By Julie Smith
Fire has been destroying properties and lives since it was first discovered and I am sure it will continue to do so until the end of time. Such is the nature of the beast.
Frederick Pigg only spent a short time in Yarmouth having moved from Norwich but in a brief moment his life was changed forever. Not only does this article cover his sad story but it goes into depth about the horrendous fire that stole almost everything from him.
On 1st February 1868 the Yarmouth Independent printed a long article reporting the tragic fire although this was a much more detailed and perhaps more accurate description than they and other papers had printed almost immediately after the event. I will cover that report in more detail later, however, their opening paragraph was quite poignant –
“No event that has occurred in Yarmouth for many years has created so painful an impression as the fire in the Market Row whose disastrous results we reported in our last impression. We are accustomed to greater losses of life by sea, sometimes taking place almost under our eyes, but there is something more appalling in the idea of death by fire, especially when a delicate woman and helpless children are its victims.”
Before I get to this horrendous life changing event, I will begin with Frederick’s life beforehand.
As far as I can tell from the various census Frederick was born in 1841 in Norwich. His father Samuel was a Woollen Merchant who had married Frances Piggin in 1821. The couple went on to have at least 10 children all of whom I have found births registered in the Non-Conformist records for, apart from Frederick’s!
In 1841 he is living with his mother and 7 siblings in Palace Plain in Norwich. Samuel wasn’t with them. I know he was still alive but I cannot find him anywhere else, however, I did find that on 5th April, two months before the census was taken, he was listed as one of the Jurors on the City Grand Jury in Norwich.
In 1851 the family is now living on City Road, Lakenham and Frederick is in school.
By the time of the 1861 census Frederick is working as a linen draper whereas his father and two of his brothers, Clement and Walter are all woollen merchants. Visiting the family is 20 year old Sarah Hamby a farmer’s daughter from Ellough who Frederick would marry on 26th July 1864 in Beccles.
Frederick and Sarah would remain in Norwich for the foreseeable future. Their eldest daughter Edith Mary was born there in 1865 but the younger two were both born in Yarmouth, Mabel Elizabeth in 1867 and Fanny Eliza in 1868.
According to the Norfolk Electoral Register for 1868 his address was given as Park Lane, Heigham and in 1869 when his name is recorded as Frederick Theobald Pigg, the address is a Warehouse in Red Lion Street Norwich.
On 4th January 1868, Frederick took out and advertisement in the Yarmouth Independent showing off his business – “The Woollen Cloth Warehouse” in 3 Market Row Great Yarmouth.
Then just 19 days later Frederick’s world would change forever when a devastating fire would take away his business and the lives of his wife and two younger daughters.
The terrible tragedy that befell the family was reported all over the UK. The majority of the report has come from the Bury & Norwich Post, dated 28th January 1868, however, there are a few odd bits of information that were reported in other papers and not mentioned in the Post so I have included them if they are of relevance.
Fatal and Destructive Fire –Three
Shortly after 12 o’clock on Thursday night (23rd) a fire broke out on the premises of Mr Frederick Pigg woollen cloth and boot warehouse, Market Row, which we regret to say, was attended not only with great destruction of property, but with the loss of three lives, those of Mrs Pigg and two of her young children, who unfortunately perished in the flames.
Market Row is one of those numerous narrow thoroughfares traversing the town from east to west, which are almost peculiar to Yarmouth.
It leads out of the Market Place and though no more than eight feet wide, in some parts scarcely that it is lined on each side with some of the best shops in the town, most of them being for the sale of light fancy goods. The surrounding locality is thickly populated, dense blocks of buildings extending from the Market Place to Howard and Charlotte Streets, being separated at close intervals by parallel Rows, which are all inhabited, except here and there where fish offices and warehouses alternate with dwelling houses. The alarming character of a fire, therefore, at the dead of night, in such a locality may be imagined. The premises of Mr Pigg, where the fire broke out formed the second shop at the Market Place end of the Row. Adjoining on one side is a stationers shop kept by Mr Bond and on the other a Gutta Percha shop, occupied by Mr Baird, while on the opposite side are the drapery and hosiery establishments of Messrs Fyson, Humphries, Waters and others.
Gutta Percha comes from trees found in Malaysia of the Palaquium Blanco genus of the Sapotaceae family. The juice or sap is extracted from the trees by making cuts in the trunks. In the mid-19th century Gutta Percha was used to make furniture, pistol hand grips, canes, walking stacks and especially mourning jewellery as it was dark in colour and could be easily moulded into beads.
