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The Inquest on William Littlewood Clifford

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

On 31st July 1908 landlord of the Four Horse Shoes William Littlewood Clifford died in a fire at the public house. The inquest was reported in the Luton News of 13th August 1908 as follows: "Sensational evidence was given at the adjourned inquest, held at the George Hotel, Luton, on Friday afternoon, upon the body of William Littlewood Clifford (56), landlord of the Four Horse Shoes Inn, Park-street. Clifford's body was found, after the recent disastrous fire at the inn was extinguished, lying where the flames had been fiercest, with the till, which he had rescued from the burning bar, lying by his side. It contained the paltry sum of ten shillings and a halfpenny".

"The dead man's widow, Annie Emily Clifford, was the first witness called upon to give evidence. She repeated the evidence of identification given at the opening of the inquest, and, in answer to the Coroner, said her husband came from Streatham to take the Four Horse Shoes. That was on May 20th. On Thursday, July 31st [sic 30th], the night before the fire, her husband went about his business as usual, and seemed in good health. There were not many customers in the house that night, and, just before closing time, there were only three men in the bar, all of whom she knew by sight. The two lodgers in the house had gone to bed at 2.30, and, at eleven o'clock, her husband locked up".

"After he locked up, did you go round the house? Asked the Coroner - Yes, replied the witness; with my husband I looked round the premises".

"And everything was in order? - Yes, everything was quite in order".

"You then went to bed? - yes, I went to bed, and my husband came up shortly afterwards".

"During the night you heard nothing? - No".

"But in the morning, the dog awoke you? - Yes, it jumped on the bed".

"What sort of dog was it? - A fox terrier".

"Then you found the room full of smoke? - Yes".

"What did you do then? - I awoke my husband".

"Did you tell him that you thought the house was on fire? - As near as I can remember, I think I said that the house was on fire".

"What did he do? - He jumped out of bed".

"To go downstairs? - I can't say for certain. I rushed for the child".

"Was the child sleeping in the same room? - No, in the next room".

"What age would he be? - Not quite seven".

"Then you called the lodgers? - Yes, I rushed back along the passage to call them".

"When you had called the ledgers, you came back and saw your husband on the top of the stairs? - Yes, he was on the top of the stairs as I came back from their room".

"Were both lodgers in their room? - I didn't go into the room, but I heard one of them answer at once".

"What did you do when you saw your husband at the top of the stairs? - I believe I shouted at him not to go down, but I don't know whether he heard".

"Was the smoke very thick then? - Yes, it was coming up very thick then. Of course, all the windows were open".

"Then you ran to the front of the house? - I ran with the child and the dog to the front of the house".

"You didn't go downstairs? - No, I couldn't leave the child".

"You went to the room over the public bar, and I think someone put a ladder up to the window, and you and your nephew got down? - Yes, while I was calling I could hear them breaking in downstairs. Then they brought a ladder round".

"At the top of the stairs was the last time you saw your husband alive - Yes".

"Did he shout anything to you as he was going down? - No, I didn't actually see him go down".

"Did you have a fire in the house on Thursday? - No, we hadn't had a fire in the house since Sunday, and that was in the kitchen".

"Had you occasion to boil any water on Thursday? - I boiled water on the gas range in the kitchen".

"Were you using the range late at night? - No, it was not used after tea-time".

"Did you turn out all the gases when you went to bed or leave one alight? - No, we didn't leave any alight".

"The fire seemed to be downstairs? - Yes".

"When you went to the child's room was there much smoke in there? - Yes, there was more smoke in his room than in ours".

"You hadn't any difficulty in getting along the passage? - No, there was smoke, but not so much".

"Did you think your husband was getting out downstairs? - I didn't think about that; I was thinking about the child. You see, it is not my own, and I felt extra responsibility".

"A Juror: Did your husband make any reply when you spoke to him? - I don't remember him making any reply".

"Did he go downstairs with the idea of getting out that way? - I don't think he realised the danger. I didn't realise it until I got outside on the path".

"When you and your husband looked over the house before retiring to bed, did you leave him down there? - I left him down there just to take his boots off. He was upstairs as soon as I had the gas on".

"Was he smoking? - I couldn't say".

"Did he smoke? - He smoked a little, but he didn't brink a pipe upstairs. He didn't smoke upstairs".

"Was he smoking when you were looking over the place? - No, I don't recollect that he was. We were always so very, very careful about fire".

