A service for the Booth’s disaster
3rd November 2012
Below is an article describing the disaster in 1941, that will be remembered by the unveiling of a plaque in a month’s time.
It was a scene of unimaginable horror, and for the people standing in the street below, they were witnessing something that they would affect them for the rest of their lives. An unstoppable raging fire, dense smoke belching from shattered windows and terrified young people leaping from the upper floors to escape the devouring flames.
A description perhaps of the events surrounding Manhattan’s TwinTowers on 9 / 11? Far from it! This was in fact was John William Street, Huddersfield, on October 31st 1941, and the premises ablaze were the clothing factory of H Booth and Sons Ltd. The building was a prominent five story converted warehouse that stood back to back with the Empire Cinema and faced the railway viaduct on the opposite side of the road.
The inferno began, not by such a thing as a colliding aircraft, but rather, it was the simple act of a workman failing to extinguish his pipe correctly before placing it in his jacket pocket.
This, however, was only one of a number of appalling factors that led to the deaths of 49 people. The Examiner, reporting on the conclusions off the inquest, described them as a ‘perverse chain of circumstances.’ Not only was there an absence of an external fire escape, the fire alarm was delayed, as was the evacuation. The fire procedures too were vague and inadequate. Besides this, the internal structure of the building was mainly timber and the materials used in the workshops, worsted and cotton, were easily combustible. The factory doors were still open as the workforce had only just arrived. On the morning in question there was a particularly strong wind blowing through the interior. Within minutes of the outbreak of fire it was funneling the deadly flames up both staircases trapping over 50 workers on the upper floors.
Today, as we reach the 70th anniversary of that terrible disaster, ‘Ground Zero’ remains a vast forlorn empty space used only at street level as a goods yard for Tesco Supermarket. Only part of the original structure remains, that being the derelict rear wall by which it was divided from the Empire Cinema.
Unlike other places where tragedy has struck with severe loss of life, the former site has nothing to commemorate that unfortunate happening, such as a plaque or memorial stone. People pass by daily, yet it is too long ago for most to have any inkling of the terrible tragedy that unfolded there.
The actual memorial to those workpeople is to be found in EdgertonCemetery. There stands large edifice which had been paid for by public subscription and was constructed to mark the site of the communal grave where the remains were interned.
Built into it are six prominent stones bearing the names of the 49 victims? These were mainly women and girls, some of them were as young as fourteen. The bold epitaph on the tall central Pillar reads, They Died at Duty.
Booth’s fire had a massive impact on the town as people reeled in shock and horror as the news spread first through the streets of Huddesfield then throughout the region. But even with a disaster of this magnitude there was little time for prolonged grief amongst the wider public. Hitler’s bombs were falling on British towns and cities causing inferno’s of much greater intensity and the tentacles of Nazism were spreading throughout occupied Europe. Even whilst the remaining blackened shell of Booth’s factory was being demolished, men and women were congregating on the platforms of Huddersfiel Station waiting to say farewell to their loved ones, some of whom might share a fate not too dissimilar to that of the clothing workers.
In the proceeding years there have been some well written articles about the Booth Fire, not least in the Examiner. Contemporary accounts of the tragedy however were more concerned with the reporting of facts. Many of the human stories that could have emerged in the aftermath were overlooked . Today, by piecing together snippets of historical information from the enquiry, witnesses and survivors relatives, it is possible to reconstruct the events that took place on that fatal Friday morning.
October the 31st started as any other normal day for the works manager William Rhodes Senior of Long Lane, Dalton. He had taken his familiar route down John William Street, crossing as usual the junction with Brook St, right on the corner where the Empire Cinema stood. The billboard on the wall would grab the attention of passers by as to what films would be showing that weekend.
That evenings performance was billed as the ‘Screens Hit of Hits,’ The Prince and the Pauper, featuring Errol Flynn and Claude Rains.
The ‘Coming Sunday’ advertisement announced the showing of a famous Hollywood hit, The Roaring Twenties, with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
As it happened, Booth’s workforce could often hear some of the action as the cinema screen was up against the dividing walls.
Mr Senor crossed the road in the direction of the factory with his grey Scotch tweed coat buttoned up to protect him from the autumn chill. It seemed that the only comfort on that dank morning in wartime Britain was the warmth in the bowl his pipe and the aromatic smell of tobacco. A glance at his watch would have showed it that was almost eight ‘o clock.
Smoking was not allowed in the works so he carried out his daily ritual by which he would tap out the burning ash into the curbside near the front door. Having slipped the pipe into his pocket, he entered the workplace and headed straight for the fitting room, this being the usual place where he hung his coat. The starting bell rang and the machines burst into life just as the manager made for his office. Within minutes, flames were discovered leaping from the coat stand.
Friday was a normal day also for John and Lilly Gatenby. From their comfortable Alder Street Home in Fartown. Lilly had waived goodbye to their beautiful sixteen year old daughter Doris on the morning of the 31st as she started out on her mile or so walk to the factory.
Doris had been employed at Booth’s since leaving HillhouseSchool. She was a popular and conscientious young lady who had learned first aid in order to help others. She took an active part in the New North Road YWCA, and was a member of WoodhouseParishChurch which was virtually on her doorstep. Friday was an exciting day for teenagers, not least for Doris. She would be looking forward to the arrival of Bessie Whiteley the cashier at Booth’s who would hand out her wages. Some of her spending money would pay for a night out at Charlie Frosts, a popular Dance Hall in town where she was beginning to catch the eye of young male admirers.
