Sales, W and Lee, Eliza

Sales, (William), and Lee, Eliza      1916 January 14th           Larkhill

Two YMCA Workers’ Death in a Burning Hut

A very distressing tragedy occurred at Larkhill Camp on Saturday morning, and, unfortunately, resulted in the death of two YMCA workers belonging to No 1 Hut, which was completely destroyed by fire.

The building was a large and lofty one, occupying a commanding position on a point in the Plain where the land begins to slope down towards the Avon valley above Durrington. It was situated a little to the right of the road leading from that village and Bulford to the Camps, which extend for miles on the western and southern side, but fortunately do not encroach on the ground lying below the Hut to the north and east. This saved the situation from being more serious than it was, for the wind was blowing in that direction, and had the vacant ground been as thickly occupied as that on the other side, a very large part of the Camp must have been involved.

The hut was 160ft long by 40ft wide, and cost no less than £750 to erect, and was the gift of Mr and Mrs Lendrum, who had lived in British Columbia, and intended it chiefly for the use of Canadians quartered on the Plain. It was a popular resort for them and other units, and it was practically always full, anything up to two thousand visitors patronising it in the course of a day. It was named the “British Columbia Hut” in honour of its donors, but among the workers was called the No 1.

Like other buildings of its kind it was all on one floor (with the exception of having one room above the store), and was built of match-boarding, with a galvanised roof lined with felt. This, like the woodwork, was saturated to better keep out the wet. The whole structure, therefore, was of a highly inflammable character, and once the fire had got a start it spread with a rapidity which defied efforts at rescue or salvage, and in a comparatively short time the whole structure, with £300 worth of stock and furniture, was completely destroyed. Included in the latter were two fine billiard tables, a bagatelle table, a piano, a supply of stamps from the Hut Post Office, the cash takings, the typewriter of the manager of the Larkhill area (Mr Cecil Thompson, formerly secretary of the Salisbury YMCA), while several tons of coal which had been brought to the spot a few days ago, were prematurely consumed. It would be impossible to imagine a swifter or more complete clearance. A large cinema theatre stood just to the rear, and a Salvation Army canteen at the side, and had the wind been blowing in their direction, instead of in the opposite, they must have been implicated, for the water supply and fire extinguishing appliances on the camp, would not have been adequate to prevent it.

The most serious part of the matter, however, was the death of two of the workers in the hut, Miss E J Lee and Mr W E Sales, both of Bristol, whose quarters were in the western end, behind the counter in the large hall. The staff consisted of seven workers under the direction of Mr William Fletcher, the others, in addition to the two victims, being Miss Cox, and Messrs Cowtan, Bryce and Miller, the three last sleeping in a “shack” detached from the main building. This separation no doubt saved their lives, but they had narrow escapes. So had the leader, or manager, and Miss Cox, who were both rescued through windows by soldiers belonging to the Army Service Corps who hurried to the spot, Driver Arberry distinguishing himself by service which earned him the commendation of the coroner and jury which enquired into the circumstances. Gallant efforts were made to get at Miss Lee and Mr Sales, but though a door was smashed in, the flames absolutely prevented the soldiers from entering and ultimately the bodies of the two workers were found in the debris.

A passing column of soldiers first discovered the fire and roused the Camp. Staff-Sergeant Thomas was soon on the scene, but by this time the whole of the hut appeared to be alight inside, and within a quarter of an hour the flames had obtained such a mastery that after the rescues referred to had been effected, it was impossible to do anything but to allow the building to continue burning, and make what preparations were possible to prevent it from spreading to adjoining premises. Major Brown, of the Divisional Train, was in charge of the troops on the scene, and all the officers were present.

Mr Sales was a married man, who leaves a widow and several children. He had been working under Mr Thompson in the Larkhill area for about a year, and went to the British Columbia Hut under peculiar circumstances. He was in charge of another hut at Rollestone, until it was blown down in a gale, and was then transferred to No 1. There the cook fell ill, and Mr Sales volunteered to take his place, and so occupied the room in which he met his death. As soon as his hut had been restored he would have gone back and taken the lead there.

Miss Lee had been a mistress in the Clergy Daughter’s School at Bristol for many years, and was present as a voluntary worker during her Christmas holidays. Miss Cox also belonged to Bristol and in her escape sustained injuries for which she went to Bristol for treatment.

