CHRISTMAS TRAGEDY IN THE SHADOW OF St ANNE'S
We all have this image of Christmas time being wonderful during Victoria times. Of course this was true if you were one of the few lucky ones to process wealth but for most people Christmas Day was celebrated in the same way as a Sunday. Another image is that in these times it always snowed on Christmas Day but try an imagine what Belfast was like with all those coal fires burning and the smog so I'm sure that when it did snow it was not as white as it should have been!
Tragedy was another aspect of life at this time and when we look back at the old records it is hard to believe the number of people who took their own lives and the amount of corpses which were removed from the River Lagan. One massive fear in Victorian Belfast (and everywhere else) was fire. Because of the construction of the houses at this time and the fact that gas was pumped throughout them fire took a grip extremely quickly and the fire brigade were not the efficient service they are today (and remember there was no emergency telephone!)
As an example I will reproduce a report on one such event which occurred two days before Christmas in Church Street directly facing today's St Anne's Cathedral. It is from the Weekly Northern Whig of Saturday 28th December 1867:-
DEPLORABLE OCCURRENCE IN BELFAST
FIVE PERSONS BURNED TO DEATH
It is seldom we have to record such a terrible calamity as occurred in Belfast on Monday night, when three people were burned or suffocated to death, and two others were badly injured by fire that they have since died. Since the similarly fatal occurrence about two years ago in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, no fire so terrible in its results has occurred in this country. Fires in Belfast, for some years back, have in general been successfully got under without loss of life indeed, this is the first deplorable casualty of the kind for many years in this town. the information, as it spread last night, naturally created a painful feeling in the mind of every one who heard of it; and it is to be hoped that no blame lice at the door of anyone with regard to the melancholy occurrence. It is said that word of the fire was not given at the station for a considerable time after it broke out, and that every exertion was made to save the lives of those in the house on fire as soon as it was known there were people in it, and this is only what we would expect from the well known character, of the Belfast fire brigade; but, unfortunately, the fire escape was not at the scene nor, so far as we can learn, was there any effort made to take it there. It is said that owing to the delay in taking the information to the Police Office, the escape could have arrived in time to assist in preventing the calamity, and that the ladders, seventy feet in length, which are always taken to fires, were amply sufficient for all purposes. Be this as it may, five people have been burned to death in a comparatively small fire, a quarter of a mile from the brigade station.
The fire took place about ten o’clock in the premises of Mr. Joseph Macaulay, hat and band box manufacturer, Church Street, a small sized three-storey house, or about two ordinary storeys in height, and about twenty minutes past ten o’clock is stated to have been the time at which information was taken to the station. Mrs. Macaulay, aged about thirty years; her step daughter, aged thirteen years, and three other daughters still younger have all died in consequences. The head being in the Corn exchange conducting a class and the first information he had was the dreadful fate of his whole family. When the fire brigade arrived with an engine and tender on the scene of the conflagraton, the flames were issuing out of the shop windows in dense masses. The shop stairs were burning up to the first landing, and the heat in the lower part of the premises was so intense as to preclude any person from passing through. A considerable portion of the stairs on the second storey was also burned, and the heat was so great in the part of the house that the paint on the doors and windows was in large blisters. Such was the intensity of the heat and smoke that it was pronunced by those competent to judge to be sufficient in a short time to take away life. The superintendent, Mr. Reily, immediately on being informed that there were people in the house, gave orders to a portion of his men to get their ladders joixted and placed on the side of the house, which they quickly did. All the endvours of the men were in the first instance directed to the saving of the life, and when the live and the dead were got out, then Mr. Reilly directed a base to be laid on, and endeavoured successfully to confine fire to the premises where it originated. The water was plenifully held on the flames, which were subdued in about half an hour. Two jets were brought from the main Donegall Street - the length of the hose employed being about six hundred feet.
