In 1890 a fire occurred in the married family’s block at Wellington Barracks. The tragedy was well documented in the Brigade of Guards Magazine; the men’s accounts clearly illustrate the desperate situation on that cold dark November night, and their reckless courage in the frantic attempt to rescue the children.
About 5.45 p.m. on Wednesday, November 12th, the fire alarm sounded in Wellington Barracks. The two battalions quartered there, 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards and 1st Battalion Scots Guards, were speedily at work, doing everything in their power to save life and extinguish the flames.
Every person who was in the married quarters was got out alive, and it was greatly hoped no fatal effect would result; but it is with the deepest regret we hear that two of Colour Sergeant Pickersgill’s children have succumbed from the effects of their burns and fright.
To all concerned the greatest credit is due for the promptitude with which women and children were rescued from the rapidly advancing flames.
We append several personal narratives, which will, we feel sure, be valuable to our readers, and while regretting the sad death of the two children; we cannot but feel that every praise is due to those who eagerly risked their lives to save the women and children.
1st Battalion Scots Guards
I was in the passage on the ground floor, new wing, Wellington Barracks, on the evening of the 12th November, I heard the bugle sound the fire alarm and immediately ran on parade and enquired of the Corporal on gate duty where the fire was, he pointed it out to me. I saw smoke and flames coming from the passage window of the first floor of the married quarters, N block. I sent the Corporal to the fire alarm at the corner of James Street, and by this time the battalion was on parade. I sent the Right Flank Company to work the fire engine, and put extra sentries on the gate (which was left open) to keep a clear passage for the fire engines. The manual in the barrack was got to work, and everything that could be done was done. The key to the water main was in the barrack labourers quarters, and could not be got at. Perfect order and discipline was maintained throughout, and all ranks acted with the utmost care and willingness.
There is no doubt that great loss of life must have ensued if it had not been for the long ladders that were in barracks, and in use by the workmen who are employed in reconstructing, &c., the Officers Quarters. Surgeon Ramsey rendered valuable aid in relieving and administering to the wants of the sufferers. Major General Smith, Colonel Gascoigne, Viscount Falmouth, and a number of the officers of both battalions were soon in barracks. It is to be greatly regretted that any fatality should have occurred, and we all feel deeply and sympathise with Colour Sergeant Pickersgill in losing two of his children, from the effects of burns. No one could have worked harder than he did, and there is no doubt that it was greatly owing to his exertions and heroic conduct that more lives were not lost. Colour Sergeants Wilson and Pickersgill being the only two men in that part of the building at the time of the fire, both are well deserving of praise.
Sergeant W. Pallet
Garrison Military Police
1st Battalion Scots Guards
I heard the fire alarm and the battalion doubling on parade. Being a policeman I made direct for the fire. In a very short time the engine was out, and ladders raised by Sergeant-Major Murphy, R.E. Had the honour of first man up. Seeing Colour Sergeant Pickersgill and some women at the top window, the ladder was drawn up to the window, through which they got safely down. Placing the ladder back to the roof I went up. Murphy informed me that the women and children, who had been assisted by Colour Sergeants Pickersgill and Wilson, were safely on the next roof. Going nearer the fire I heard a cry from the door through which the remainder had escaped. I tried to enter but found it more than I could do. Shouting below for a wet rug, I tried again, but failed. A fireman tried, with the same result. Then a fireman got through a window, and breaking in some boards with his axe, managed to rescue two children. The fire by this time was burning very fiercely, and the smoke very dense. Our next effort was getting the hose up. After that, Sergeant McGregor proposed searching, to find out if anyone was still in the building. The only way we could find was through the skylight, which was fast; but with the assistance of the redoubtable McGregor and Corporal Tennant, that soon came off by force. We were again at a standstill, having no means to get down in the passage; but not for long. Pioneer Davis soon brought us a ladder up, by which we went in. It was uncomfortably hot and smoky; but it still looked very pretty inside, the flames leaping about. Resuming our search, we examined several rooms with no result. Whilst in one belonging to Colour Sergeant Pickersgill we heard a moan. We searched a bed, and knowing that some children had been taken from the roof, we mounted the bed to listen. Hearing it again, a hole was soon made through the ceiling; but not by the much talked of bed iron, but by the iron of the great McGregor’s fist. A pretty little black face appeared at the hole. Mac very soon reached it, and handed it to Davis who carried it away. Up through the hole went Mac, and handed me another child, which I took down, and left Mac and Corporal Tennant, who found another child. On coming back, I was sorry to see my brave chum, McGregor, very much exhausted and as black as coal. After searching some time longer, we were very glad to get back into the fresh air, and have some much needed refreshment.
