Facing Westgate Street, PC Price could see the Fire Department officers washing down their sparkling new engine ready for the next call, which would surely come soon. They had taken delivery of three new ‘steamers’ (a new design of fire engine run by steam) and were proud to be detailed to work on such modern equipment. He wondered whether he would be involved in a fire and what building it may be in. Older houses were lit by paraffin lamps or candles, the gas that lit the businesses and modern homes had yet to be installed in the hovels on his beat. Some alcoholic or a child in an overpopulated room could easily have an accident.
Many police officers of the time had dual roles; they were also trained as fire officers. The Fire Brigade Headquarters, the engine and equipment etc., was housed next to the police station complex in Westgate Street. A wholly dedicated Fire Department, run under separate management was yet to come.
The elderly reader may remember smog, or a pea-souper as they were sometimes called. It was most prevalent in London and the Midlands of England but in Cardiff too, predominantly on autumn days when fog and mists were ubiquitous. Every house had a fire grate, sometimes upstairs and downstairs, especially the bigger and more affluent areas. Coal fires belched out sulphurous smoke through thousands of chimneys. When the fog was hanging low the chimney smoke had nowhere to go and the result was a clogging thick smog and usually very cold.
Imagine walking down Bute Terrace in the 1890s on a cold winter’s day when every fire was stacked up with whatever fuel could be burnt. Not just for an hour but all day. It must have been quite a sight, and a choking experience.
The coal / wood fire was a staple of heating homes as far back as one can imagine, but one can perhaps forget the problems that it brought. As recently as the late 1960s some police stations were heated by coal fires. Bute Street was one such example; roaring fires in both enquiry office and mess room, but not in the cells. The prisoners held within those little white tiled refrigerators must have pleaded for heat.
Constables were only to aware of the problems open fires could bring. The soot of decades suddenly caught and burnt, causing flames to spurt out of the chimney pots and acrid black smoke to engulf the street. Open fires caused sparks and the potential of the coals falling out onto carpets or onto clothing. Add the fuel of alcohol to bad decision-making and the recipe for accidental fires was complete.
It was not the fire in the grate that had led to the death of little Mary Finn, 4 years of age, from Pendoylan Street, Newtown. It was March, 1892 and it must have been pretty cold at number 24. It was just nine in the morning when Mary’s screams were heard by her mother and uncle who were downstairs. Mary had misused matches and caught her clothes on fire. The occupants of the house put the flames out and they took her to the infirmary where she received treatment. A little girl of tender years is rushed to a hospital with extensive burn injuries. Within a short time she is treated and released. When Mary was taken back to Pendoylan Street she died shortly afterwards. The Coroner on hearing the facts of the case simply put it down as an ‘accidental death’. He even told the mother to be more careful in the future and keep matches on a high shelf.
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This tale of Victorian policing comes from Horrors of the Dead House. As a former police officer, John F. Wake brings his investigative expertise to the macabre true crime stories that haunt Cardiff’s streets.