The fire originated on the ground floor, where the business of box making was carried on. In consequence of the tinder like nature of the goods, it raged with fury; and what makes matter all the more deplorable, and the fatal results all the greater, is the fact that it is said to have been burned for at least half an hour before the alarm was given at the fire engine station. In the meantime a crowd had gathered and Mr. Martin painter who resides opposite being among the first on the scene, and hearing the cries of the inmates, at once made of the efforts he possibly could to have them rescued. They produced a ladder, which was, unfortunately, to short, but which was a number of the crowd attempted to climb. The result was that the ladder, through over stress, snapped, and a man, as we are informed, had his arm dislocated. On the alarm being given at the engine station, the Brigade under Superintendent Reilly, started with the greatest possible despatch; said in five minutes from the ringing of the fire bell Deputy Superintendent Moorhead and Hugh Nelson were in the room in which Mrs. Macaulay and the children were. The apartment which turned out to be the kitchen, is situated or the third floor, and this rendered the difficulty all the greater in reaching there. The members of the fire brigade put up one of their ladders, and with the assistance of another ladder, which had in the meantime been procured by the crowd; they ascended; but whether to enter or not was questions which the firemen had to weigh, lest on so doing too much time every moment of which was then so precious - might be lost, as they were not sure whether or not which was the apartment in which the women and children were. Indeed a number of people in the crowd shouted that there were more inmates in the house. When Moorhead and Nelson got up the length of the kitchen window, and, indeed, for some time before, no cries of any kind were to be heard. Both the brave fellows “encircled their ears,” as one of them afterwards expressed himself to endeavour, if they could, to hear sounds that would indicate the presence of any person in the flames. At this time the room was filled with smoke, which also came in dense clouds out of the window at which the firemen were. Nelson said he heard a sound which, if not the hissing of the hose, must be some person breathing. In he then went through the window followed by Moorhead. When inside the sounds were, of course, more audible, and, having felt around, they discovered Mrs. Macaulay lying close to the window, with the two younger children in her arms. The second eldest girl was first caught hold by the firemen, who brought her to the window, when each man took a separate ladder, and she was lowered to some other members of the brigade, who received them when about half way down. The shout from the crowd which went through the air as they saw the girl upon the ladder was one of exultation and joy. Moorhead went back into the room, when the first object he got hold of was the eldest girl. She, poor thing, had been too long a subject to the fire and smoke to render any assistance herself; but the firemen, with almost incredible agility, which was all the more astonishing and laudable when we consider the awful position in which they were being at the time almost half suffocated - had her brought out of the window and lowered in
the same way as before, amid still louder cheers.
Map of Church Street at the time of the fire
Mrs MaCualey and the poor little children were, however, still to be saved - recovered, we should either say, for, unfortunately, their safety was at this time hopeless. One of the men then took a child in each arm, and, coming quickly down the ladder, delivered up the little ones, but, while descending, he shouted to his fellow firemen to get a rope. His object in doing this was that they might have it for the purpose of lowering Mrs. Macauley, who, we may state, was a very stout, weightly person. The rope, which was speedily procured, was without a moment’s delay called into requisition. The heroic firemen, who stood firm to their posts under all the difficulties which we have already mentioned, tied the rope around the poor woman’s body under the arms, and, having it firmly secured, they brought her to the window, when both men took the rope and lowered her down the ladder to those below, who eased the burden as it is descended. While this was being done, the men upon the ladders were in a very critical position. The flames from the shop below, within, which the fire was still raging, licked at the front wall of the house and rendered the position of the men on the ladders not only disagreeable but dangerous. The windows of the house were very large, and must have assisted the flames greatly when the shutters were torn off by the crowd and the glass broken; and probably it is owing to this anxiety to save life on the part of the on-lookers that the flames spread so rapidly as they did. When every one was rushing about, in search of a ladder of the proper length, there was on lying a few yards off in front off the church, and that by an unfortunate mistake, the sexton informed a policeman who went for it that it had been taken away. Had this ladder been forthcoming one of the witnesses stated that “in all probability the people would have been saved. Mr. Macaulay’s premises were insured for £350.
