FIRE DESTROYS THE ROYAL OAK HOTEL, WELLINGTON
10 DECEMBER 1898
From - Evening Post – Saturday -10 December 1898 Page 5
A most destructive outbreak of fire occurred here shortly after midnight and unfortunately it was not confined to the loss of property, great as that it is reported to be. The fire occurred in the fine block of buildings fronting Cuba, Manners and Dixon streets, so well known here as the Royal Oak Hotel, and the property of Mr Samuel GILMER. The origin, as is so frequently the case in such outbreaks, is not at all certain, but in any case it was first noticed near the roof of the kitchen, in what is known as the old portion of the building – that is to say, the portion fronting on Manners and Cuba Street.
The alarm was given by one of the young women employed at the hotel, whose room is just above the kitchen, and who rushed downstairs in her nightdress to the commercial room, where several gentlemen were sitting and called out, “My God, the place is on fire.” The gentlemen in question – Messrs O’REGAN, (M.H.R.) FENTON, RUSSELL and SIMPSON, all of whom were staying at the hotel – rushed from room to room banging at the doors and shouting “Fire!” and it was fortunate that they acted with such promptitude, for the flames spread through the building with amazing speed. To those who arrived on the scene a few minutes after the outbreak occurred, it seemed incredible that the fire could have obtained such a hold in the time. Flames were rushing through the old portion of the building in all directions, and in a very few minutes were leaping out of windows and licking up the sides of the structure. Quick as the Brigade men were in being alarmed, and prompt as they were arriving on the scene, the fire had obtained so strong a hold tat they were quite powerless for the time being to do anything further than to pour ineffectual streams of water on to it and make provision for checking its spread to the adjoining properties.
The progress of the fire is almost impossible to describe. It literally raged through the buildings in all directions, and the detailed accounts of the experience of some of the occupants, given below, will best describe the appalling condition of things. A little more than an hour after the fire started the whole building was completely gutted, and the danger to the adjoining buildings was over.
THE LOSS OF LIFE
Two distressing fatalities occurred in connection with the fire. To those who have lived here any time the Royal Oak Hotel was a familiar building. Fronting Manners and Cuba Streets it was two stories high, and for some distance down Dixon-street also. Then what is known as the new building was added to it. This was of three stories, and it was in this, and at the eastern end of it, in the top story, that the sad tragedy of the fire occurred. Strange to say, too, this was practically the last portion of the upper part of the building to be touched by the fire.
In the new part of the hotel there appear to have been some nine boarders sleeping when the fire broke out – namely, Mr and Mrs A A SHERIFF, Miss GILMER and the Misses ROSE (2), Messrs H A SHARPLESS, G FAULBAUM, G BLANDFORD and H E GREAR. All the occupants of the old building were rushed out, some of them having narrow escapes before being placed in safety, and those in the new building, with the exception of Messrs SHARPLESS, FAULBAUM, BLANDFORD and GREAR also appear to have got out quickly. The four gentlemen mentioned, however, awoke to find themselves cut off from escape in every direction.
As already explained, the fire originated on the first floor (not the ground floor), and about the centre of the building. The additional story of the new part with the open doors leading to it provided a vent up which the smoke rushed into the top story in volumes so dense that to attempt to pass through it meant certain death.
Here then, were these four men cooped up in the top story of a building, the windows of which were at least 40ft from the ground, and every other avenue of escape cut off. The fire escape was at the west end of the story, where the smoke was thickest. The fireman and the crowd below could see that someone was there, and also their critical position, but the height from the ground was so great that the ladders were not long enough to reach the upper windows. How Mr FAULBAUM risked his life on a desperate chance, and leaped some 25 feet on to a shed beneath, is told later on.
Mr SHARPLESS who hails from the United State, and who appears to have kept his head well throughout – oh finding all other outlets closed went to the room furthest from the fire – the last room in the top row facing Dixon-street, and proceeded to tear up the bedding in the room and knot it into a rope with the object of lowering himself to the ground. And here it may be remarked that the rope fire escapes, which are usually found in the bedrooms of large hotels were apparently not provided at the Royal Oak Hotel. Before Mr SHARPLESS had completed his rope of bed-clothes, a safer though still very risky means of escape was provided for him by the fire brigade. The foot of a ladder was placed on the cross pieces at the top of an electric light pole, and the other end resting on the ledge of the window at which Mr SHARPLESS could be seen. It was held in position by several firemen and down this somewhat shaky fire escape he descended to the ground in safety.
