The fourteen year old Esther wakes in the early hours of the morning with a premonition of disaster. She lies still for a moment, straining her eyes against the greyness of the room which presses in heavily upon her. She feels hot. She sits up. She sits up to push away the darkness and climbs out of bed quietly so as not to wake Becky.
Creeping out of the room dressed only in her long white cotton nightgown, she makes her way down the stairs. In the kitchen, she feels about the dresser for matches to light the gas mantel the faint light of which darkens for Esther each corner of the room so that she imagines things unseen waiting, and fears to move away from the room’s centre. What’s the time? she wonders and looks towards the bracket-type clock with its round face, ticking away on the dresser, the very same clock which is to stop its ticking at the moment of her father’s death. It is a little after 1 a.m. and she shivers. Cold. She feels the stove. Cold. Too cold for a kettle. She walks this way and that. Agitatedly. Touching household implements until she knocks over an enamel jug which falls with a crash to the floor. Nearby, outside 94 Queen Street, the home of Esther’s half-sister Flora, her husband Harry and four children, able seaman Edward Morgan, serving on HMS Revenge serving on HMS Revenge, shouts ‘FIRE1’ and bangs with both fists on the front door.
Esther hears a sound behind her and turns round quickly to find her 15-year old brother Mark. She is not surprised for sometimes he and she at night share the same dreams. "Cold?" asks Mark and when she nods, he goes out of the room to return with her coat which she wraps around herself. They sit on the hard kitchen chairs without speaking. As if keeping a vigil. But Esther must have dozed for when the knocking sounds on the front door she starts up as if out of sleep.
Bang. Bang. Bang. The sound is ominous. Loud enough to wake the dead. She shivers. She stands up, but can move no farther. Helplessly, she looks at Mark. "You go!" she whispers and waits passively for Mark’s return without so much as straining to hear the conversation taking place in the hallway. Mark returns. "It’s Harry" he says. "He says there’s been a fire, but Flora and the children are all right, but he doesn’t know where they’ve gone. He thinks they might be at the Sailors’ Home, but he’s not sure. I’d better wake up Mum and Dad." But they are already awake.
After that time and occurrences run into one another to form a jumble of events which cannot be untwisted or put in order. Her father and Woolf dressing hurriedly and running out of the house. She, Becky and Mark huddling together in the kitchen, near to their mother who goes automatically about her morning chores as if this day is like all others. The policeman arriving at their door carrying in his arms the white-facade, shocked, six-year-old Celia. The child unable to reply to her grandmother’s urgent questions. Esther taking the small, shaking body into her own arms. The Father and Woolf returning, anxious and ill at ease. The question in her mother’s eyes and her father avoiding their look. "Won’t let us in" he mumbles "the fire brigade’s there." "Didn’t you ask? the mother screams, throwing her arms wide. Keening, sitting in a chair, her legs unable to support her body, she rocks herself backwards and forwards. "Where’s my Flora. My grandchildren!" Reminding the Father that he is only their step-parent. "Ask! Ask! Ask!" shouts the Father in an explosion of energy.
Esther takes Celia into the living-room where they sit with their arms about each other. Celia’s head resting against her chest. Another policeman at the door. Her parents talking urgently. Her mother’s howl of anguish. Her weeping. The Father looking on helplessly.
In 1993 I obtain from the Newspaper Library at Colindale a copy of the Portsmouth Times for Saturday 20 April 1912 in which is set out the report of the Coroner’s Inquest. As I read, I span the years and I am there at 94 Queen Street, a one-time public house converted by Harry Brentman into three shops, but the use of matchboard, lath and plaster. Harry trading as a seaman’s outfitter in one of the shops and the family, with the addition of a nursemaid, a girl of 16 (referred to in the Coroner’s Report as ‘the servant’) living on the two upper floors.
I stand in the dull room, lit by a candle, for only the shop, the cutting-room and the upstairs sitting-room are wired for electricity. Harry and Flora are preparing for bed. Dressed in a nightshirt, Harry extinguishes the candle, taking the wick between thumb and index finger, and climbs into bed alongside Flora, the four-month-old baby, Cecil, between them.
Flora starts out of sleep. "Harry, Harry! someone’s knocking at the door! Go and see!" He climbs slowly out of bed, pulls on his trousers and in the dark runs down the stairs to the first floor where he opens a window and looks out into Queen Street, to see in the shop windows opposite the pale reflection of red and orange flames, leaping and swaying in a death defying dance. "Fire! Fire!" he calls hoarsely, so that able seaman Morgan stoops his knocking and moves away to look up at the window.
