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February 26, 2008


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Illustration of hotel fire
(The Fireman's Own Book by George P. Little, 1860.)

On May 27, 1845, fire swept Raggett's - a popular hotel in Piccadilly. ``Several eminent persons perished,'' according to Haydn's Dictionary of Dates and Universal Information, including the wife of a Member of Parliament , the owner of the hotel and his daughter. At the same time, firemen saved a number of guests with escape ladders - demonstrating the value of the wheeled appartus.

Ten engines attended the blaze, which was visible in many parts of the city. Queen Victoria witnessed the progress of the flames from her palace and sent a messenger. The legendary chief officer, James Braidwood, was in command of the fire forces.

The water supply was considered adequate for the pumps, but the wood construction of the hotel fueled the blaze, the cause of which was deemed an accident.

A periodical - The Gentleman's Magazine, July 1845 edition - reported:

``May 27 - A fire very suddenly occurred at Raggett's Hotel, in Dover-street, Piccadilly, at one o'clock in the morning, and, though few persons in the house had retired to rest, five of them lost their lives, namely, Mrs. John Round, wife of the member for Maldon; Mr. Raggett, the proprietor of the hotel; Miss Raggett, his daughter, (who, missing her footing on the escape, fell to the ground with great violence, and died soon after); Mrs. Jones, a servant of Lord Huntingdon's; and another female servant.

``The fire originated in the apartments of Miss King, who set fire to her bed curtains, and its rapid progress is attributed to the throwing open of all the doors. The hotel was formed from two old houses, and of slight and inflammable materials.''

The Victorian-era publication also printed an obituary of Mrs. Round, the wife of the member of the House of Commons:

``Perished in the awful conflagration at Raggett's Hotel, Dover-st. aged 56, Susan-Constantia, wife of John Round, esq. M.P. for Maldon. She was the eldest daughter of the late George Caswall, esq. of Sacombe Park, Herts, and co-heir to her brother the late George Newman Caswall, esq.; was married in 1815, and has left issue three sons and one surviving daughter. The latter narrowly escaped her mother's fate. They had just returned from the French play, and were still waiting for their supper when so suddenly alarmed.''

Ladder Rescues

At the time, fire suppression was provided by the London Fire Engine Establishment, organized in 1833 to consolidate brigades operated by London's insurance companies. James Braidwood, former firemaster of Edinburgh, commaded 13 fire stations and 80 full-time firefighters. His men were nicknamed ``Jimmy Braiders.''

Rescue services were provided by a separate agency - the Royal Society for the Protection of Life - which operated a network of wheeled escape ladders stationed across the city. Each of the escapes was manned by a "conductor." Escape ladder stations outnumbered fire stations housing the engines.

In ``The Fireman's Own Book'' - published in 1860 - George P. Little wrote:

``The fire was discovered by police constable 44 C, who observed smoke issuing through the windows on the southern corner of the first floor. Several persons quickly made their appearance at the front and back windows in their night clothes. Such a strong hold had the fire obtained, that in less than ten minutes the flames were shooting forth from the windows with great fury, and extending nearly half way across the road.

``The police constable, on giving the alarm, had the presence of mind to send messengers for the fire-escapes and engines; consequently, in a few minutes, two escapes, belonging to the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, were at the scene of conflagration, and also the parish engine. The one belonging to the County Office was also early in arriving, as well as several belonging to the London Brigade and the West of England, from the station in Waterloo Road.

``The first object that was sought to be accomplished was the rescue of the inmates, but before ladders or the escapes could be placed in front of the building, a number of persons got out upon a small balcony over the doorway, and, being assisted by the police and neighbors, they were enabled to effect their escape in safety.

``The persons in the upper floors were obliged to remain until the escapes could be placed to their windows. As soon as that was done, several of them entered the machines, and were received below in safety.''

Rapid Spread

Little also wrote:

``The rapidity and intensity of the fire may be accounted for from the fact that the whole of the apartments were wainscotted, and that there was three times as much wood in the building as is usual in modern houses. Although, therefore, there were ten engines in attendance within half an hour of the outbreak, and a plentiful supply of water, the whole building, with the single exception of the sitting room of Mrs. Round, which remained with the supper things standing on the table uninjured and untouched, was in flames.

``In the report made by Mr. Braidwood he attributes the rapid progress of the fire to the fact that the whole of the doors were thrown open, and thus a free current of air tended to increase the flames. Her Majesty had herself witnessed the progress of the flames from the Palace, and a messenger was at an early hour sent to inquire into the extent of the damage.''