‘An annoyance and a great nuisance’: firemen are unwelcome at Lady Clifford’s

This case is revealing, not only of the way the the fire service operated in the late 1800s but also of the attitude of the well to do towards them and their own responsibilities as rate payers.

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Colonel Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer Clifford, Bart, resided with his wife and family at Rutland House, Rutland Gardens, in South West London. The Clifford barony (of which Sir Robert was the third holder) had been created in 1838 for Robert’s grandfather (Augustus) who had an illustrious naval career than began in the era of Nelson. There is far less information about Robert however, so perhaps he contented himself with living on the annual stipend and his other inherited wealth.

His wife. Emmelina Lowe, certainly seems to have been a woman that took money seriously, in a  way which many contemporaries would have seen as a little ‘bourgeois’.

In May 1886 a small fire broke out in the chimney of the kitchen of the Clifford’s smart London house . This alerted neighbours who raised the alarm and the London fire brigade (founded just 20 years earlier) despatched an engine to attend the fire.

However, when they arrived they were met by Lady Clifford who refused to let them in. The firemen were adamant that they needed access as their were ‘sparks and flames issuing from a chimney at the back of the premises’.

Fire was a real threat in London. Even if the capital had not experienced a devastating conflagration since the ‘great fire’ of 1666 Londoners retained the folk memory of that week of horror. Improvements in house building and private fire insurance (with private companies of firefighters) had protected homes and businesses thereafter. From the mid 1800s the capital had its a professional force of firefighters.

The Metropolitan Board of Works administered these regulations and prosecuted householders and builders for unsafe properties and dangerous structures. Failing to admit the fire brigade and not maintaining their chimney earned the Cliffords an unwelcome day in court. On 27 May Lady Clifford and her daughter appeared at the Westminster Police Court before Mr D’Eyncourt. As a concession to their social status they were not in the dock, but sat on the bench with the magistrate. This was indicative of wider class bias in the Victorian period and in this case, Lady Clifford really seems to have felt she was literally ‘above the law’.

The case was brought by Norman Bevan on behalf of the Board. He argued that the Cliffords were culpable of breaking regulations and flouting their responsibilities; he pushed for the maximum fine possible, 20s.

The details of the evening were recounted by Henry Cummins, a fireman stationed at Knightsbridge who found the front door barred. Lady Clifford admitted she had put the chain on the door to prevent the firemen entering. She had heard the fire engine’s alarm bell being rung but the family were at supper and she saw no need for panic. It was, she added, just a small chimney fire, not serious.

Her daughter backed up her mother’s testimony, saying that the ‘bell ringing [of the fire engine] was most violent and unnecessary’. Indeed the noise was such that she had been ‘unwell since the noise the firemen had made’.

Having proved the breach of regulations Mr Bevan now argued that the Cliffords should pay the full fine while Lady Emmelina tried to bargain with the court in a quite unladylike manner. She continued to argue that the fire was insignificant (‘it was only a little soot on fire, not a real fire’, she pleaded) and therefore she should only have to pay a nominal amount. She had suggested it was merely worth ‘half a crown’, not 20 shillings.

She mentioned that on the way into court Bevan had indicated that he would take half that amount, 10s, something the Board officer refused to admit. When she complained that in some cases fines were reduced the magistrate explained that ‘it was only cases where the parties are very poor’ and that certainly wasn’t the situation here. The Cliffords may not have been extremely wealthy but they were still members of the affluent elite and could well afford the fine.

Bevan seems to have been embarrassed by his earlier determination to prosecute the family and now began to backtrack. As Lady Clifford attempted to charm her way out of a fine, or argue for special treatment on account of her social rank, the Board officer said he had tried to persuade his boss that a smaller fine was indeed appropriate. D’Eyncourt was not to be moved however, the penalty was 20and 20s (plus 2s costs) was what would be paid.

Even now Lady Clifford demonstrated her contempt for the law and for her responsibilities to other citizens by continuing to say that such a small fire was worthy of  a small punishment:

‘I should have thought half a crown would have been quite enough in satisfaction of a case of this kind, especially as it was not a real fire’.

This drew laughter in court, but not from the person of the magistrate.

‘You are fined 22s., Lady Clifford, and I must ask you to remain satisfied with my decision’, a clearly annoyed D’Eyncourt told the Baron’s wife. She then left the court having paid her fine (or made arrangements to pay) ‘protesting that the whole proceedings were very unfair’.

In reality of course it probably was only a small fire but it was still the Cliffords’ responsibility and the fire brigade had been called out. Other people were fined for similar neglect of their properties, neglect which endangered the lives and homes of thousands of fellow citizens, so it seems entirely reasonable that fines should be levied that were proportionate to wealth. As the magistrate noted, ‘poorer parties’ would pay less but they would still pay, or else they would go to prison for non-payment.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 28, 1886]

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