Thus two of the imprisoned inmates of the burning building escaped. Two more – namely GREAR and BLANDFORD still remained there, but it was not until their charred bodies were found later in the morning that anyone was certain that they had not escaped. Fireman BAYLISS found the body of Mr GREAR at 3 am. It was lying in the passage close to the room from the window of which Mr FAULBAUM had made his sensational leap. His face was towards the west end as if he had made a last desperate attempt to reach the fire-escape, and had failed. It was not until 7 o’clock that Fireman BRANNIGAN found the body of Mr BLANDFORD – in the room from the window of which Mr FAULBAUM had jumped, and close to the window. Evidently he had made an attempt to reach the window and fell, or he had crawled under the bed to escape. His body was badly burnt.
THE PROPRIETOR’S LOSS
Little more remains to be said in a general way. Mr GILMER, owner of the hotel, when interviewed by our reporter, told readily enough all that he knew of the fire. He had gone to bed and was sound asleep when the night watchman aroused him and told him the kitchen was on fire. He rushed down and saw the flames breaking through the ceiling of the room. He threw a bucket of water on the flames, but quickly saw that this was of no use, and therefore immediately rang up the Fire Brigade. He then dashed back to his room, but so rapidly had the flames spread that he had not time even to find his clothes, and it was as much as he could do to make his way out of the building. As it was he received some burns. His anxiety was great, for he had left Mrs and Miss GILMER when first aroused, and was not certain for some time whether they had escaped or not. The servants called the people sleeping in the building, and but for them and the action of Messrs O’REGAN, FENTON, RUSSELL, WOODWARD and SIMPSON, there would have been many more lives lost. Asked as to his losses, Mr GILMER stated that his furniture was insured for £6000, and had cost over £11,000, while the building, though insured for £13,000, had cost about £20,000. “I would not have taken any man’s £40,000 for the premises as they stood”, he concluded. Practically nothing was saved, and nothing is left of the building but the outer walls, and portions here and there more or less burnt.
Two circumstances appear to have averted a more dreadful calamity. One of these was fortunate chance meeting of several persons, which kept them out of their beds later than usual, and so enabled them to give an immediate alarm to the sleepers and render prompt assistance in getting the frightened inmates out of the burning building. The other circumstance was the fact of the fire occurring high up in the building. Had it started on the ground floor the smoke would have filled the lower portions of the building, and made the ordinary means of exit impossible.
Widespread sympathy is felt for the many friends and relatives of the two men who have lost their lives under such tragic circumstances. Mr George BLANDFORD was general manager in New Zealand of the firm of Bing, Harris and Co, warehousemen and manufacturers, with Dunedin as his head quarters. His figure was well known in commercial circles in both Australia and New Zealand, and he was a man of undoubted business ability. In various warehouses in Australia, including Sargood’s establishment, he has held the highest positions, and his genial manner made him most popular, and won for him the sincere regard all those with whom he came in contact. Some six or seven years ago he was the general manager for the firm of Butterworth Bros, Dunedin, a position he left to take one more lucrative in Australia. In January of this year he returned to New Zealand to take the position of general manager for Bing, Harris and Co. He came here on Thursday last on one of his regular visits, and as usual stayed at the Royal Oak, it being his intention to leave Wellington on Monday. Mr BLANDFORD was an Englishman, about 60 years of age, and he leaves a widow and grown-up family, who have been advised of the sad fatality by the local representative of the firm.