Now, this is where Harry’s story differs from that told me by my mother and told by Becky to her children and my grandmother’s sisters to their children. For Harry informs the Court that on running back up the stairs to the bedroom he found no-one there except the baby lying on the bed. "I picked the child up in my arms and returning to the first floor went to a window and eventually dropped the child into an overcoat which people held up." My mother always said that Flora sent the baby to safety out of the window, but then neither she, nor her siblings, nor parents would give Harry credit for one good action. And in the light of what follows, who can blame them? The only evidence on the saviour of the baby is given as follows by able seaman Morgan who says:
"A person came to the first floor with a baby, and I took an overcoat from a gentleman and both of us held it out and caught the child. A quilt was also obtained and the person was asked to jump, but would not do so." Note that, not "a man" not "a woman", "a person" so able seaman Morgan’s evidence cannot decide us one way or the other as to which of the parents saved the baby. "Flora refused to jump" my cousin Florrie said to me only recently.
"Flames were coming up the staircase" Harry Brentman tells the Court. He is a little man not much taller than the five foot Flora, a man with round immature face which sports a small moustache. "So I walked along the fascia outside to a neighbour’s, McCarthy’s, where he took me in." On first going downstairs he had heard his wife calling out to the servant ‘Nellie! Nellie! Nellie! It’s a fire!’ but he did not see her again and if the body was found in the other bedroom he supposed she went there to endeavour to rescue the other children. He was very dazed and exhausted when he went to McCarthys and thought his wife and children were safe, being told that they were at the Sailor’s Home.
Henry John Williams, labourer at Brickwoods Brewery, trudging home just after 1 a.m. turns into Queen Street to be met by fire and smoke. "Fire! Fire! Fire!" he shouts, running the length of the street to the accompaniment of Police Constable Hancock’s whistle. Harry Reed, licensee of the Camden public house is awakened by his wife, dresses and goes out and, as he crosses the road, sees the 28-year-old Flora and 16-year-old Nellie Mason at an upstairs window, screaming for help. Breaking a window in Admiralty-row he makes desperate attempts to enter the house, only to be driven back by smoke. He races back to the Camden and phones the Fire Brigade, to be told that they were already on their way. Rushing back to the burning shop he asks the gathering crowd if all the people were out. "They’re all at the Sailors Home" someone says and this information is repeated in a murmur throughout the crowd, the words spreading their way from one to another. Like fire.
Police-Sergeant John Patterson of the Water Police arrives at the Landing Stage of the Dockyard, hears the police whistle and in search of its origin comes upon the glaring reflection of flames and smoke in a shop window. Taking two Police Constables to the burning building he is told that there is a child inside still alive. He sends to the dockyard for a fire ladder which he rears against the Admiralty-row side of the building and endeavours to enter a room on the second floor, from which he thinks he has heard a scream. But he is driven back by smoke. Breathing heavily, he climbs down the ladder for a breather, but then climbs up again and lights matches to look into the room. He can see nothing. Then Fireman White mounts the ladder, carrying a lamp which lifted to the window reveals the 6-year-old Celia lying on a bed. Smashing the window, Fireman White jumps down into the room, picks up the child and hands her to the Police Sergeant.
"A sailor saves Celia" says my mother. "Flora had dragged her to a window and a sailor saw her arm over the sill and climbed up the drain-pipe."
But Fireman White can go no farther into the building for the smoke is too dense. Coughing, he and Police-Sergeant Patterson make their way down to ground level.
Outside the shop, Harry Brentman screams and shouts, he behaves like a madman. Police Constables Hancock and Puchini, one on each side of him, shout at him "Is anyone else in there?" Constable Hancock comes round to face Harry, to impede his agitated movement for a moment. "Is anyone else in there?" he shouts once again, attempting to get Harry to meet his eyes. But the policemen can get no coherent answer from Harry. "They’re all out, they’re all out, at the Sailors’ Welcome" people in the crowd call out and the Police Constables are satisfied. It is only later that a woman informs Acting Sergeant Lock of the Fire Brigade that two women have been seen at a window.
The fire extinguished, the sizzling embers and charred wood cooling so that by morning they are cold and only a noxious smell remains, Acting Sergeant Lock goes into the building to find Flora in death lying on a bed, her nightdress pulled up to shelter the small body of two-year-old Sarah. Sixteen-year-old Nelllie Mason lies dead on the floor. The body of four-year-old Philip is found crouching on hands and knees in a corner of the room.
Dr. Francis Stokes, locum tenens to Dr. Lysander Maybury, after a post mortem states that the cause of death in each case is suffocation. "Burns on the bodies were sustained after death."