It appeared that about midnight, Mr Pigg, who slept on the second floor was awakened by a suffocating sensation of smoke in his bedroom, and immediately called up his wife, who, with two infant children, slept in the same room. Mrs Pigg seizing the youngest child, which lay at her side, rushed upstairs where the domestic slept in the front attic with the eldest child, and roused her up. There being a great deal of smoke in the room they had to retire into a room behind. The servant besought her mistress to go downstairs, but the poor woman, in an agony of despair, cried that it was no use, they must all be burnt. The girl, hearing Mr Pigg calling out to his wife to come down rushed down with the infant in her arms, and escaped into the backyard after falling down the last flight of stairs. There she met Mr Pigg, whom she implored to go up and save her mistress, but he appeared thoroughly bewildered, and even had he made the attempt, such was the hold the fire had already got of the building, that it must inevitably have proved fatal.
He was removed in a half senseless state, in the night clothes in which he had escaped, into a neighbour’s house. Nothing more is known of the unfortunate woman and the two children, save that their charred remains were discovered next day among the smoking debris.
The fire appears to have been discovered outside almost at the same time it was perceived within. Mr A Waters, who lives nearly opposite, was aroused from his sleep by some crackling noises as if under his shop, and rushing to the window perceived jets of flame issuing from the shutters of Mr Pigg’s premises.
Hurrying on his clothes he ran to the police station and gave the alarm. The fire brigade was promptly on the spot with one of the new engines and a plentiful supply of water being turned on at the Water Work’s Company’s mains, operations were speedily commenced from the east end of the Row, the second new engine following shortly after, and being stationed at the Charlotte Street end. At this time, however, so inflammable were the materials by which the fire was fed, the building was one mass of vivid flame, illuminating the town and visible for miles around. The utmost consternation spread throughout the locality, and the inhabitants of the adjoining houses, having sent away the wives and families to the houses of friends, commenced removing what was considered most combustible of their premises. A large warehouse of Mr Blyth, extending into the rear, and filled with most inflammable goods, was partly emptied into the Market Place, the street being blocked with paraffin barrels, casks, boxes &c. The inmates of the adjoining Rows, women and children, hurried into the freezing night air, some of them half clad, huddling together in the utmost terror. At about half past twelve the fire assumed most alarming proportions, and it really seemed as if the destruction of property if not of life, must be most terrible. The roof now fell in with a crash sending up millions of sparks, and the flames flew round and caught several of the adjoining houses. The scene down the Row from the Market Place was a fearful one. The shops on both sides were in flames, the fire filling up the whole width of the Row with a tremendous blaze that roared like a furnace. Thanks, however, to the magnificent engines with which the town is now provided, to the energetic efforts of the fire brigade, assisted by plenty of willing hands, and to the abundant supply of water, such an incessant torrent was discharged on the burning premises that by a quarter to one the conflagration was almost entirely extinguished, the change from fiery glow which but a few minutes before lit up the Row from end to end, to darkness, relieved only by the gas lamps and the lanterns of the police, being startlingly sudden. The damage done has been very considerable, and it is roughly estimated at 3000L, which today would be in the region of £237,000.
On Friday labourers were busy removing the debris, and as we have already stated, came in the course of the day of the bodies of Mrs Pigg and the two children, so fearfully burned, however, that identity was impossible. Mrs Pigg was a young woman of about 26 years; the names of the children who perished were Fanny Eliza, thirteen months, and Mabel one month. The name of the child who was rescued by the servant is Edith who was two and a half years old. So sad and lamentable a catastrophe has not occurred in the town for many years, and the utmost sympathy and commiseration are expressed in behalf of the hapless husband and father so suddenly and so painfully bereaved.
“Yarmouth”, observes the Independent, from which the foregoing account is principally taken, “has had some narrow escapes from destructive fires, but in no instance has the escape been more providential than this one. We have no hesitation in saying that we owe our preservation from one of the most fearful calamities with which the town has been visited in this generation to the prompt steps taken by the corporation a few months ago in providing new fire engines. Had we had to depend last night on the old engines, or adopted the policy lately recommended by one member of the town council, half the Market Place would at this moment have been in ruins. Another providential circumstance in our favour was that the wind, which during the evening blew half a gale, at Midnight almost died away, and during the height of the fire had become a perfect calm. On the following night it blew a hurricane”.
The enquiry into the lamentable loss of life, referred to above, was opened by the Coroner, Mr C H Chamberlin, on Saturday morning at the Angel Hotel.