Mr H E GREAR was the head of the Sydney firm of H E GREAR and Co, who represent chiefly D MOSELEY and Son, Manchester and D MORRICE Sons and Co, Montreal. Many trips has he made to this colony, and each time he has increased his circle of friends. He was in the prime of life – but 35 years of age – and was a tall, well-built man, a one-time well-known athlete. Only this afternoon he was to have assisted the employees of Sargood, Son and Ewen in a friendly game of cricket at Waiwetu. It was Mr GREAR’s intention to make this his last visit to New Zealand, as he had concluded preparations for a trip to England and on his return he intended to settle in Sydney, his brother doing the New Zealand traveling. Deceased’s wife accompanied him on this visit, coming from Sydney to Auckland, and when he came on to Wellington by the Rotoiti last trip, Mrs GREAR went to Tauranga, where her brothers reside. Information was sent to her this morning of her husband’s untimely end, and the bereaved wife is coming on to Wellington. The funeral will take place next week. Deceased who was a Manchester boy, also leaves two young children in Sydney, aged two and five years respectively. Messrs Sargood, Son and Ewen have in hand the sad task of making all the necessary arrangements in connection with the funeral etc. From 8 until half-past 11 last night, Mr GREAR was spending the evening with Mr Arthur DIXON (of Sargood’s) at his residence in Hawker-street. He was then in the best of health and excellent spirits. He suffered slightly from insomnia and remarked as he left Mr DIXON that he would have a read after he got back to the hotel. After the inquest the body will be taken to Mr DIXON’s house.
OTHER NARROW ESCAPES – HOW CAPTAIN ROSE AND HIS FAMILY FARED
Few of those who were in the hotel have suffered so much inconvenience, and probably so great a loss as Captain Ross (late local manager of the New Zealand Shipping Company here) and his family. They were staying at the Royal Oak prior to their departure for the Old Country by the Aorangi to-day, and had all their personal belongings with them. Mr and Mrs ROSE were on the second floor in the odl portion of the structure, the Misses ROSE being upstairs in the brick addition. Captain Rose would have suffered a loss still greater but that yesterday he removed a large number of valuable papers from the hotel. The Misses ROSE were but two of but a few lady boarders, and one of them seized one jewel case and escaped in her night robes, the other remaining a few moments to partially dress herself. The latters movements however were considerably accelerated by the sight of smoke pouring down the passage, followed by sheets of flame. Both got out uninjured, one of them being carried bodily part of the way by a gentleman who met them. Captain and Mrs ROSE also made their way out safely, though the time was so valuable that they were obliged to leave behind a large amount of costly jewelry. Despite the sever loss of clothing, and the great inconvenience caused thereby, Captain ROSE succeeded in completing arrangements which would enable him to carry out his original intention of leaving with his family by Aorangi this afternoon.
Most fortunate was Mr D G BROWN, representing BROWN and STEWART, of Auckland, for he saved all his belongings. He was in the wooden portion of the hotel, and was awakened from his slumbers by the ringing of the firebell. On looking out into the passage, he noticed a lot of smoke about, increasing in volume, so he lost no time in returning to his apartments and dressing himself. By this time men were running round , waking up the sleepers, so Mr BROWN gathering up his luggage, and went out again with the intention of rushing down the corridor, but he found that he was cut off from escape by means of the main entrance, where the fire was burning like a furnace. With six or seven others (among whom were Messrs WHITE and CUNNINGHAM) he then made his way to a window overlooking Rodger’s, in Manners-street. The party called out for a ladder which was quickly brought and all of them, with what possessions they had with them, were soon safe on the road.
To give some idea of the way the configuration spread, Mr Brown says that before he got to the other side of the road, the whole of the main part of the building was in flames and the place where he and the others had escaped from was a mass of flames. Mr WOODWARD, of the Bank of New Zealand, has been a boarder at the Royal Oak for some years past and he had belongings there valued at about £150. But thinking at first that the outbreak would be suppressed he saved nothing. As it was, he had a narrow escape, having to crawl down a corridor on his hands and knees.
This was not the first similar experience of Mr John SMITTEN of Duthie and Co, for he was among those burnt out in the destruction of the Masonic Hotel at Napier some months ago. This morning he again lost all the most valuable of his possessions. Mr LATTER, of Christchurch, was more lucky, as he saved most of his property. He is a nephew of the Wellington Official Assignee, Mr ASCCROFT.
It is related of one second-floor inmate, who got our safely, but does not exactly remember how, that he appeared in the street with a cigar in his button-hole and a bedroom comb in his pocket, while his waistcoat which contained eight sovereigns, and which he though he secured, was left behind to the flames.