The Inquest

The inquest was held on Monday afternoon in one of the military huts just across the roadway, before Mr F H Trethowan, the Coroner for South Wilts, and a jury, of which Mr E C Spratling was chosen foreman. There were also present Mr J J Virgo, National Field Secretary of the YMCA, and Mr E F Pye-Smith (representing the National Council), Mr Thompson, Miss Palmer (Head-mistress of Clergy Daughter’s School, Bristol) and Mr Lee (Miss Lee’s brother), Mrs Sales, and others.

William Wellesley Pole Fletcher, the leader or manager of the hut, identified the bodies. Mr Sales was a tailor’s cutter, but was voluntarily acting as cook in the hut, in the absence of the regular cook. He lived at 1, St Leonard’s Road, Bristol, and was 48 years of age. He slept in an upper storey of the hut. Miss Lee slept in a room on the ground floor. She was a voluntary worker, who came to assist in the hut during her holidays. Her address was the Clergy Daughter’s School, St George Street, Bristol. She was 46 years of age. Her room had a window facing west, but there was no window in the room in which Sales slept. The hut was heated by slow combustion stoves placed in different parts of the building, set on concrete with iron sheeting over. In the kitchen there was an ordinary cooking range, also set on concrete, and the chimney pipe went out through the wall, and was isolated by iron from the woodwork. He had been leader for a month, but had been working at the camp for several months. There had been no other fire in his time, and nothing to make him nervous about fire ever entered his head.

At about twenty past twelve on Saturday morning he went to bed, and there was then no sign of fire in any part of the premises. He saw the entrance to the kitchen and that was all right. Just before two o’clock he awoke suddenly, practically choking from smoke which filled the room, and across the inner window which looked into the passage, he actually saw flames pass. He shouted, and got up on the table and opened the window and called for help, and eventually smashed the glass, and with the assistance of a soldier got out. He went round the hut saying “There are women here,” to Miss Cox’s room, and found her standing at the window and calling for help. The soldier knocked the window sash in and she was rescued. Afterwards they went back to Miss Lee’s room, which was in flames. Some of the soldiers tried to get in through the window from the outside, but it was impossible owing to the flames. He could see no movement in the room.

There was no possibility of getting at Sales at all, as he was in the middle of the fire, and did not reply to his shouting. His room was surrounded by flames. He did not see that anything was done to put the flames out.

Where the Flames Came From

By Mr Pye-Smith : When he got round to Miss Lee’s room he saw flames there, but there was only smoke in Miss Cox’s room, which was next the kitchen. At that time the flames seemed to be coming from the direction of Miss Lee’s room.

Asked for the arrangements for working the hut, Mr Fletcher said that it was closed to soldiers at 9.30pm. Then there was supper for the staff, and after that prayers, and then the lady helpers went to their rooms, and would probably go to bed about 10.15. After that the other helpers had to check their cash takings, do the clearing up, and get ready for next morning. The last place they went into was the kitchen. The whole of the staff would be in the kitchen at about ten past twelve on Saturday night, with the exception of Mr Sales, who had gone to bed early. As a matter of fact, he (witness) had tried to get a message through to him, but found he was asleep, and did not disturb him. Everything was allright in the kitchen when they were there. The boiler was damped down before the staff retired, and the kitchen range was generally “out.” At 12.20 he went out into the hall to get an alarm clock, but did not see any light there.

By the Coroner : The boiler was damped down with the intention of keeping it alight till the morning, so that they could then quickly get hot water. All the other stoves at bed time naturally died down. The work of damping down the boiler was done by an assistant named Bryce, who was a skilled engineer.

By the Foreman : The chimney pipes were fitted with iron insulators to keep them from the woodwork of the sides of the building.

By a Juryman : When he went out to fetch the alarm clock after first going to his room he switched on the electric light, and did not take a naked light with him. The switch was just outside his own door, and he switched off the light when he returned with the clock.

Was any person detailed to see that the ashes of the stoves were out? The ashes were not raked out.

They might have been alight for all you know? They might have been.

The Coroner : How many stoves are there in the hut together? Four, but on Saturday they were not all lit. There was then only one stove burning in the hut beside the range and the boiler. For heating purposes Miss Lee had an oil lamp in her room.

By a Juryman : Was it for customary for the room in which Sales slept to be used as a sleeping room? There was no window there. Yes, it was the cook’s room. He had to use the electric light. If Sales had had a light in his room when he (witness) went out for the clock he would have seen it. He had no idea where the fire emanated from.

Asked by the Coroner if he had any explanation, he said he thought it might have originated in Miss Lee’s room, but he was no prepared to carry it further than that.