Rebecca Abbs deposed: I am a domestic in the service of Mr F Pigg, and have lived with him about 2 years. The family consisted of Mr and Mrs Pigg, three children and myself. I went to bed on Thursday night about eleven o’clock, my bedroom being the front attic. One child, Edith Mary slept in a little bed by my side. Mr Pigg’s room was on the first floor at the back of the front sitting room, the other two children, Mabel Elizabeth and Fanny Eliza, sleeping in the same room. One, the infant, slept with its parents, and the other in a cot by the bedside. Shortly after I went to bed I heard Mr and Mrs Pigg go to their room. I had been asleep but a short time when I was woke by hearing the baby crying, and about the same time Mrs Pigg came up and called me. I found a great deal of smoke in my room and observed some flames which I thought came from Mr Baird’s, the adjoining shop. I took the child that had been sleeping in my room and went with Mrs Pigg into the back upper attic where there was less smoke than in my room. Mrs Pigg had the infant with her, I heard it crying. I begged my mistress to go downstairs, but she said “No, No, it’s no use; we are all lost, we must be burned”. I heard Mr Pigg calling out “Sarah, Sarah, do come down!” I then rushed downstairs with the little girl Edith Mary. I cannot tell how I got out; I only remember falling at the foot of the stairs, where I injured my foot. I afterwards found myself in the backyard, the door of which I found to be open, and I passed out into the Row. When I was in the yard I saw Mr Pigg and said to him “Oh! Rush up and get my mistress”, but he seemed as if he scarcely knew what he was doing. Mrs Pigg made no effort to go downstairs that I am aware of. I saw no flame as I passed downstairs. I did not see the second child (Mabel) after she was put to bed in my mistress’s room. We had no gas in the house, and it was Mr Pigg’s custom the last thing before going up to bed to go over the house to see the lights were out. I cannot say if he did this Thursday night, but he was in the shop when I went upstairs. I believe the kitchen fire was out when I left. There was an open stove in the shop, but as I was seldom there I cannot tell what was usually done with regard to extinguishing the fire there. – It was not usual to turn the gas off at the meter.
Supt Tewsley said that soon after daylight on Friday morning he gave directions for the debris to be removed, and while workmen were engaged in this duty they came upon the remains the Jury had just viewed.
Mr Stafford, Surgeon, deposed to have been present when the remains were found. He had made an examination and had no doubt that they found portions of the bodies, namely of a woman and two children.
Mr Chamberlin, at this stage of the inquiry, said he had requested Mr Pigg to be in attendance to give evidence should the jury wish it, but looking at the distracted state of the gentleman’s mind, consequent upon the late melancholy catastrophe, it has occurred to him that the feelings of Mr Pigg might be spared, as without his testimony there could be no reason to doubt that the deceased met with their deaths by fire, and that the fire in question arose from purely accidental causes. The Jury concurred with Mr Chamberlin’s observations and unanimously returned a verdict of “accidental death in all three cases”.
On 1st February the Yarmouth Independent published several items in connection with the fire, one being the following –
They also reported in greater depth the inquest which had only been held on the Saturday after the fire. Bearing in mind it had only taken place on Thursday night Friday morning, I do wonder whether they had collected sufficient evidence in such a short time to have all the facts available to hold an inquest so soon in the first place.
The paper reported that apparently when Rebecca, the servant, descended the stairs the fire had not yet reached the staircase which was separated from the shop where the fire was raging by a slight partition, communicating with it by means of a door. There was therefore, a safe egress for the inmates had they availed themselves of it.
The writer of the article intimated that things might not have turned out as they did when they wrote “The painfulness of the feeling is rendered more acute by the knowledge we now possess that a very slight degree of self-possession on part of the hapless woman herself would have saved them all.”
I do not know if the paper is writing their interpretation of events or if what they wrote was reported at the inquest as later on in the article they point out the errors that occurred and basically say that if things had been done differently perhaps Mrs Pigg and her children would not have perished. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it is easy to say what should have been done when you are not actually at the scene!
The report continues to say that it would appear from the position of Sarah’s body that after Rebecca had gone down stairs with her eldest daughter, she must have returned to her bedroom on the next floor down to rescue the second child lay in her cot.
The bedroom window was not more than 9 or 10 feet from the ground and close under it was the lean-to roof. A slight effort would have sent the window out, and a descent could have been effected without much risk even to the children. At the time there would have been several persons in the back of the premises.
Indeed, it is still perfectly inexplicable that no effort should have been made outside through this back window. The Policeman at any rate, knew that there were persons in the house, yet it never seems to have suggested itself to him to make any attempt for their rescue.