Colour Sergeant H. Pickersgill
1st Battalion Scots Guards
About 5.45 p.m. on the evening of the 12th November, I was in my quarters in the Rookery, Wellington Barracks, I heard shouts of fire, I looked out and saw smoke ascending the stair. I went back and brought a table and placed it under the trap door in the passage. I saw Colour Sergeant Wilson coming along the landing with two children. I then mounted the table and opened the trap door, I shouted for Wilson to get up which he did and I assisted him to mount the trap between the ceiling and the slates, I then asked for the children to be handed up first and passed eleven children up to Wilson, then came the women, one of whom was so heavy that it was with the utmost difficulty we managed to get her through. Next to her came my own wife, by this time the heat and smoke was so intense that I was almost overcome, and whilst in the act of handing her up I fell forward, the table was upset and we fell on the landing together.
By this time the flames had got hold of the passage, and I could see that there was not time to raise the table, much less save the three women who still remained with me on the landing. I got them inside the farthest room from the fire and closed the door so as to exclude as far as possible the heat and smoke, and kept them there until a ladder was placed at the window. I had some difficulty in preventing one of the women from jumping out of the window.
I saw Sergeant-Major Murphy, Royal Engineers, pass up the ladder which was first placed on the roof, and directed him where to find the women and children. The ladder was then placed at the window where we were, and I handed the women out one at a time, when all were safely out I opened the door and looked out, there was no one to be seen and the flames had got a complete hold of the passage. I then descended the ladder.
Sergeant J. McGregor
1st Battalion Scots Guards
I got on the roof by the ladder by which Mrs. Pickersgill descended and found Sergeant Pallett there. Corporal Tennant joined us; then Pioneer Davis, and several more men.
We proceeded to get a hose to work on the roof. As far as we could learn everyone was safely out of the building. Whilst playing water on the fire we heard some children screaming underneath. We tried to get down to them by the means of a door, which opened on to the slates above where they seemed to be; but found it impossible to get in on account of the fire and smoke which came up through it from the fire. Sergeant Pallet got a wet rug and tied it around his head, in the hope of being able to get in that way, but could not manage it. I may state that this was the only outlet for the fire which was burning below until the roof began to fall in.
Finding we could not get at them that way, I looked round for some other means of getting in. I found a skylight at the end of the roof which was immediately over the corridor running through the centre of the building. Sergeant Pallet and I tried to open it, but found that it was nailed down. With the assistance of Corporal Tennant we tore it off by sheer force. A short ladder was by this time being brought up by Pioneer Davis; with this we descended into the end of the corridor, and proceeded to search the rooms, which were full of smoke. Finding a candle we lit it and searched each room, thinking that the children were in some of them. After we had made sure that there was no one there, we concluded that whilst we were waiting for the ladder some one must have got them out by means of a ladder from the outside. The room next that in which we were was by this time almost burnt up, and whilst attempting to get into it, a chimney stack came crashing through into the passage, followed by some molten lead off the roof. We were then about to throw some of the clothing &c., through the window when we heard a child moan. Sergeant Pallet said the sound came from Colour Sergeant Pickersgill’s bed. We searched it again but it was not there. Hearing it again the candle was held higher up to give a better light, as the place was full of smoke, and through a small hole in the ceiling, where the water had loosened the plaster causing it to fall off. I saw a little black face. It looked just like the head of a large cat peeping through the laths in the darkness. I tore away the laths and plaster, and handed it down. Groping about through this hole I found another, and handed it down. With the assistance of Corporal Tennant, I pulled myself up through the roof and struck a match. I here found another child lying on its back, insensible. Seeing the trap door over the passage was open, I took the child there and called to someone down below to come and take it. The hot air and smoke from this place was almost suffocating, and the only thing which saved the children being suffocated was that they were clear of the current, which made its way out by a side door opening onto the slates.
