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Notes on Christmas Day Fire Tragedy at Little Hill Street

By john workman  |  Posted: March 10, 2011

Comments (5)

 IT IS often the case that responses to Bugle articles come from far and wide.

Two weeks ago we reprinted a remembrance card from 1863, which recorded the deaths of five children and one adult in a fire tragedy on Christmas morning of that year, “in Little Hill Street’’.

This card had once belonged to a resident of Wednesbury, and the sender Len Perry thought that Little Hill Street maybe referred to Little Hill, Wednesbury, which is still there, close to Church Hill.

However, one of our readers in Australia, Mark C. Dodd, is able to give the accurate location of the fire, which actually occurrred in a public house some six or seven miles from Wednesbury — in Little Hill Street. Birmingham.

This street has not existed since the redevelopment of Birmingham City Centre in the 1960s, but it stood close to today’s, Smallbrook Queensway and Horse Fair, with Birmingham Hippodrome also close by.

But how did Mark come by the details which follow below? “I had researched this fire a while ago as one of my relatives, Emma Dodd from Shropshire, was working there until just before the blaze. I always investigate the pubs/taverns/inns that my relatives were involved with as there are often interesting stories attached to them. The fire was reported in dozens of papers for weeks and I have articles from Australia, Ireland, Scotland and well as all over England”.

The basic details are that a fire broke out in the Hill Street Tavern, located at 10 Little Hill Street, and abutting the Horse Fair, at around 4am on 25th December 1863.

Present in the tavern that night were landlord George Gameson, his wife Harriet, their children Matilda (Tilly), aged 14; John, aged 13; Emily, aged 9; Betsy, aged 7, George, aged 3 and William, aged 2. Plus Elizabeth Hancox, general servant, Amy Spratt, a 12 years old orphaned girl who Mr and Mrs Gameson took in, and Mrs Sarah Bradley, a 58 years old widow who was staying at the tavern over Christmas.

Of those, as remembrance card indicates (part of which is shown again, above), four of the Gameson children perished — Matilda, Emily, Betsy, William — plus the girl Amy Spratt and the widow Mrs Bradley.

It appears that Mr George Gameson, the landlord, was the last to retire to bed, after closing the pub and reading his newspaper, the Daily Post, until 1am, and then turning off a gas fire which was used to heat the room and had also been used to cook some plum puddings.

It seems that a fault with a pipe feeding this gas fire was the cause of the tragedy which was to evolve around three hours later.

At around 4.30am Joseph Payne, of 11 Little Hill Street, who was talking with his brother in law Benjamin Landsdown, noticed that the back window shutters of the pub were on fire.

He immediately ran to the front of the tavern and banged on the door, shouting, “Gameson, your house is on fire” At the same time the fire brigade and police were alerted.

Awoken from his slumber, George Gameson went downstairs to investigate.

He could see no smoke or fire, but he did detect a light under the front room door. Tragically, thinking the fire was not serious, he opened door, and was blown backwards by the fire, which then swept up the stairs.

He managed to unlock the front door, and collapsed in the street.

The flames and smoke quickly engulfed the rooms upstairs.

Elizabeth Hancox ran to the window, and was called to by Matilda “Oh Lizzie, for God’s sake save me”. Elizabeth told her, “Jump for your life Tilly”.

Elizabeth jumped down to the club room window ledge and started yelling for help. Matilda did not follow her.

Elizabeth was then helped down to ground level, escaping with a few scratches and smoke inhalation.

Then Mrs Gameson managed to climb out of her bedroom window, and was helped down to the ground with a ladder fetched by a desperate neigbour.

The eldest and second youngest brothers John and George slept in the same room, and seeing his father below, John shouted, “Shall I throw George out?”. His father replied, “Yes, throw him through for God’s sake”.

John then followed, and landed heavily near his father, but he nor George were badly hurt.

Six of the others were not so lucky.

The bodies were covered up as well as possible with sheets, and blankets and taken to the Acorn public house, almost opposite the burnt tavern.

The police and fire brigade were in attendance, but had been able to do little to rescue those trapped inside.

In fact, an investigation was later carried out by the Watch Committee, as there were some reports of the police being inactive and even drunk at the scene.

However, the conclusion was that none of the police had been inoxicated, though a couple of them had showed lack of action, but not cowardice.

Meanwhile, an onlooker who had put his own life in danger in trying to help at the scene, one John Hubball, was awarded 13 shillings for his bravery.

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  • Black Country Bugle User  |  January 25 2012, 11:51PM

    I am a descendant of george and harriet gameson. My grandmother gave me a copy of the family tree and copy of the family accounts of the fire in 1863.

  • Black Country Bugle User  |  October 24 2011, 10:18AM

    I have been researching the Gameson family for about 14years I have info on the fire and the family but would like to contact Mark C. Dodd and also Len Perry is this possible?

  • Black Country Bugle User  |  May 21 2011, 9:24PM

    Would like Mark C Dodd's email address as suggested below so I can request info/newspaper cuttings details. Thanking you

  • Black Country Bugle User  |  May 21 2011, 12:56AM

    I am researching my family tree - my mother's maiden name was Gameson and her Great Grandfather John Gameson survived the fire in Little Hill Street. Would be grateful for any information you would have. Thanking you.

  • Black Country Bugle User  |  March 10 2011, 1:17PM

    Happy to provide a more detailed report and newspaper articles to anybody who wnats them. Just e-mail me.