"He set the fire for the insurance" says my mother, hating Harry as she remembers her sister, the slim, curly-haired blue-eyed girl so like herself, and yet unlike. For Flora almost from the first had been made aware of the transience of life. She had seen her father and full siblings die, one by one, until only she and her mother remained to comfort and care for each other. Following these deaths, when she was little more than a baby, she had made, together with her mother, the long arduous journey over sea and land back to Poland. Travelling steerage; sitting on hard wooden train seats; walking miles and miles and sleeping where they fell in tiredness. And then, when it was arranged that her mother, my grandmother, marry Samuel Argeband in Rogowa, once more mother and daughter set out on the long, uncomfortable, trek back to England. But this time Sam, my grandfather, was there to help, to carry Flora when she tired, to take their bundles and share their burdens. When her half-siblings were born, Flora became her mother’s help-meet, kind, hard-working, asking little for herself, the family’s angel, and this role she had taken into marriage and motherhood.
In summing up, the Coroner states that all sorts of sinister rumours and suggestions had been thrown out, reflecting on different persons. He would make no comment, but would call attention to them so that they could be thoroughly dealt with and thrashed out. He, himself, could see nothing in the evidence to bear out these rumours as to the cause of the fire, or the alleged delay in the arrival of the Fire Brigade. The fire was due to accidental causes. The Jury returned a verdict to the effect that the women and children had been accidentally suffocated and there was no evidence to show the cause of the fire. The Fire Brigade had arrived promptly, Water police and everyone concerned had behaved extremely well.
The Father, Woolf and Mark dress for the funeral. Three coffins. Two of them such small boxes. "They look like they’re sleeping" the Father says to reassure his wife. In his mind’s eye he cannot shut out the sight of charred bodies. "Peacefully sleeping." "Where’s the baby?" the Mother asks, as if it were only now she could total her loss. The Father looks at his wife blankly. For a moment they both imagine that they had misunderstood the evidence. Perhaps that was some other baby dropped from a window and Flora’s child had been lost in the fire. Who knows what could happen to so small a baby in a fire. He could be consumed entirely by smoke and flames. "The evidence given must be right" says Woolf firmly "someone’s taken the baby in."
But they continue to fret over the missing baby during the seven days of shiva. The Mother crumpled in a low chair where she receives visitors - Uncles, Aunts, cousins, friends, neighbours. A continual tread of feet. The men unshaven. The mirrors covered over. Harry creeping in and out, his head bowed. Three days of weeping and four days of eulogy. What was there to say about children who had lived such a short space of time" Except to remember their sweet ways and clever sayings.
"Philip used to stand behind his father and copy the way he stood, feet apart, hands on hips - it used to make Harry laugh", says my mother. "The little boy was such a comic. Harry was paid out for what he did. He lost his favourite child."
Before the end of the thirty days lesser mourning and the eleven months during which the mourner recites the Kaddish - a prayer for the dead - twice daily, the family had moved away from the sailors’ town of Portsmouth and back to London.
First, of course, the baby Cecil had to be found and my mother tells me how she and Mark searched for him by questioning neighbours, shopkeepers and others and at last found a witness who had seen the infant dropped from the window and passed from one pair of arms to another, until he had reached the arms of a childless publican who had taken the child home to his wife. "They bought him a real live monkey!" says my mother. "A real live monkey!". Her eyes wide with astonishment. They really loved him and were heartbroken when we took the baby away, but they were gentiles and your boobe said he had to go to Jewish foster-parents. Until Harry remarried and took both children to live with him. He came to the house and asked Becky to marry him - in good Biblical tradition - but she told him in no uncertain language where to go!" my mother says, in an unusual admiration of her sister.
Celia, until her father’s remarriage, lived with my grandmother and shared my mother’s bed. "She was terrified of the dark after the fire" says my mother "and I had to argue with your boobe to allow her a night-light. But once I was reading by candle-light and the candle fell over and set fire to some papers. Celia was asleep and I put the fire out quickly and hid the evidence, but in the morning she said "I dreamt of the fire last night" and I felt so guilty!"
The baby Cecil carried the scars of the night of the fire with him into old age, so that even a wife, family and successful real estate business could not compensate for his early loss. At long last, and nearing old age, he found his mother’s family and thereafter was seen at weddings and funerals. This story of his loss he told to his children again and again, throughout their growing up years, which led to his daughter, Cynthia, in middle-age compiling a family history which has been most helpful to myself.
"The sailors would have saved them all" my mother continues to lament."
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