Queen Victoria Street Fire
'Our firemen to-day are asked to cope with twentieth-century perils with nineteenth-century machinery.'
‘Phoenix’, The Decay of London’s Fire Brigade (1902).
Phoenix is suspected to have been the architect and safety advocate Edwin O. Sachs.
On 9 June 1902, a fire broke out on the second floor of 67 Queen Victoria Street, the London offices of the General Electric Company (GEC), which manufactured electrical goods. The fire quickly spread to the top floor, where a dozen teenage girls assembled lamps specially decorated to mark King Edward VII’s coronation. With their sole exit blocked by fire and smoke, the firm’s youngest workers jumped from the windows to escape.
Inflammable materials stored on site had ensured that fire precautions were in place. Fire safety at GEC appeared up-to-date, largely because they manufactured fire alarms. The company fire brigade regularly held drills, but only after most workers had left for the day. The male fire officers therefore remained unknown to other employees, who could not differentiate fire alarms from other office bells.
Crucially, on the day of the fire, the member of staff responsible for evacuating the fourth floor did not alert those on the top floor before leaving the building. When London’s fire services arrived, they had only a 50ft ladder, which did not reach the highest windows. In all, ten people died, most of smoke inhalation, which sometimes includes internal burn injuries.
GEC made ‘everything electrical’, including items (like kettles) that might cause burns, but also the fire alarms designed to help - though ignored in 1902. Fire drills now ensure we recognise alarm sounds.
Grace’s Guide to Industrial Heritage, CC-BY
Alice Thompson (aged 14) was one of four girls to jump from a window, as did a young man, who missed a tarpaulin held by police and onlookers. Fire fighters were able to rescue two girls using ropes, but were overpowered by smoke.
Doctors, nurses, fire fighters and members of the public trained by St John Ambulance provided artificial respiration before sending those rescued to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Records survive for a few of the girls and show they lived.
St Bartholomew’s Hospital Female Admission Register, 1898-1903 (SBHB/MR/3/6). Copyright Barts Health NHS Trust Archives and Museums.