"Robert Weatherhead, a solicitor's clerk, who lives at 95 Park-street, almost opposite the Four Horse Shoes, was next called. About 3.30 in the morning of July 31st he stated he was awakened by a noise of breaking glass. He looked out of the window and saw the Four Horse Shoes in flames. There was a certain amount of smoke and flames, but he could see no one about. He dressed as quickly as he could, and went to the inn, arriving there about a minute later. A constable and Mr. Rogers, of Park-street, had the arrived. He also saw one of the lodgers and asked him where the landlord was. The man replied that he was in the building. The back bar was then well alight. He bound his mouth up with a handkerchief, went through the fire in the gate-way, and, with Mr. Rogers' help, smashed all the windows at the back and called to the landlord inside".

"Did you get any reply, asked the Coroner? - No, answered the witness; the flames came through the window, and we had to retire. They were too thick, and if we hadn't gone at once we shouldn't have got down the gateway again".

"Had many people then come up? - Yes, a number of people had come up".

"Had Mrs. Clifford got out? - Yes, a constable had just got her through the window".

P.C. Thomas W. Harbord of the Borough Police Force, next called, stated that he was on duty in Park-street about 3.40 and, when passing Chobham-street, about 60 or 70 yards from the Four Horse Shoes, he heard a shout of "Fire!" He ran into the middle of the road, and was then able to see the inn in flames. He blew his whistle, and when he got to the house a ladder was being set up on the pavement. The last witness (Weatherhead) arrived just after".

"The Coroner: Could you see Mrs. Clifford? - Witness: yes, she was just inside the right-hand bedroom window".

"Had she the child with her? - No, only the dog".

"Did you see the child there? - I remember seeing the child with one of the lodgers; he had just got the child down".

"I think you went up the ladder, took the dog away from her, and got her out? - Yes, I did".

"I think some of the people told you the landlord was still in the house. What did you do then? - I smashed the front windows with my staff, thinking if I was able to see the man I could get him out".

"You could see nothing of him? - No".

"Was there much flame there? - Yes, sir. As soon as I broke the window the flames came out".

"You then went round the back of the house? - Yes, they said they thought he was round the back".

"Did you get into the house? - Yes, I went into the scullery two or three yards".

"I think a quantity of the roof and glass fell down and forced you out? - Yes, that and the smoke and flames".

"You attempted to get into the building again later? - Yes, but I didn't get far".

"Then you went back to the front and tried to force the doors open. Did you get them open? - No, sir".

"Did you hear any sound inside the house? - No, sir".

"I suppose the flames were roaring and making a great noise? - Yes, the roof was falling when I got there".

"Meanwhile, Sergt. Hagley had arrived, and I think you went round the back with him? - Yes, sir".

"And I think that when you tried to get back to the street you couldn't do so? - No, sir; we had to go round Park-place".

"The flames were right across the gateway? - Yes, they were right across and we couldn't get back".

"When you got back the firemen had arrived, and you remained there until the fire was under control? - Yes, sir".

"Did Mrs. Clifford say anything to you about her husband?  -I don't remember, sir".

"Did you notice the door at the side of the house when you went down the passage? - Yes, sir, the flames were coming out of that door".

"Were they coming out the first time you went down the passage? - Yes, the first time".

"Are you sure Mrs. Clifford said nothing? - The only thing I remember her saying was at the window. She said, "Min the dog", and I said, "Never mind the dog, your life is worth forty dogs". With that I let the dog fall on the pavement".

"Was the dog injured? - No, I don't think so".

 "A Juror: Did you try to get into the side door? - Witness: No, the flames were coming out of that door, and you couldn't get near it. That was the fiercest part of the fire".

"Chief Constable Teale: When you got there, would it have been possible for anyone to be alive in the bottom part of the house? - Witness: No, it would not".

"A Juror: I was there, and I'm quite certain no one could be alive in the bottom part of that house".

"P.C. Charles Bransom, who found the body of the dead landlord, next gave evidence. He stated that after the fire had been got under, he went into the front part of the house and found the body of the landlord between the door leading into the yard and the door to the private sitting-room".

"The Coroner: The feet, I believe, were towards the door leading into the yard? - Witness: Yes".

"The body was lying just as it is drawn in this sketch? - Yes, he seemed to have fallen back into the room".

"Did you find a box lying near the body? - Yes just at his side".

"A cash box? Yes".

"I think you then informed the Chief Constable and fetched the ambulance? - Yes".

"You could see of course, that the body was much burnt? - Yes, very much. It was quite unrecognisable".

"Was there anything in the cash box? - I didn't stop to see more".

"Was the box on the right side of the body? - Yes".

"Did it seem as though he was walking out with the box in his right hand and had fallen back? - Yes, sir".

"It was a kind of cash drawer from the bar? - Yes, he seemed to have drawn it out of the bar".

