable by water, and had to be abandoned for the time being.
Other places in the neighbourhood suffered heat or water damage, windows cracking and paint blistering, at considerable distances.
Between three and four o’clock it was possible for the outside brigades to begin to return to their own districts, as there was then only smouldering wreckage in the basement. The last Luton engine left about four o’clock when members of the Skefko and Kent’s private brigades took over the task of watching the ruins and adjoining premises through the night, one member of the Fire Brigade remaining with them. This watch was a very necessary precaution because of the risk that some debris which had been carried among other buildings might still be smouldering, and possibly give rise to a further fire. Their willingness to undertake this watch enabled the members of the Brigade to get some rest before they started at eight o’clock yesterday morning on the tragic task of searching the ruins to discover what remained of the bodies of those who were reported missing.
At one time it was reported that all the men employees had been accounted for, but when a roll call was held at three o’clock, at the Guildford-street warehouse of Messrs Henry Durler & Son, Ltd., it became apparent that at least six of the 136 persons in the building when the fire broke out could not be accounted for, and it therefore had to be presumed that they had perished.
Naturally, a very considerable crowd gathered to watch the progress of the fire, as work in the neighbouring factories was promptly suspended when the seriousness of the conflagration was realised and many of the employees found their way into the streets or, for their own safety, were sent out of places where they had been working. When the possibility of part of the building collapsing arose, the onlookers were cleared back to a safe distance, and approaching to the neighbourhood were closed as far as practicable.
In the evening work was commenced on the erection of a barricade to protect the property on the other side of the street in the event of the front of the building coming down, and this part of the street was entirely closed to traffic.
Although the firemen thought their work for the day was finished, they had to turn out again at 10 p. m. in response to a call from Selbourne-road, but here they were required but a short time, although one man had to be left behind.
47 to 53 Bute Street June 2011