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Anniversary of tragic Walworth fire caused by fireworks that killed five people

October 25 2021 marks the 110th anniversary of a terrible fire in Walworth, which eventually took the lives of five people, writes Neil Crossfield…

The following account of the events is based on contemporary newspaper reports, as the story became national news, as were the subsequent inquests into the incident held at Newington Vestry.

Frederick William Nichols lived at 23 Blackwood Street, just off East Street, where he was running a newsagent?s, selling newspapers, stationery and tobacco.? Living with him in the rooms above the shop were his 28-year-old wife, Annie Rebecca Nichols, his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Louise and his son Frederick, who was celebrating his first birthday on the day of the fire.

At the time the fire broke out, Nichols’ fifteen-year-old sister Edith had also been in the shop, but fortuitously their servant girl Phyllis Clark had been out for the evening.

Frederick William Nichols – image published with permission of Nichols family

In the days preceding Bonfire Night, Nichols had bought a job lot of ?Bengal Matches? at a reduced price, as they were slightly damp. Similar to a flare or sparkler, these matches would burn in different colours when lit and were popular with children. Earlier inquests had examined cases of children dying after being set alight with these products. However, government officials decreed that they did not come under the explosives act like other pyrotechnics and could be bought by anyone.

Nichols told the inquest that when he had returned from work that evening his wife had asked him to carry the ?coloured lights? he had bought into the shop. They had arrived that morning and had been stored in the passageway. As he brought them through, he saw his sister strike one of these matches, which caused the rest of the box to explode. No doubt panicked, she dropped the burning box into the pile of ?Bengal Matches? her sister-in-law had laid out on the table. Nichols then recalled that these exploded and rapidly spread the fire. Other witnesses reported that Mrs Nichols may have been trying to dry the ?Bengal Matches? out in front of the parlour fireplace.

At around 8.05pm, James Graham, living opposite at 20 Blackwood Street, heard his daughter screaming. Rushing across the road, he saw the shop was well alight. Trying to enter, he saw Nichols desperately struggling to get into the burning building, saying ?they?re in there Jim!? His clothing was alight, ?a human torch? according to Graham, yet he used his bare hands to extinguish the flames, suffering severe burns in doing so. Although Nichols had been injured, he continued to try in vain to reach his family and had to be restrained. The abundance of combustible items in the shop, along with the addition of the ?Bengal Matches? meant that the intensity of the fire was great. The radiated heat from the fire was reported to have started to damage buildings on the opposite side of the street.

Heroically, besides James Graham, several other people tried to get into the property to rescue the family. One newspaper reported another neighbour, dustman George Knight, trying to scale the drainpipe to reach the children upstairs, but the window frame had come away as he grabbed it and he had fallen to the floor.

Another 18-year-old, Leonard Percy Coverdale, of 53 Portland Street, tried valiantly to save the children sleeping upstairs. Coverdale worked in the shop and so would have known the family well. He was at first beaten back by the flames but tried again, covering his head with a sack. Yet again he was unsuccessful and terribly burnt. Sadly, just six years later, this brave young man was killed in action serving with the Devonshire Regiment on May 7, 1917.

The alarm had been raised and the fire brigade received a call at 8.10pm. Fire appliances sent from Old Kent Road Fire Station arrived within ten minutes and soon put out the fire.

Unfortunately, it had developed so quickly that it was too late to save any of the occupants. When firemen later discovered the bodies, Annie, Nichol?s wife, was found still sitting in a chair in the parlour, having made no attempt to escape. Edith’s body was found badly burnt on the floor nearby. The ferocity of the flames had caused extensive damage to her lower torso. The bodies of their two young children, Annie Louise and Frederick were found upstairs, overcome by the noxious smoke.

At the initial inquest, Francis Bulpill, a London Fire Brigade station officer, said that he had never seen such a fierce fire in such a small place in the whole of his career. He also mentioned that the crowds who had gathered to watch the fire also attempted to help the firemen when they got to work but this had hampered their efforts.

Frederick William Nichols, James Graham and Leonard Coverdale were all taken to hospital suffering serious burns. Frederick lay unconscious in Clayton ward at St Thomas?s hospital for several days until he was finally told of the fate of his family on Sunday, October 29.

The funerals of the victims took place on November 2, 1911. Though there were four people being buried that day, there were only two coffins. One contained the remains of Edith Nichols, the other contained the bodies of Annie Nichols and her two young children. This tragic incident had shocked and saddened the local community, evident in the fact that one whole carriage was needed to carry over two hundred wreaths which had been sent.