"Were the legs burnt? - Yes, through to the bone".

"Were the hands drawn up under the arms? - Yes, drawn up very much"

"And the wrists burnt through? - Yes, burnt through to the bone".

"What time was it when you went into the house? - About 4.25".

"A Juror: Do you think the fire originated where the body was found? - Witness: I should think it originated in the taproom".

"Not in the cellar or basement? - I couldn't say".

"Another Juror: I should think it originated in the kitchen".

"The Juror: In that case the landlord would not have got down the staircase".

"The Coroner: He seems to have gone downstairs into the bar to get the till, and intended getting out the side door, but when he got there he fell back, where he was found".

"P.S. W. J. Hagley also deposed that he was walking down Park-street, about 3.40 a.m., when he heard shouts of "Fire!" He went in the direction of the Four Horse Shoes, but seeing that P.C. Harbord was there, and knowing that no one had celled the Fire Brigade, he ran along Vicarage-street and St. Mary's-street to the Fire Station. Later he returned to the Four Horse Shoes, and was told that the deceased was missing. Flames were then shooting right across the gateway, but he ran through them with P.C. Harbord to the back of the building".

"The Coroner: They were coming out of the door where the landlord was found? - Witness: Yes, that was the hottest place when I got there".

"I suppose you couldn't go near any of the doors or windows? - No, not in the lower part of the house. We got at the windows up the yard".

"Witness added that, wit P.C. Harbord, he got up the gateway, but was unable to return the same way. The Fire Brigade had arrived when he got back into Park-street, and he rendered what assistance he could. He was called into the house when the body was found. It lay where the fire had been fiercest. The flames shot out of the side door right across the passage, and it was only when they licked up for a moment that there was a chance to dodge up the yard".

"From the position of the body, remarked the Coroner, do you think the landlord was trying to get out of the side door? - That is what appeared to me; he tried to get out and fell back into the sitting-room doorway".

"Did you see the till? - yes, I saw it when it was brought into the yard, and counted the money".

"A Juror: How long would it be after the alarm that you called the Fire Brigade? - Witness: Between two and three minutes".

"After you heard the whistle, it was given just as quickly as could be? - Yes".

"Chief Constable Teale: What time was it when you gave the alarm at the Central Fire Station? - About 3.43 a.m."

"A Juror: Ws the till burnt? - No".

"That seemed to prove then that the fire was rather more in the bar? - I don’t know. The till was on the floor and the flames would shoot over it".

"George Ireland, a Corporation fireman, living in the Central Fire Station, said that at 3.43 a.m. he received a fire call from P.S. Hagley. The Brigade got on the road at 3.45, and stopped at a hydrant fifty or sixty yards from the fire. Brigade-Sergt. Smith was in charge, and assisted to run out the hose. Then Captain Teale arrived and took command. The fire was well under control by 4.5 a.m."

"Questioned by the Coroner, he explained that it would take about a minute to get from the fire station to the fire, and water would be played on the flames within five minutes of the alarm being given. It took just over a quarter of an hour to get the fire under".

"Chief Constable Teale: had you had a message previous to P.S. Hagley's call? - Witness: No, not from anyone. I was awake at 3.30 but was going off to sleep again when the alarm came".

"About the time P.S. Hagley gave the call, did you hear the bells ringing? - Yes, they were ringing".

"The Coroner asked where they were ringing from, and Chief Constable Teale explained that at the same time as P.S. Hagley was running to the Fire Station, Mr. Jones, veterinary surgeon, and Mr. Panter, butcher, both of Park-street also telephoned to the Police Station".