I passed it down, and then searched the place all over to make sure that I had left no one. I then attempted to drop from the trap into the passage, but had to go back, it was too hot. I then tried to make for the door in the slates. In doing so I stepped off the rafters and went through the ceiling onto a shelf in Colour Sergeant Pickersgill’s room, and by that means got back into the passage and out. Every one had gone back up to the roof by this time, and blinded with smoke and soot, I just got out in time to see Sergeant Pallet take a lamp from a fireman for the purpose of descending to look for me. I experienced no ill effects from it except being slightly overcome by the smoke for a few minutes after getting out.
Colour Sergeant W. Wilson
1st Battalion Scots Guards
I heard screams on the stairs of the building in which I resided. My wife ran out on the landing, and almost immediately came back and told me that the place was on fire. I seized two of my children, and my wife took the baby, and my eldest girl who was sick in bed, escaped in her nightdress.
When I got to the landing I saw that all chance of escape by the stairs was cut off, and I then shouted to my wife to make for the roof, knowing that our only means of escape was through a small trap door in the ceiling. When I gained the top landing I shouted “Fire” in order to warn those living there of the danger. When I arrived at the quarters occupied by Colour Sergeant Pickersgill, I found him trying to place a table under the trap. As soon as we got the table all right Pickersgill jumped up and removed the door. He then shouted for me to get up, which I did, and he assisted me to mount between the rafters and the ceiling. We took eleven children up and then the women, one of whom was so heavy that it was with the utmost difficulty we succeeded in getting her up. Pickersgill, while in the act of getting his own wife up, fell with her, and when I looked down I saw the table on the floor. I then searched for the door leading to the roof, and when I found it passed the women through. I then went back for the children, and the second lot I brought out I was so overcome by heat and smoke that I fell on the roof. I saw Sergeant-Major Murphy R.E., make an attempt to enter; but he was driven back by the heat and smoke. Hearing the women and my wife scream for their children, I managed to get again on my feet, and jumped through the door. I staggered and fell through the ceiling, and as I fell forward I grasped with my right hand a bundle of clothing, and with my left the hair of another child’s head. This encouraged me a little, and I managed to struggle out side. I do not distinctly recollect what happened afterwards.
Corporal J.A. Tennant
1st Battalion Scots Guards
The first I heard of the fire was when the bugler blew for the fire piquet. I was then in the orderly room taking orders. We were told that the married quarters were on fire. As soon as I got round there I assisted in getting a ladder reared against the top of the building, when I, along with several other, got up into the quarters, and assisted to get some women and children out. After that, I went on the top of the roof of the building, by swinging from the window on to the ladder, which reached the top of the building. I there found Sergeants Pallet and McGregor. Whilst playing the water on the fire we heard some children crying under the roof; but found it impossible to reach them through the door opening on to the roof on account of the fire and smoke issuing from it.
Finding we could not get down that way, we went to the end of the building, and seeing that there was a skylight above the end of the passage, which would afford a means of getting in, we tore the top off it. We had previously sent word that we wanted a short ladder. When this came up we went down into the passage and searched the rooms on either side as far as we could, but could not find the children. It did not occur to us that they were between the roof and the ceiling, as we could see that it was impossible for them to get there. We were proposing to get some of the most valuable articles such as clothing out when we heard one of the children moaning overhead. Sergeant McGregor got on a bed below where the sound issued from, and, by means of a candle, which had been lit, saw one of the children looking through a small hole. As the ceiling was only lath and plaster, it took but a second to enlarge the hole and get this child out. This child was passed to Pioneer Davis who had by this time arrived. The next one was passed to Sergeant Pallet. Sergeant McGregor then went up through the hole in the ceiling, whilst I waited for him to pass down any more who might be there. Hearing him call out in the passage, I went out there and saw him leaning through the trapdoor with a child, which I took from him and took out of the building. I took it to Paymaster-Sergeant Cameron’s quarters, accompanied by Surgeon Ramsay. I felt little effect of the fire until I left the building after the fire had been got under a little; but then, on going to change my wet clothes, I found it impossible to get to my room, and fainted on the landing before reaching it.
