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Disastrous fire at Wateringbury Hall kills four (1927)

posted Dec 8, 2011, 1:43 PM by Terry Bird   [ updated Mar 16, 2018, 2:10 AM ]

The Western Times, Friday 21st October 1927, reported on the fire at Wateringbury Hall, located on the Tonbridge Road at the junction with Pizien Well road  and believed to be of Tudor origin. Wateringbury Hall was located at the junction of Pizien Well Road (Mereworth side) and the Tonbridge Road (south side). The fire is covered in Roy Ingleton's book "Kent Disasters". (pp5-8). 

 DISASTROUS MANSION FIRE

Dramatic Evidence at the Inquest

  IDENTITY by INFERENCE (From the Press Association's Special Correspondent). Wateringbury, Thursday. In the village church room at Wateringbury, Mr. A. H. Neve, Coroner for the Tonbridge district of Kent, today opened the inquest on the four victims of the fire that destroyed Wateringbury Hall Tuesday. The victims were Major R. B. L. Bazley-White, D.S.0., aged 44, a retired officer the Royal West Kent Regt. (and a cousin of the Earl of Devon); Mrs. Bazley-White, his wife, aged 34; John, their four-year-old son; and Miss Rosa Weekes, aged 55, the child's nurse. The Coroner sat with a jury. The fire broke out just before midnight in a sitting room on the first floor of the house, a rambling, two-storey building. All four bodies were found beneath the debris. The three servants escaped. Mrs. Whitfield, the cook, jumped fourteen feet from her bedroom window, and two maids, Olive Selves and Marjorie Florence Sharp, both of West Farleigh, who occupied bedrooms at the back of the house, reached safety through a back door. Mr. R. Leonard, of Westminster, represented the relatives of Major Bazley-White, and Mr. H. J. Bracher, of Maidstone, the relatives of Mrs. Bazley-White. Among those present in the little church room was a young man named Pearson, whose right arm was heavily bandaged. Pearson was one of the rescue party, and his arm was badly injured during the fire. There were about twenty people in the hall, besides the jury and Press representatives, and in this small gathering, women predominated.

 IDENTIFICATION BY INFERENCE.

 Replying to the foreman of the jury, the Coroner said it was impossible to take ordinary evidence of identification. "There is a small quantity human remains, and I shall have to ask you to come to conclusion by inference. The best way we can get at it in evidences, is by taking the number of people who were sleeping in the house, and how many escaped. The number that was left must be represented by the remains.

  RECOGNISED BY TEETH.

The first witness was Dr. A. Severne. who examined the remains after the fire. He first dealt with the remains of Mrs. Bazley-White. "They were those of an adult female under the age of fifty," he said. "The stature, build and height were those of Mrs. Bazley- White, whom knew in her lifetime. She had rather prominent teeth, and these I recognised the remains." Witness said there was nothing particular that he could point to in the remains of Captain Bazley-White and the child. With regard to the nurse, her heart was fibroid, which pointed to her not being in sound health generally, and her being of a fair age. Commander L. H. B. Bevan of H.M.S. Vernon, Portsmouth, brother of Mrs. Bazley-White, Bertha Weekes, the twin-sister of the nurse, and Robert Henry Style, Captain Bazley-White's brother-in-law, gave evidence that Captain Bazley-White was a retired Captain of the Regular Army, aged 41, and that the nurse was aged 55.

 SURVIVOR'S EVIDENCE.

Mrs. Edith Whitfield, the cook, who escaped by jumping from a window, was then called. She had been sitting on a platform behind the Coroner, and after being helped down, limped to the centre of the hall. She sobbed bitterly as she took the oath. "There were seven people," Mrs. Whitfield said, "at Wateringbury Hall on Monday night-the Major, his wife, the little boy and his nurse, the two maids and herself. "The family went to bed as usual about half-past ten, and I put my candle out at 11.20. The family bedrooms and the study, which is on the same floor, were lit by gas. It was not the practice to turn the gas off the meter at night. The Major smoked, and so did his wife occasionally." The Coroner: Did you or the maids smoke? Yes, and the maids sometimes, but I did not smoke on Monday night. The Major was in the habit of smoking in his bedroom. "I awoke to hear Mrs. Bazley-White shouting 'Fire.' Opening my bedroom door, I saw Mrs. Bazley-White running up and down the corridor outside. I ran to my window and shouted 'Fire,' and then I went back again and tried open the bedroom door to get down to the study, but the flames had followed me right to door." The Coroner: Do you think that the flames were worse then?- Yes.

 HOW SHE ESCAPED.