Chief Constable Teale was then sworn to give evidence. He stated that at 3.45 a.m., as near as he could remember, his bedroom fire bell rang. That was a bell communicating from the police office with his bedroom. He dressed and went downstairs at once. The constable in charge of the office had his bicycle ready at the door and he cycled quickly to the scene of the fire, arriving there at 3.50. He remembered the time well because he looked at the Corn Exchange clock as he passed along George-street. At that time the house was well alight and flames were issuing from nearly all the windows and doors. The Fire Brigade was playing on the flames with one branch of hose. He blew his whistle to stop the water, fitted in a branch piece, and connected up another length of hose to take to the back. The water was then turned on again, and the fire was practically out by 4.5 a.m., but on account of smoke and steam it was impossible to get into the building for some time longer. The first to enter and find the body was P.C. Bransom. The deceased lay on his back with his left leg pressing against the door into the passage. The door was either locked or bolted, and a crow bar was used to loosen the door and pull it outside so that it did not disturb the body, He had already sent for the stretcher, and, when it arrived, the body was placed in it and taken to the mortuary. He did not see the cash box until his attention was called to it in the yard. It was an ordinary wooden drawer with holes like basins scooped in it. He opened it and counted the money. It contained 10s. 0½d. The fire appeared to have originated either in the bar or in the private sitting-room behind. Those two places were most damaged. The house was very old and all match-boarded and the public bar, private bar, serving room and tap room were practically gutted. The upper rooms appeared to have fared much better, although there was a staircase from the passage leading upstairs into the rooms. The front room, facing Park-street, was used as a sitting room. Some of the furniture there was only slightly damaged. Behind it was the little room where the boy slept. It was all discoloured with smoke and the paper had peeled off with the heat, but scarcely anything was burnt. The room behind the boy's room was the one in which the landlord and his wife slept. It was immediately over the tap room and the window overlooked the yard. The landlord's clothes lay in an arm-chair, and though not actually destroyed they were damaged. He searched the clothing and found between £5 and £6. He also recovered from a drawer in the same room fire insurance policies, life insurance policies, two Prudential assurance policies, an agreement with the brewers, and the deceased's will. They were all undamaged. The room over the scullery and the blacksmith's shop at the rear were not touched at all. The heart of the fire seemed to have been where the body lay. Had it been anywhere else the upper rooms would have been more damaged than they were. Evidently there was some delay in giving the alarm at the Fire Station. There was quite a number of people in the street all ready to find fault, but none of them ready to go to the Fire-station and say that a fire had broken out. As soon as the alarm was given the Brigade turned out in good time".

"The Foreman (Mr. Alfred Jaquest): Of course the constable did the proper thing?"

"Where there is life at stake, it is the duty of constables first to render what assistance they can and then to save property".

"The Coroner: I don't think there is much question that when the landlady was got out of the window the landlord was dead".

"Witness: When she was got out of the window he must have been dead. The top of the side door is glass and the flames were coming through the broken panes. There was a current of air all through the place".

"A Juror: What was the ground floor made of? - Witness: Brick or stone".

"Was there any fire in the cellar? - The flap was taken up and one of the firemen went down. It was practically full of water but there was no sign of any fire there".

"Dr. F. Seymour Lloyd deposed that he had made an examination of the body. It appeared to be well nourished and presented the characteristics commonly seen after exposure to intense heat and flames. Practically the whole surface was charred and blackened with the exception of a few portions on the centre of the body about the buttocks. The upper extremities were very much charred especially the left side. Witness gave other painful details as to the extent of the burns, and added that the feet and legs were all much charred, exposing the bones in several places. Death was most probably due to suffocation. The other injuries would have been caused probably after death. The position of the body, lying on the back, was in favour of death from suffocation".

"The Coroner: The smoke and flames must have been tremendous where the body lay? Witness: Yes".

"Mr. Gregory, for the Ocean Accident Corporation, said he had been requested to express sympathy with the widow and relatives of the deceased and had admitted the claim made under his accident policy".

"The Coroner remarked that that concluded the evidence. It would now be the duty of the jury to consider what was actually the cause of death. From what the doctor had said, they should have no difficulty in coming to the conclusion that he had died from suffocation, and that the burns were inflicted probably some time after life was extinct. From the position of the body, there seemed little doubt about the reason he came to be in that private room instead of getting out with his wife. She saw him at the top of the stairs and, instead of going after her, he seemed to have gone downstairs into the bar to the till, taken the drawer out, and then gone into the private room, meaning to go out by that door into the gateway. But that was the identical door out of which the flames came so fiercely. There seemed little doubt that he got out of the private door almost up to the outside door, and then fell back, probably overcome by the fumes and smoke. He met his death there, and there could be little question that the death was of an accidental nature. With regard to the fire, they were not there to inquire how it was caused. That was outside his province. There was absolutely no direct evidence as to what caused the fire. Perhaps a match was thrown down and smouldered, and when old places of that kind got alight there was little chance of saving them. All would have been well if, instead of going downstairs, the landlord had gone after his wife, who called to him not to go downstairs. He seemed to have risked his life for that 10s. Finally, the Coroner paid a compliment to Detective Attwood for the assistance his plan of the building had given, and also to the police and the Fire Brigade for the extremely prompt way in which the alarm had been given and the manner in which the Brigade turned out. P.C. Harbord, who was the first to arrive on the scene, seemed to have acted with great promptitude in getting Mrs. Clifford out of the place".

"The jury returned a verdict of "Death from suffocation" and were thanked for their services by the Corner, who remarked that this was the third inquest in succession and adjourned inquest they had attended".

"Juror: I should think we are entitled to exemption certificates!"

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