Mr P J O’REGAN M.H.R, who with others, is mentioned as having rendered valuable assistance in warning the inmates of the hotel, and assisting them to escape was interviewed by a representative of this paper, and stated that he was in the commercial room of the hotel at the time of the outbreak, and in company with an old friend, Mr FENTON, and Messrs RUSSELL, WOODWARD and SIMPSON. He had intended retiring at 10 o’clock, but meeting his friend, who is about to leave for other parts, they got talking over old times, and quite forgot about going to bed. When the alarm was given by Miss STURT they all rushed upstairs, and there was then no trace of fire on the stairs in the portion of the building facing Manners-street, but they saw there was fire and proceeded to wake up the sleepers in the different bedrooms by calling out ‘fire’ and kicking at the doors.
The occupants rushed out from all directions in scant attire, some of the women being so frightened that they had to be assisted downstairs. Mr O’REGAN had just assisted two of the servants downstairs, and was returning when he found that in the brief two or three minutes the whole of the staircase had caught fire, and was quite impassable. His friend, Mr FENTON, and others who had remained upstairs were thus cut off, and it was impossible for him to do anything for them. In fact, he had some difficulty in getting out of the place himself.
Fortunately his companions made their escape by one of the back windows. Like the others Mr O’REGAN speaks with amazement of the rapidity with which the flames spread, particularly seeing that the night was comparatively calm. From the time the alarm was given to the time he assisted the two girls downstairs must have been about five minutes and yet even then the flames were bursting out of the Cuba-street windows. “In fact” said Mr O’REGAN, “had I not seen it I would not have believed that a fire could have spread with such rapidity. I would like to say that in my opinion the Brigade and police did all that was possible.” Mr O’REGAN also speaks most highly of the good judgment and cool courage of his companions, Messrs FENTON, WOODWARD, RUSSELL and SIMPSON.
Mr FENTON was also interviewed, and expressed astonishment at so many getting out of the building in safety under the circumstances. He is of the opinion that, with the exception of the poor fellows who lost their lives, everyone was out of the building 10 minutes after the first alarm was given.
An incident is told by one of the party of rescuers as illustrating the soundness with which some of the lodgers slept. At the door of one room he saw two barefooted waiters hammering with their hands in a vain attempt to awaken the sleeper. Being lightly clad and without boots, they could not kick in or break down the door, and the gentleman passing, being of powerful physique and fully clad, succeeded, with a few powerful kicks, in breaking the door in. Strange to relate, even then the occupant slept on, and it was not till violent hands were laid on him that he awoke to the situation. There were other cases in which hardly less trouble was experienced in waking the inmates.
Mr RATTRAY, of the Northern Assurance Company was one of the late comers, for he only arrived yesterday. He saved all his property.
Those in the building at the time of the outbreak were: -
A F RATTRAY (Attorney Northern Assurance Company)
J EWING (Bank of New Zealand)
L B HART
A H LEPPER
L C REDWOOD
R W SANDS
F G HOBBS
Captain and Mrs ROSE
Mr and Mrs GILMER
R T BAKER
E M BURTON
J P CONLEY
P J O’REGAN (MHR)
A T WHITE (Christchurch)
T G BROWN
J L WICKHAM
A S BOWMAN
C M RUSSELL
G C OLDING
Mr and Mrs A A SHERIFF
H A SHARPLESS
Misses ROSE (2)
H E GREAR (Sydney)
The Fire Brigade was, as usual, criticised pretty freely by the lookers-on during the progress of the fire, but there is little doubt that with the appliances at their disposal they did their best.
The police too, worked well, and assisted the Brigade by keeping back the crows and leaving the fireman as much room as possible.
The heat while the fire raged was something terrific, and its effect upon the atmosphere was such that Mr T W ROWE, who is practiced in the accurate observation of temperature, informs us that it was perceptible at his residence, Hawker-street three quarters of a mile away. He had no means of ascertaining the precise degree of heat, but estimates that after the fire had burned for some time it was between two and three degrees above the temperature ruling at the time of outbreak. The fire has hardly touched the lower story of the new additions to the building, but Messrs CEDERHOLM and TOLLEY, who have their premises there, have suffered considerably from the water.
Rumours of further fatalities have been in circulation during the day, but we are glad to be able to state that, with the exception of the two unfortunate gentlemen, whose deaths are recorded above, all the inmates of the building are safely accounted for. Mr S GILMER, proprietor of the hotel, has to-day been inundated with telegrams of sympathy. Up to this afternoon the number had considerably, exceeded 400.
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