Mrs. Bazley-White had then gone upstairs to where the child was sleeping. Could you along the corridor then? -No, I could not get along. I went back and stood on my window-sill and shouted 'Fire" for what seemed like a quarter of an hour. I then let myself down from the window. How?-I jumped out. I ran round the house to the back and shouted "Fire." I looked up at the windows to Major Bazley-White's rooms and the nursery. Any sign life at all?- No. What, did you do next? -l ran to my own home shouting "Fire" the whole way. How far was that?-About two or three hundred yards. I awoke my father and my brother, and they both went for help. My father asked who was out of the house, and who was in, and I said no one was out, that I knew of, except myself. Did you see any flames later ?-I really woke up in a dream. When I was running away from the house I turned round, and then saw flames coming out !of the house. I am positive that the fire started in the study.

 

 MRS BAZLEY-WHITE MAY HAVE FAINTED.

The Coroner: For Mrs. Bazley-White to get from her bedroom to the child's nursery, she would have to through the fire?-Yes The main staircase was not then alight, and Mrs. Bazley-White could have walked down the staircase without going through the fire? -Yes. Mrs. Bazley-White could have got away quite easily? -”She was very delicate, and I wonder whether she fainted before reaching the nursery and waking the nurse and child.

 

HYSTERICAL SHOUTING.

Marjorie Florence Sharp, parlour maid at the Hall, was next called. "The first thing I heard," she said, "was hysterical shouting. I could not hear what was being said, but am sure it was Mrs. Bazley-White's voice. I jumped out of bed and saw the flames through the bedroom door, which is half glass, and heard the crackling of the fire. I saw that I could not get through to the corridor, so I snatched up a coat from a cupboard and rushed down the back stairs." The Coroner: Did you hear any more Mrs. Bazley-White ?-Not a sound after the first scream. Did you form any opinion as to where Mrs. Bazley-White was ?-We heard her running up the stairs to the nursery. She was screaming, that was what woke us. It was quite easy for her get down the back stairs with you ?-Yes. Miss Sharp added that her fellow-servant, Miss Selves, left the house with her. We ran towards Wateringbury to get help; we told Mr. Butcher's, cook's father, who had then got to the house, that four people were still inside, and pointed out the rooms m which they were sleeping. Mr. Butchers then threw stones up at the windows to arouse the people inside. Olive Winifred Selves, housemaid at the Hall, said that when she returned to the house with Miss Sharp there was no sign of fire in Major Bazley-White's room, or in the night nursery. When the windows of these rooms were broken by the stones thrown by Mr. Butchers, no smoke came out. The Coroner: Did you hear any sound from inside ? -No. Stephen Thomas Butchers, a farm labourer, said he was wakened by his daughter, Mrs. Whitfield, on Monday night. He and his son got two bed sheets and made for the Hall. " After the night nursery windows had been pointed out to me by the two maids, I threw stones at the windows, and practically smashed them all. No smoke or flames came out of the windows, and there was no evidence at all that Major Bazley-White or his wife had reached that room. I thought everyone had escaped. The Coroner: It would be interesting to know what good you thought you were doing smashing all the windows the house? I thought that if the windows were smashed, we should hear somebody. We could then have got them to the window somehow, and caught them in the sheets. Was there any attempt to get ladders up to the windows?-There was no ladder there as far as I know. I went round and burst the garage door open and found that one car had gone. I naturally thought that the occupants had been taken away in that car. A taxi-driver came up and burst open the front door. At that time there was no sign of fire on the ground floor. Did anyone make any attempt to get up the staircase?-l don't think so. I didn't tell anybody that there were people in the house, because I thought they had all cleared. Police Superintendent: Was any attempt made to lift anyone up to the windows?-No. It would have been quite easy for anyone to be lifted up to Major Bazley-White's bedroom window on the shoulders of another ?-Yes, but it would not have been an easy job.

 

TELEPHONE DIFFICULTIES.

Francis Edward Franklin, a taxi-driver, of Maidstone, said he was returning about 12.30 a.m. from Tonbridge, when he was stopped near Wateringbury Hall by Butchers, who told him to get to the nearest telephone and call the fire brigade. After finding that the police sergeant was away from home, and trying the railway signal box without success, he eventually got through on the telephone from the doctor's house. In his opinion the fire brigade had been very prompt. Franklin described how he threw off his cap, coat, and scarf, and ran round to the back of the house with a friend named Pearce, to a spot underneath the room which had been pointed out to him as Mrs. Bazley-White's bedroom.

 

HEARD GROANS.

The Coroner: I think you heard noise Pearce: Yes. I heard groans. Where did they come from ?-They seemed to come from the top of the porch. Did they sound like human groans?-lt sounded like a woman groaning. What did you do?- A man outside told me it was a dog, but I was not satisfied, and went inside again. Did it sound like a dog?-No, it did not. What do you think now?-l think it was somebody burning. I went up the principal staircase, turned round to the right, and into the cook's room.

 

CARTRIDGES EXPLODE.