While some of these were from dignitaries like the local MP, James Arthur Dawes, others were from local schools, pubs and church groups. One particularly poignant tribute was from the men of Old Kent Road fire station who had attended the fire.

Shops in East Street displayed black shutters of mourning and thousands of people gathered to watch the sad procession, which had set off from Bronte Place, weaving its sombre way past the scene of the fire, past the Wellington College Mission in South Street (now Dawes Street) and finishing at St John’s church in Larcom Street.

Policemen from L Division were deployed to keep the crowds back, though it was reported that when the carriages moved past, the crowd was ?still and silent? and ?there was not one boy or man who did not bare his head?. Though the family were parishioners of St Peter’s church, St John?s was chosen to hold the service, as this was where Frederick and Annie had been married in 1908. The funeral was conducted by the Reverend John Horsley from St Peters and Reverend J.C. Morris, Vicar at St John’s, with over 850 people packed into the church.

After a moving service, the funeral procession continued to Nunhead cemetery. Many more thousands of people lined the streets as it moved through Camberwell and Peckham, with an estimated crowd of 3,000 gathering at Nunhead.

Three separate funds had been set up to raise money for Nichols and the other men who had been injured in the fire. Contributions had come in from individuals and local businesses. The collection organised by the Southwark Mayor included contributions of ?14 and 7 shillings from the Ring Boxing venue in Blackfriars, ?1 and 1 shilling from the Penrose Cycle Company and 2 shillings 6 pence from ?The Old Bun House?. A benefit concert was held at Manor Place Baths on November 16. Supported by local music halls like the Surrey Theatre, South London Palace and Camberwell Palace, up to 50 artistes put on a show lasting over three hours.

Unsurprisingly, the inquest returned a verdict of accidental death on the Nichols family. This verdict had been reached when the inquest had resumed in January 1912, as an earlier inquest had been adjourned to allow the recovery of those injured at the fire and also to allow the attendance of a government explosives expert. It was also decided that the London Fire Brigade had done all it could. However, representations were made that a new fire station be built at Camberwell Gate. This plan did not materialise, but it was proposed that a new electrically driven motor escape van be kept at Old Kent Road Fire Station.

These early electric vehicles had a range of about 60 miles at 25 mph. The London Fire Brigade operated around 15 of these by 1915 but difficulties charging the two-ton batteries meant that they never caught on.

James Graham, who had suffered extensive burns to his hands during his rescue attempt, had returned to work with Southwark Council. Though he had not been on the permanent staff, councillors had unanimously voted to get him a full-time job, so that he would receive full sickness benefits while he recovered. His inability to work had caused major financial hardship for his wife and seven children.

Three weeks after the fire he had suffered a stroke and was admitted into hospital. He had become paralysed and lost the ability to talk. Doctors attributed this to his exertions at the fire. He died in Champion Hill hospital on March 20 1912. Recommendations were made that he should be put forward for a Carnegie Hero Fund award, but it is not known if he received this.

That Graham had shown courage is not in question, but he appeared to be a humble man as well. Speaking at an event in Browning Hall, MP for Walworth James Dawes said he had received a letter from Graham saying: “I did not do much. I wish I could have done more.” When he had died another benefit night was held for him, in May 1912, at Cambridge Hall in Addington Square. Somewhat bizarrely to modern eyes, as part of this performance, the widow of Mr Graham and her seven children were paraded on stage dressed in their black mourning clothes.

This sad tale had a happier ending, as just over three years later, on November 3 1914, Frederick Nichols remarried at St Peter’s church to 23-year-old Alice Lillian Chandler, a domestic servant. On the same document, Nichols is still listed as living at 23 Blackwood Street, the scene of the fire. How his new wife felt about moving into this house with all its tragic memories is not known.

Nichols is shown as the proprietor of a newsagent?s shop in trade directories up until his death in 1957. When he died at the Royal Waterloo Hospital at the age of 71, probate records show that his widow Alice was left the sum of ?3680, 8 shillings, and 2 pence, a considerable legacy in the 1950s equating to around ?90,000 in today?s money. The houses in Blackwood Street were cleared long ago and the site of this tragic incident is now occupied by a barrow store used by market traders.

Though no physical trace remains, should you ever be buying flowers from the stall on the corner of Blackwood Street and East Street please feel free to pause and spare a thought for the five victims of this fire.

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