Friday, 19 October 2012

An early bonfire night in 1899

The Union workhouse in Westhampnett came to a sad but dramatic end on the 3rd November 1899.  It was a stormy night with gale force winds raging but all seemed calm when the master of the workhouse, Mr Moore, made his final inspection of the evening.  All 115 inmates were in bed and the staff had retired to their rooms for the night.  An hour or so later the Moores were woken by the sound of a crash and on inspection they found the attics were on fire and the ceiling to the cooks bedroom, which was fortunately unoccupied, had fallen in.  They woke the three nurses who quickly dressed and began removing the inmates including the mother and her newborn child from the lying in ward and a ten year old boy ill with typhoid who was carried out by another inmate.  Many of the inmates were elderly or infirm, they were confused by the chaos and had to be carried or coaxed out of the burning building into the howling gale and torrential rain, the staff were helped by some of the able bodied inmates such as William Waller and Joseph Frampton.  The newly constructed iron staircases at each of the building enabled quick evacuation of the building.

Meanwhile in nearby Chichester there had been a dinner held for the Corporation of St Pancras which included senior members of the fire brigade.  Their evening was interrupted by the arrival of a cab driver who had seen the fire at Westhampnett and driven at speed back to Chichester to raise the alarm.  The firemen, Captain Budden and Lieut. Gambling, commandeered the cab drivers horse and harnessed him to the fire engine, they rang the fire bell and the remainder of the fire brigade arrived promptly and they were soon at the scene of the conflagration.

The workhouse alarm bell was rung but the raging storm limited its effectiveness to such an extent that labourers asleep in neighbouring cottages slept on unaware of the drama until woken by others banging on their doors.  Dr Bostick did hear the alarm but by the time he arrived the inmates had already been removed from the building.  He got the workhouse's own fire engines out but found that the lengths of hose would not connect together rendering them useless.  The fire brigade also faced problems - this time the lack of water.  Although connecting the workhouse to the water mains had been discussed a year earlier it had been decided it was too expensive to undertake the work but it now cost them the workhouse as the water from the well was soon exhausted and little could be done to save the main building.
Westhampnett workhouse after the fire
Once everyone was out there was an attempt made to retrieve as many goods as possible from the ground floor which was still clear of the fire whilst Moore ran back in to turn off the boiler fearing an explosion when the fire reached it.  The fire was allowed to burn itself out which it finally did at 8am the following morning.  All the inmates had been safely removed although one of them, Thomas Gilbert, died shortly afterwards from shock and fright.  Overnight, whilst the fire still burned, inmates were collected by other nearby workhouses and hospitals who offered to rehome them.  It was fortunate that the workhouse, which had a capacity of 569 inmates, had only 115 at the time of the fire and even more fortunate that the fire escapes had been installed as there was little doubt at the time that if they had had to rely on the internal central staircase they would not have been able to get everyone out in time  However if the workhouse had been connected to the mains water supply it might also have been possible to save the building which had originally been Westhampnett Place and had ancient and grand origins before its conversion in 1835 to the workhouse.

Source: The Observer and West Sussex Recorder - November 8th 1899 (page 5)


  1. Really interesting story - really was fortunate that the fire escapes had been installed

  2. The way the report was written it seemed they were surprised that the staircases had proved so useful!