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Death at The Four Horse Shoes

A postcard showing the door behind which William Clifford died
A postcard showing the door behind which William Clifford died

On 31st July 1908 a tragedy occurred at the Four Horse Shoes public house, reported by the Luton News on 6th August that year under the headings "Fire Fatality", "Luton Inn Gutter" and "Landlord Burnt to Death". The piece goes on: "Never, since the terrible Castle-street fatality that cost three lives, has Luton mourned a more disastrous fire than that which broke out in the early hours of Friday morning at the Four Horse Shoes Inn, Park-street. The outbreak was discovered shortly after 3.30 a.m., and was subdued by five minutes past four, but so furious was the conflagration that, in the brief period recorded, the house was almost gutted and the landlord lost his life".

"Though not one of the most important of the many public-houses in the Park-street district the Four Horse Shoes is one of the oldest inn in the locality. Built after the manner of old-fashioned inns, with a steep, tiled roof, but small, low-ceilinged rooms, it is a well-known object in the district. But the peculiarities which gave it an interest for people fond of old and curious taverns, only served to make it, as the present tragedy shows, one of the most unfortunate places in which an outbreak of fire might occur".

"Since the middle of May the house - which is the property of Messrs. Pryor, Reid and Co. - has been in the tenancy of the victim of the fire - William Littlewood Clifford, aged 56 years, a publican of long experience, who came from Penge [Surrey], where he had held the licence of the General Simpson, Hawthorne-grove, for three years. His wife and a nephew lived with him".

"Inquiries, made since the fire, indicate that he closed the house punctually at 11 p.m. on Thursday evening, and went to bed with his wife in a bedroom over the tap-room. His nephew retired to bed in a slightly smaller room, between the front and back rooms, also on the first floor, and two men, who were lodging in the house for the night, went to sleep in a large four-bedded room over the barns at the rear of the house".

"During the dark hours of the night, the police patrolling the street found nothing that awakened the slightest suspicion. The lamp-lighter for the district, who is a fireman, also saw nothing of the fire that, all the time, must have been smouldering in the bar, as he passed the house on his round about 2.30 a.m. Barely an hour after, however, the landlord was aroused by flumes that, in an ever-increasing volume, were finding their way upstairs. Instantly, the household was roused, but, under-estimating the seriousness of the fire raging below, Mr. Clifford went down the cramped, match-boarded staircase".

"The doors of the staircase and the rooms opening into the small corridor below undoubtedly helped to mislead the unfortunate man as to the danger he was running in attempting to fins an exit below. As soon as he opened the door to the sitting-room, just behind the front bar, and saw what a hold the fire had obtained, he must, however, have realised his position. But, for some reason unknown he elected to go on. Thinking, possibly, that it was his duty, for the sake of those still above, to find his way out of the house and raise an alarm, he rushed through the sitting-room to the side door. What followed can only be surmised. The outlet that he had created by opening the sitting-room door probably caused a sudden rush of fumes and flames, and, though he reached the side door, as shown by the position in which his charred body was found, he never succeeded in opening it".

"Whilst this grim tragedy was being enacted below, the lodgers sleeping in the gable bedroom, found that escape by the staircase was impossible, and let themselves down into the yard with the bedclothes. Mrs, Clifford, her nephew, and a dog which usually slept upstairs, made their way, at the same time, into the sitting room over the front bar and called for help. It was then 3.40 a.m. Fortunately, P.C. Harbord, who was on duty in the Park-street district, heard the cries of "Fire". Running into the middle of the road, opposite Chobham-street, he at once saw the Four Horse Shoes burst into flames. Blowing his whistle, he ran at once to the scene. By that time, the lodgers, unmindful of the probable loss of their own clothing, had carried a ladder, found in the yard, to the front of the house. The landlord's little nephew was immediately rescued, but it was with great difficulty that P.C. Harbord succeeded in bringing Mrs. Clifford from her perilous position to the ground".

"In the meantime, P.C. Hagley, who had heard the police whistle, whilst near Park-square, ran down Park-street until he saw the flames, and dashed along Vicarage-street to the Fire Station. Almost at the same moment, Mr. Jones, the well-known veterinary surgeon, and Mr. William Panter, both of whom had been aroused by the police whistle, also telephoned the alarm to the Police-station, and, by the time P.C. Hagley had reached the Fire Station the fore bells rang. It was then 3.45 a.m. The Fire Brigade turned out immediately, and, within a very few minutes, superintended by Chief Constable Teale, who had cycled to the fire. They were playing on the flames. The great amount of match-boarding in the house made the flames exceptionally fierce, but by 4.5 a.m. the flames were out, and only a smouldering heap remained".

"Whilst the firemen were at work, the question "Where is the old man?" was repeatedly asked. The only answer that could be given was that he had not left the building, but exactly where lay no one had any idea. The powerful jets of water had rapidly dashed out the flames, but, for many minutes after, the great heat of the fire and the volume of smoke that still filled the lower rooms, made a search for the body impossible. When the firemen were at last able to enter the building, the whereabouts of the body was soon discovered. It lay amongst the debris, in the passage between the bar and the taproom, the head and shoulders within the doorway of the sitting-room and the feet towards the side-door. The left foot was wedged, even in death, firmly against the door, and, before the remains could be removed, it was found necessary to take the door off its hinges. The body, it need hardly be said, was horribly charred. During the height of the conflagration, the corridor was the centre of a raging furnace, flames which made it impossible for the time being to walk through the inn yard with safety, playing around the body. Only a small portion of the dead man's back was untouched by the flames".