After the fire
All the children who were injured by the fire were admitted into the Westminster Hospital, where everything that could be done was done for them by the hospital authorities.
For days a stream of military visitors passed through Queen Anne Ward, where lay the two little Pickersgills, the two Wilsons, Maude Gilmore and Archibald White. The latter, a baby of only five months, and badly burnt on the arm and face, took most kindly to his new quarters, and became a great favourite. Sister Percy will long be remembered with affection by the married people of the Brigade, to whom she endeared herself by her untiring devotion to the little children, and her warm-hearted sympathy with the parents in their distress.
The younger child, Alice Pickersgill died first, and was not long separated from her sister, Elizabeth Ellen. Devoted to each other in life, in death they were not divided. The funeral took place on Friday, November 21st. The first part of the service was held in the Chapel, where a number of friends and sympathisers had gathered, including Major-General Philip Smith, C.B., and many officers and ladies of the two battalions at Wellington Barracks. The service was choral, and rendered by the Drummers of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, who sang the hymn, “Brief life is here our portion.” The final part of the service was held at the grave at Brompton, to which a great number of the friends had gone, including Colonel and Mrs. Gascoigne, Surgeon Ramsey, many of the non-commissioned officers of the battalion, and most of the privates of Colour Sergeant Pickersgill’s company.
Presentation of medals to the Guard
On Friday, the 30th January, an interesting ceremony took place on Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, when the Albert Medal of the second class was presented to Colour Sergeants Pickersgill and Wilson, of the Scots Guards, and Pioneer Davis, of the Coldstream Guards, for their gallant conduct in saving life in the fire at Wellington Barracks. At 10.15 a.m. the battalions of the Guards were formed up in quarter column of grand divisions, the 1st Battalion Scots Guards facing Horse Guards, the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards and 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards facing inwards. The ground was kept by men of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards. The officers took part in review order. The Brigade fixed bayonets and shouldered arms.
The men were then called from the ranks, and Colonel Stracy, the Colonel Commanding the Scots Guards, in the absence of Major General Philip Smith, C.B., who is still suffering from the effects of a severe chill, made the presentation by pinning the medals on the breast of each man. The medal, which is vesica-shaped, and of bronze, with a centre of red enamel, is worn on the left breast, and on the right of other medals.
ADDRESS TO THE BRIGADE
The Commander-in-Chief has taken great interest in the circumstances which led to the presentation of these medals. His Royal Highness is much pleased that they have been granted, and would have presented them himself had he been in England.
Major-General Philip Smith has directed me to point out to you the reasons for his ordering this parade today. – First, that all may recognised what are the qualities which Her Majesty the Queen expects to see in her soldiers, and which Her Majesty is ever ready to honour, and so be inspired to show under similar circumstances the same courage, intelligence, and disregard of personal risk as those soldiers have shown who have been decorated today.
The second reason is, that you may observe what great attention is paid to your behaviour by your sovereign, by the Commander-in-Chief, and by the people of this country, and, therefore my feel how important it is that your conduct on all occasions should be such as to reflect credit on yourselves, and add to the high reputation of the Brigade of Guards, that illustrious portion of the British Army to which we have the honour to belong.
At the conclusion of his address, the duties of the day, furnished by the 1st Scots Guards, were formed up and marched off by the Captain of the Queen’s Guard, the remainder presenting arms. The morning was fine and bright, and the affair went off brilliantly in the presence of a large crowd of spectators.
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