No doubt the rapid progress of the fire left little time for consideration, but as fully a quarter on an hour had elapsed between the fire alarm and the arrival of the engines, if within this period Mrs Pigg had descended to her bedroom, as is highly probable, an active intrepid fellow, with his wits about him, might, by mounting the lean to roof, have had the poor woman out, even if she lay senseless on the floor.
The newspaper does report, but much later on, as to why there was a delay in the fire engine getting to the scene.
It would appear that the horse used to pull the engine was not at hand and when a cabman was flagged down by Mr Isaac Preston Junior who was the first to give the alarm at the station, he refused to let them borrow his animal saying he had another engagement and drove off. In the absence of a horse, Mr Preston and two policemen on night duty attempted to get the engine out themselves. They had managed to drag it part of the way up Regent Street when the wheels became clogged with snow and they could pull it no further. At this juncture they were met by several of the curates of St Nicholas and their friends and upon learning the nature of the emergency at once came to the rescue and literally by putting their shoulders to the wheel managed to send the recalcitrant machine flying towards them.
Back at the fire it would seem that on emerging from the burning building, Frederick fainted and when coming around did not recover his senses or self-possession and if not for a policeman who found him in the row, restraining him, he would have rushed back into the burning building, the lower part which by then was inaccessible.
However, somewhere along the line it was not reported that anyone was still in the burning building as when Sergeant Major Franklin of the Volunteer Artillery arrived with his men, the first question he asked before the engine arrived was the safety of the inmates of the house and he was told by all around that the whole family had been got out and taken to a neighbour’s residence.
With respect to the origin of the fire, it was a mystery although Frederick attributed it to an incendiary who sought to avenge himself for some real or fancied affront. He even went on to name the scoundrel and the motive behind this heinous crime but very few, if any persons shared the same belief.
From newspaper reports it would appear that about 7 premises were caught up in the fire but only Fredericks had been entirely consumed. The other properties belonging to the following were –
James Baird – Boot and Shoe Shop – damaged by fire and water
Mr Fyson – premises shop front in Market Row and stock therein destroyed
Mr Humphries – premises shop front and stock therein destroyed
Mr Water- shop front and portion of furniture damaged
Mr Bond – premises shop front slightly damaged
Mr Blyth – premises slightly damaged
It also came to light that the property belonging to Mr Blyth had 17 gallons of paraffin on it although he maintained he had done nothing wrong since this amount was within the amount allowed by the Act of Parliament, being 40 gallons. Never the less it must have been of great concern to all should the fire have caused more damage to his property.
Mr Humphries was insured for 100L and Mr Baird for 400L. Mr A Waters, draper is insured for 800L; and the house in which Mr Humphries lives, belongs to Miss Titsall, for 200L. The exterior of Mr Bond’s shop is partially burned; Mr Kemp, Mr Pigg’s landlord, is insured for 400L, but we regret to learn that the principal sufferer, Mr Pigg was not insured at all, having allowed his policy to lapse only last Christmas, with a view to insuring in another office.
Mr Water’s quick thinking saved his premises from receiving greater damage as immediately he perceived the fire almost in front of his premises he cleared all the inmates out and barricaded the window which was most exposed with blankets, replacing them as soon as they were burnt through with fresh blankets till the supply was exhausted. At this point he hauled down the featherbed itself and piled it up against the enemy, gallantly holding his ground until the shop below that of Mr Humphries, was completely gutted. Even a great portion of the bed was burned before the fire engines had succeeded in quelling the fire.
There are no reports of the funeral for Sarah and her children but I do know they were buried together on 28th January 1868 in the churchyard of All Saints in Ellough. Her death (but not the children’s) was reported in the burial records of the Middlegate Congregational which aren’t very forthcoming. All it says is –
27 January 1868 – Mrs Fred Pigg
Notes: Date of announcement of death (by fire) to the monthly church meeting.
What is strange is that according to BMD, Sarah and the children’s deaths were not registered until September ¼ of 1868 –
Fanny Eliza Pigg – Aged 0
Mabel Elizabeth Pigg – Aged 1
Sarah Pigg – Aged 27.
A couple of Months later reports were made of the amount of funds which had been raised to help Frederick resume his business.
28 March 1868
The Late Calamitous Fire
The dreadful fire which occurred in the Market Row on 23rd January last, when the wife and two children of Mr Frederick Pigg, were burnt to death, will be fresh in the recollection of everyone.
It will also be remembered that the life of a third child was saved by the bravery of a female servant.
Prior to this calamity Mr Pigg’s means were sufficient to meet his responsibilities, but owing to his loss by fire and to the failure of the Empire Fire Office, in which he was partially insured. He became unable to defray the claims upon him, and his creditors have generously accepted a composition on their debts.