"Witnesses of the early stages of the fire speak in high terms of the conduct of P.C. Hagley and P.C. Harbord. After giving the alarm at the Fire Station, P.C. Hagley ran back to the burning building, and, with the constable, who had already rescued Mrs. Clifford through a front window, made every effort possible to save the unfortunate landlord. P.C. Harbord, thinking that an entrance might be obtained at the back, actually forced his way into the house for some distance before the heat, the smoke, and some falling glass made further progress utterly impossible. The two officers also made an effort to break into the front of the house, but, foiled there, dashed through the gateway, which was choked with smoke and flames, to the rear of the building. The flames had become so fierce that to return by the gateway was impossible, and only by climbing over a wall into Park-place were they able to get back into the main street".

"The Fire Brigade as a whole also deserve very great praise. Some grossly unfair rumours as to the time taken to turn out have been circulated. The actual facts, however, are that the fire bells were rung at seventeen minutes to four o'clock, and that the flames were extinguished by five minutes past four. When it is remembered that the fire must have smouldered for hours, and that the walls of nearly every room were match-boarded, it is marvellous that they were able to save the building from utter destruction. A very smart piece of work was also done in preventing the fire travelling above the gateway to adjoining property. The roof of the loft over the gateway, which is not part of the inn, caught fire, and, with great daring, the firemen removed the tiles and cut away the burning rafter. Several members of the Brigade remained on duty during the greater part of the day. Although the outbreak occurred at so early an hour, a large crowd was quickly on the scene and, as news of the terrible tragedy spread through the Borough, it increased. Long after the flames had been extinguished, curious sight-seers flocked to Park-street to see the damaged building and, in spite of the efforts of the police to keep the road clear, there was always a crowd in the vicinity of the house during the remainder of the day. As the front windows of the house had been boarded up by the police and the gateway was barred, there was very little, however, to be seen".

"By special permission a representative of the "news" made a tour of the ruined inn during the day, and found on all hands evidence of the fierceness of the conflagration. In the bar, the counter and partitions had almost entirely disappeared and only a few charred kegs standing on the shelves around the room remained to show for what purpose it had been used. Although there is no explanation of the cause of the fire, it was in the bar, undoubtedly, that it had its origin. The private sitting-room behind the door, just outside the door of which the landlord's body was found, also appeared to have been a centre for the fiercest flames. All the furniture was burnt or blackened, even a piano having suffered in the general ruin. The wooden case of the instrument had taken fire, and, before it was extinguished the front panels had been burnt through. The flames had also made their way into the large taproom behind the sitting room and to the kitchen beyond. There, again, everything had been destroyed, but the destruction was by no means so complete as in the bar and sitting-room".

"The wooden staircase to the floor above was still safe, though much burnt. But in the three rooms to the front of the house the fire had wrought terrible havoc. The large room extending across the front of the house seems to have been used as a drawing-room, but as left by fire and water, it was sadly altered. The fire seemed to have taken hold of every piece of furniture, and left a travesty of its former self. Engravings, burnt and discoloured, still hung in charred frames on the walls, and, over everything spread a thick deposit left by the black smoke. In the small bedroom behind, used by the nephew, everything was left just as it was when the sleeper hurriedly quitted the room, but there, too, smoke, heat, and water had ruined everything".

"The room in which the landlord and his wife slept was an equally distressing sight. Everything in what must have been a neat little room was covered with the same horrible blackness. On a chair, by the side of the bed, lay the dead man's clothes, just as he had left them before getting into bed on Thursday night. The large four-bedded room, over the barns at the rear of the house, was the only room that escaped damage. The flames had burnt through the floor boards, into the corridor leading to this room, and a hole had been knocked through the ceiling at one corner, but the beds and the bedroom furniture had escaped the flames".

"The furniture and buildings, we understand, were insured, the articles - including a policy on the life of the landlord - being recovered after the fire".

"An inquest on the body of the deceased landlord was opened at the GeorgeHotel on Friday afternoon by Mr. G. J. M. Whyley, Deputy Coroner of the county, and a jury".

"Annie Emily Clifford, the widow of the dead man, was the only witness called. She stated that she had been living with her husband at the Four Horse Shoes, Park-street, but was now staying a few doors away with Mrs. Ireland".

"The body the jurors have viewed remarked the Coroner, is that of your husband? - Yes answered the witness".

"What was his full name? William Littlewood Clifford".

"His age? - Fifty six years".

"And the occupation was that of a publican?"


"He was landlord of the Four Horse Shoes, Park-street? - Yes".

"Remarking that that was all he needed, the Coroner then made out a burial certificate, and adjourned the inquest until Friday next".

"A thrilling story of the fire is told by one of the lodgers at the Four Horse Shoes, Mr. John Reece, who lives at Erith, Kent. He was awakened, he says, on Friday morning shortly after three o'clock by the landlady, who, rapping his bedroom door shouted, "Get up, quick, the house is on fire". He and another lodger, who was in the same room, immediately sprang up and opened another door. Smoke rushed in and filled the room. Slamming the door, the two men darted to the window, and Mr. Reece let down his fellow lodger to the ground by means of the bed-clothes. He himself escaped with the aid of a ladder that his companion reared against the wall. They then used the ladder to smash in the back door, but were unable to enter because of the flames that came out. Going round to the front of the house, he continued, they placed the ladder against the window and rescued the landlady and also the little dog that first gave the alarm. Mrs. Clifford told them that her husband was downstairs, and Reece replied that he was done for if that was so. They hurried to the back of the house and he heard the landlord moaning, but owing to the smoke and flames he could not get near him. He did not think the landlord went downstairs to save his money and thus met his doom. "Who", he said, "would think about money in such an awful predicament?" He opined that the fire broke out in the cellar".

The Four Horseshoes Public House and yard July 2008
The Four Horse Shoes public house and yard July 2008