Mrs. Macauley was brought to the ground by the firemen, and was immediately taken off to the General Hospital by Constable Conn, and on her admission into that institution it was found that the pulsation of the heart had all but ceased. Medical gentlemen were sent for, and they, with the house surgeon and his staff of assistants, used all the means at their command to restore the poor woman to consciousness, but she in a short time expired. Mrs Macauley, we are informed was not burned in any part of the body, and that her death is entirely owing to suffocation.
St Anne’s Church which was directly facing Church Street and which stood on the site of the present cathedral
The eldest girl, Margaret, who was thirteen years of age, and step-daughter of Mrs. Macauley, was taken into the sewed muslin warehouse of Mr Thomas Waugh, where Dr. Angue, Porter of College Square East, used for a considerable time every possible exertion to restore her, but without effect. Sarah, Aged 16 months, and the youngest of the family, was also taken into Mr. Waugh’s but it was found life was extinct when the poor little thing was brought from the house. Moorhead and Nelson were, we need scarcely add, completely exhausted on the conclusion of their gallant task. Having descended amid the loud and well won congratulations of the assembled crowd beneath, they were at once sent into their homes.
Two girls, Harriet and Jane, aged five and three years respectively, were also hurried off to the General Hospital immediately on being lowered into the street. The younger girl was seriously burned about the head, but the other was almost insensible from suffocation, Harriet, we are informed, when laid on a bed in the institution, cried for water to drink, and the other girl would at times speak sensible, and then break off into rambling statements, and afterwards for some minutes would not speak at all. All the means which medical science could suggest were used by the doctors and their assistance, and hopes although faint, are entertained of the children’s recovery.
Head Constable Jacques and Foley, and a large number of the constabulary from the Donegall Street and Hercules Street police stations, were present, and rendered great assistance in keeping back the crowds of people who assembled in large numbers from that neighbourhood of North Street and Donegall Street, blocking up Church Street to an almost impossible extent. It is needless to state that the greatest consternation prevailed, and rumours were circulated after the five persons had been brought down from the third storey that other inmates were in different parts of this house. The brigade, however, before causing their exertions in this particular part of their duty, satisfied themselves by inquires above and below that no others had been in the house previous to the discovery of the fire.
The inhabitants of the adjoining house, which is occupied by Mr. Sparrow, statuary manufacturer, sought to reach the perishing woman and children by breaking a hole through the wall into the kitchen. This they did, but the only effect it had was giving vent to the smoke, which drove them from the aperture. They made a similar breach through the wall into the bedroom, which is situated behind the kitchen; but their praiseworthy efforts were also foiled here to a manner.
A large number of the inhabitants in the neighbourhood rendered every assistance amongst them Mr. Denis Murphy, Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Weir. Dr. Millar and Dr. Johnston were also present. From the commencement of the fire Mr. Vance, salvage inspector, was in attendance.
The premises, when the fire brigade left - shortly before twelve o’clock - were almost burned down. The shop where the fire originated was stocked with hand boxes and other inflammable material, and this, no doubt, added to the suddenness and extent of the flames previous to the arrivals of the engines. The stock in trade not being of a very valuable nature the extent of the damage cannot be very great. None of the adjoining houses were injured, although at times it was feared that the fire would extend, but, owing to the excretions of the brigade, this was happily prevented.
Mr. Joseph Macauley, the head of the unfortunate family: who was the proprietor of the hat and handbox manufactory business, is, it appears also a musician. He was absent from his residence and pursing his practice as a violinist in the Corn Exchange from seven o’clock until after ten, when the sad intelligence was conveyed to him that his shop was on fire, and that his family had been suffocated. The condition of the poor man when he came upon the scene of the occurrence and discovered that the storey was almost entirely fulfilled, could hardly be described.
He was taken into the shop of Mr. Samuel Martin, painter, Church Street, where he burst into a passion of agony, which was afterwards somewhat subdued by the people around him, who informed him that two of his children were likely to survive Mr. Macauley raved almost like a manic about his wife and four children, who composed his entire family.