Thomas Bailey Cowtan stated that he acted as postmaster in the hut, and slept in a “shack” on the north-east of it, but not quite connected with it. He woke on account of feeling a choking sensation, and called the two other chaps who were sleeping in the “shack.” He saw flames passing his window. He turned on the electric light, but before he had finished dressing it went out. On opening the door he saw the roof of the hut at the north-west corner in flames. He ran round and saw Mr Fletcher, and then saw Miss Cox being rescued from her room by a soldier getting her down a ladder. He was told the other workers had been rescued and were safe in another hut. He saw soldiers smashing the framework of the windows at No4 and 5 bedrooms, which were in flames. He went into the hut and saved what he could. It was ten minutes after that he discovered that there was some doubt of all the helpers had been rescued. At the time he could form no impression of where the fire originated, but now, from what he had since heard and seen, he was practically certain that it started in Miss Lee’s room.

By Mr Pye-Smith : There were four stoves in the hut but only two were used regularly. One was quite out at 8.30, and in the other at 11.30 they burnt the waste paper. They were the only two stoves in the hut that were alight that night except those in the kitchen. Miss Lee had been to Amesbury in the course of the afternoon, and came back very tired indeed, but she kept on with her work till closing time, and went to her room after supper.

By a Juror : Her room was some distance away from the stove in which they burned the waste paper, and when he was first on the scene there was no fire near it.

George Arberry, driver of the 216th Company, ASC, said he saw the premises on fire, but he had no idea of the time. He called the men who were sleeping in the hut with him and they went to the burning building and helped Mr Fletcher out. He threw out the cash box first. Witness then went round to Miss Cox’s room and pulled her out, and took her to his company office and sent for a doctor. The whole building seemed to be on fire, and he could not form any idea as to where the blaze started. It was one mass of flames inside and out. Lieutenant Le Poer Powell, Batman Davis and Staff-Sergeant Thomas smashed in the door while he was carrying Miss Cox away.

The witness’s right hand was bandaged, and in answer to the Coroner he said it was broken before the fire, but what he did there had made it worse.

Sergt F W Port, of the Wilts Constabulary, attached to the Camps, said he arrived on the scene about 2.20am, the fire was then burning very fiercely. He was informed there were two bodies in the building. The attempt to rescue had been made before he got there. Miss Lee’s body was first recovered afterwards. The bedstead was entirely burned. The body of Sales was five yards further inside the hut, lying on the remains of a bedstead. He got it out. There was nothing to show where the fire originated. He afterwards found a foot which had a shoe on, and which showed, he thought, that Miss Lee had attempted to dress.

The Coroner, addressing the jury, said no medical evidence had been called, and he thought it was unnecessary. They had heard what evidence could be obtained, but it did not tell them how the fire started. No doubt they would have preferred to have had before them some definite evidence on which they could have said someone made a mistake here or there, and must be more careful. But in this case they did not know enough to say that. The two witnesses who were able to form perhaps the best idea of what first happened had given their opinion, and very possibly they were right, but it did not necessarily follow that because they were inquiring into these deaths it was necessary to say as to how the fire started. Possibly it would be almost better if they did not try to do so.

But they would be able to find there was an accidental fire, and that it resulted in the death of these two persons. It was a very sad and distressing occurrence, but all it was their duty to do was to find out how these persons came to their death, and return a verdict accordingly. Had there been medical evidence it could not have told them more. It was quite possible that these two persons were asphyxiated, and not burnt to death. But there was no reason why they should not return a verdict of death from shock. From the witnesses account of finding Sales lying on his bed there was every reason to believe he was asphyxiated ; and in the case of Miss Lee, who was found partly dressed, it was possible she was asphyxiated before she could finish dressing. It would, therefore, be sufficient for them to say that death arose from shock, or from asphyxiation. Everything appeared to be done that possibly could have been done, especially by Driver Arberry, who as a matter of fact, was the first one on the scene, and what he did resulted in getting Mr Fletcher out of the burning building and also Miss Cox. He could not have done anything for Miss Lee or Sales. Driver Arberry appeared to have behaved very well indeed.

After a brief consultation the foreman announced that the jury agreed that death followed asphyxiation, and expressed their admiration of the behaviour of Driver Arberry.

The Coroner said he agreed with their verdict and what they had said on the conduct of Arberry. The military authorities had also told him of the good work done by Farrier-Sergt Thomas. It appeared that Major H Brown proceeded to the spot and took command, and practically the whole Divisional Train turned out.


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