In the belief that a little sympathy will cheer him up in his present forlorn condition, and aid him in his exertions to provide for himself and his surviving child, some friends have resolved to raise a small sum to enable him to resume business, and they heartily solicit aid in their efforts.
Contributions will be thankfully received by the mayor, Messrs John Shelly & Co, and Messrs Spelman Great Yarmouth.
According to the report they raised £90. 5s which today would be in the region of £7k. I can’t find any later reports about the fund raising so I do not know if this was the final amount raised.
Contributors included –
W & H Brand 10 shillings
“A Lady” 10 shillings
“A Friend” £1.00
The Mayor £2.2 shillings
Sir E H K Lacon £2.2 shillings
J W Shelly £5.00
H M G Shelly £2.00
Elizabeth Shelly £10.00
Miss Elizabeth Piper of Cambridge £10.00
Horace Gambling £3.00
Steward, Patterson, Finch & Co £2.2 shillings
The last time there was any mention of the tragedy was just 5 months later when the Norfolk Chronicle printed the following report on the 20th June –
Frederick Pigg’s story and his relationship with Yarmouth has ended, but I wanted to know what happened to him and his daughter Edith after this terrible tragedy.
The obvious start was the 1871 census but there was no sign of either of them, either together or apart. I did find their servant Rebecca Abbs who had saved Edith’s life. She had secured employment with William Turner a Druggist and Chemist and his family living in St Ives, Huntingdon.
After the fire, Rebecca was well looked after. A subscription limited to a shilling was set up in the town during the early part of the following week on her behalf as she had lost all her clothes, but so many kindly people contributed a sum more than was sufficient was received within a couple of days, the total of which was given as 20/-, which today would have been in the region of £80. It doesn’t seem much but bearing in mind the salary of a servant such as Rebecca would only have been in the region of £20p.a.it must have been worth a fortune to her.
With regards to Frederick and Edith, I checked in later census for them both as well as marriage and death records but I just couldn’t find either of them, so back to checking the newspapers it was.
Pigg isn’t that common a name so I did a wider search and discovered that just 10 days before the fire, Frederick’s father Samuel had died at the age of 75.
I then found a notice placed by Frederick’s brother Edward that with effect from 14th May 1869 he would be changing his surname from Pigg to Theobald! Less than 3 months later Frederick and Edith followed suit and he took out the following notice which was reported in the Norfolk News on 14th April but was reported in various newspapers throughout the Country.
Finally! I had a new name to trace and found that in 1869 Frederick Theobald had married a lady by the name of Margaret Lane Christie.
By 1871 Frederick who is employed as a commercial traveller is living in Bromley High Street with Margaret, her widowed mother Frances Christie, Edith who has also changed her surname to Theobald and Frederick and Margaret’s son Percy who is nine months old.
On 17th January 1872, Arthur, another of Frederick’s brother’s also changed his name to “The family surname of Theobald”. I do not know if he says this as two of his brothers are already using this name or if indeed it goes back further to the present generation but it is not relevant to this story.
In 1850 Frederick’s sister had married Henry Alexander Pigg and after his death in 1875 she too changed her surname to Theobald.
According to the 1881 census Frederick is employed as a commercial traveller selling shoes and he and Margaret have had a further 4 children, Gertrude, Edgar, Archie and Evelyn. Edith, now 16 remains at home whilst Percy had died shortly after the 1871 census.
Before 1891, the family had moved to Hove and Frederick is simply listed as “an Agent” but what off it does not say.
The family does not seem to settle in one place for very long and in 1901 Frederick who is now a Brewers Representative along with Margaret and three of their children, Edgar, Archie and Evelyn are living in Brighton.
Sadly in 1903 Margaret dies at the age of 59 and Frederick is once again a widower.
The 1911 census finds Frederick living in Bowes Park with his “new wife” Charlotte who is 23 years his junior. I cannot read his occupation details. On the census form they say they have been married 5 years but I have not been able to locate any marriage details. Living with them is Gertrude, Frederick’s daughter from his second marriage, who is widowed.
Frederick died in 1912 at the age of 70. I wonder how much his new family knew of the terrible tragedy that befell him and Edith.
As for Edith I couldn’t find her after the 1891 census. Did she die or marry, I don’t know and then all of a sudden I found her living with her half-brother Evelyn who is a widower, and his son Douglas. Edith who is single is their housekeeper and according to the 1939 Register the trio are living in Portsmouth.
But that is definitely the last time I have been able to find any trace of her.