John and Lilly would never get over the loss of their daughter. Doris was just 16 years old with all her life in front of her when she was forced out on to window ledge on the upper floor by the searing heat. With the means of escape blocked by a wall of flame, she was left with little choice but to take that fatal leap that would lead to her death.
Seventeen year old Barbara Chadwick too had everything to live for. She was engaged to her fiancé Francis Costello and was soon to be married. It was an exciting time for a girl who would turn 18 come the following Friday.
Now, with the inferno dangerously close, she found herself like Doris, perched on the window ledge contemplating the long drop to the ground. In that very next instant, the glass from the upper windows were shattering and smoke and flames were belching out of the gaping holes – and Barbara’s broken body lay in the street below.
That is where the story of a young lady’s life would have ended had it not been for a strange but fortunate turn of events. A local Ice Cream lady Minnie Colleta, who was at the time driving a taxi saw her fall and immediately went to her aid. After lifting Barbara into her cab Minnie rushed the stricken girl to the infirmary in nearby Portland Street.
The Examiner later acknowledged that it was the prompt action of this unsung hero that saved her.
In the months ahead Barbara would slowly recover but her injures were not without severe consequences. Her pelvis had taken the impact of her fall and the Doctors had to explain to her that because of internal damage she would never be able to bear children. It was a terrible blow for Barbara, but at least she was alive. Many of her work friends had not been so fortunate. Sadly, for what ever reason, she and Francis parted.
Nearing the time of discharge things was much brighter and Barbara was to find herself something of a cause célèbre. On the day she was finally well enough to leave hospital the Lord Mayors son arrived in a Rolls Royce to take her home. Later, to help with her rehabilitation, he would take her on regular outings to GreenheadPark in that same splendid way.
Barbara also had three proposals of marriage including one from a Chaplin in the Army. In the end she met and married a gentleman called Charles Tyndall. They were together until the time of his death.
There are very few people around from that era who were eyewitnesses to the tragic events at Booth’s, let alone those who remember some of the workforce.
One exception however is my uncle Roy Heath, now in his 89th year and living in Bradley. With his sharp memory he can still picture the scene in the aftermath just as the Fire Brigade had finally dampened all but the last of the flames. He knew Barbara Chadwick well and recalls dancing with Doris Gatenby at ‘Charlies.’ On the day of the fire however he didn’t know what had become of them.
Today, Roy recalls how some years later, after the Second World War had ended he was busy in his peacetime occupation as a plumber for a firm called Edmonsons.
Travelling from job to job on his motorbike with a tool filled sidecar, he chanced to notice a familiar face at a bus stop. It was Barbara! The reunion was, needless to say, a joyful one. He had survived the war having served in the Navy, and she had survived a terrible fire.
Barbara was more than happy to accept the offer of a lift home, but unfortunately the only room available was in the sidecar amongst Hemp, flux, and screwdrivers. It was a big comedown from the Mayoral Rolls Royce but off they went, happy as Larry.
It was then that Barbara revealed there had been a second miracle in her life. She was pregnant! Against the prognosis of all the Doctors, Barbara went on to have two children, a girl and a boy.
Writing to me at the time of the 50th anniversary and just after the death of her mother, Clare Whittle, Barbara’s daughter, was extremely helpful. She wrote telling of a dear loving wife and mother who would assist others whenever they were in need.
She recalled her mother telling her the story about the trips to GreenheadPark but on the subject of the fire, Clare said that she spoke very little about it. What was known is that in the two years her mother was unable to work because of her injuries, her sister and brother had to take it in turns to stay with her at her grandmother’s house because she was unable to be alone in a room with an open fire. Naturally the thoughts of those she left behind would stay with her forever.
These are only two of the stories that emerged in the aftermath of the fire. Many others were equally touching. Harold Smith of Linthwaite lost both his daughters. Leonard Moorhouse survived the Somme; he died at Booth’s. George Thirkill was a well known usher at the Town Hall. He was said to have “tackled the flames like a Trojan.” The inquest heard how he used a fire extinguisher near the stairway allowing some of the girls to escape. George could have easily saved himself; he died saving others. James Woffenden should never have been at Booth’s. He was a talented musician who played the Violoncello, but his career was cut short by an injury received in the First World War. Other selfless and compassionate acts occurred during the mayhem. The Rev Patrick Reeves, a Catholic Priest from St Patrick’s Church raced to the scene to give ministrations to anyone brought out alive, even being assisted by firemen to mount a ladder to give absolution to anyone trapped and dying in the smoldering shell. He instantly realised that his work was in vain when he peered into the blackness of this hell hole.
Booths fire was just one of many that occurred during the twentieth century. Perhaps that is the reason why stories of courage and survival have fueled the imagination and inspired the film industry. The difference being that the scriptwriter’s pen can bring a happy ending to the most tragic of circumstances. One has only to think of the Titanic which tells the story of a young girl called Rose, plucked from the ocean by a lifeboat crew. She survives, goes on to raise a family and dies in old age. Then with a bit of cinema magic she passes into the afterlife and is warmly reunited with those who perished.
The author’s pen can give no such outcome to the tragedy that happened on John William Street other than a few of the survivor’s accounts such as that of Barbara Chadwick. The same goes for other disasters that would follow in later years, IbroxPark, The Herald of Free Enterprise, Hillsborough to name just a few. They are logged in the annals of twentieth century catastrophe.
Although we can make but a few comparisons, the final scene in that Hollywood epic did capture one vital thing, the earnest desire that lies deep in the human sole. It is the wish to be reunited with those we have lost.
For the hundreds of relatives and friends gathered in the enclosure around that communal grave in EdgertonCemetery on a cold November afternoon in 1941, no other desire could have been more longing.