Witness said: The door and window were both open. I think the smoke came partly mostly from the study. The cook's room was empty, and I left it, returning to the corridor, one end of which was a mass of flames. At that moment something exploded, sounding like gun, and I bolted. The Coroner: It might be as well to clear that up. Some cartridges were found apparently exploded by the fire. I then ran downstairs," added Mr. Franklin, " and collapsed in the garden." A Juror: Did it appear that there was fire at both ends of the corridor? -Yes. I could see a bed at one end that had been twisted by the heat. Mr. Bracher: You say you heard groans over the porch ?-They appeared to be. Was that the room known as the day nursery?-Yes. Charles George Pearce, a motor engineer's apprentice, of Loos-road, Maidstone, whose arm was bandaged and held in sling, said he was with Franklin, and when they were first told of the fire he went to a railway signal box and asked the signalman to phone for the fire brigade. "He asked me on whose authority I made the request. I said 'On mine, the house is burning down.' He then said, 'Well, who is going to pay?' Directly after that he said, 'Well, where is it?' told him about a mile or a mile and a half on the other side of Wateringbury on the main road. He said 'I can't put a call through like that.' When I repeated the direction he again said, 'I can't put a call through like that; they wouldn't come out.' I came away because I saw it was no use wasting any more time."

 

 "LET IT BURN."

The Coroner: Were you told there were people in the house? Pearce: No, there was a crowd of about twenty people standing there, and we asked if there was anyone in the house. They said "Let it burn, they have gone away and left it. The only person who attempted to help us atall was Dr. Severne. He was telling us all the time it was madness to enter the building and to risk our lives for the sake of furniture. I think he was the sanest man of the three us. The Coroner: What did you do after that? -I was put out of action; I could not do anything else. John Wainscott, Chief Officer of the Maidstone Borough Fire Brigade, said the call was received at 1.10 a.m., and the brigade reached Wateringbury at 1.27 a.m. The first thing he did on arriving was to ask the nine or ten people near the hall if there was anyone in the building. "Four or five people all speaking at once replied 'No.' I think the fire originated in Major Bazley-White's bedroom, for the fire was burning much more fiercely there when we arrived than in the other parts of the house."

 

"FINDING OF THE BODIES."

About five o'clock, when the fire was under control, and we were searching the ruins, we saw a suspicious object on the floor of the dining-room. We dug it out from the tiles, slates, and timber, and found it was body. We got a sack and carried it to the garage. We made a systematic search of the ruins until we found another body, about twelve feet away from the first. The first body was that of Mrs. Bazley-White, and the second that of her husband. A third body found in the south-west angle of the drawing room was that the nurse. The child's body was found on a wire mattress, almost underneath tha nurse's body. The bodies were charred and were absolutely unrecognisable." Replying to a juror, Chief Officer Wainscott said he was certain the bodies fell from Major Bazley-White's bedroom. The Coroner: If that is so, the presumption is that Mrs. Bazley-White went into that room to rouse her husband, and was overcome and trapped in the room. Dr. Severne attributed death to suffocation. He said he did not think any of the victims suffered much. The foreman said the jury would like to be satisfied about certain firearms found in the debris after the fire.

 

CORONER'S CONCLUSIONS.

"I think," said the Coroner, "you will have little difficulty in coming to the conclusion that the fire began the study. The taxi-driver, Franklin, kept his head in a way that was an example to the rest Wateringbury. I do not understand the attitude of the signalman. Some valuable minutes might have been saved if he had put through a fire call at once when asked. We know that these old houses have a great deal of timber in them, with recesses in the chimneys, and so on, and once alight they burn easily. The jury found that death was due to suffocation, the cause of the fire unknown and that it started in the study.


Some additional details are added by the Cheltenham Chronicle - Saturday 22 October 1927

FOUR PEOPLE BURNED TO DEATH AT MAIDSTONE. 
Victims of Midnight Fire. 
Maidstone, Tuesday. 

At midnight last night a fire occurred Wateringbury Hall, near Maidstone. Capt. Bazley-White, the occupant, his wife and son, aged four, and a nurse named Rosa Weeks, aged fifty-five, were burned to death. Three servants asleep on the premises escaped one at a time by climbing out of a bedroom window. Other occupants gt the house escaped by the top staircase. The fire is believed to have started in the sitting room. It was discovered by a man who was walking near the house. He immediately raised an alarm and roused the occupants by hurling stones at some of the windows. His action enabled three maids and a visitor to escape, but the others were apparently cut off, and the house was soon a mass of flames. 

Dr. A. de M. Severne, who lives at Claremont, Wateringbury, about four hundred yards from the Hall, was awakened by villagers between one and two o'clock and hurried to the fire. He was a close friend of Capt. Bazley-White, and gave what help could to the three maids who were rescued. When the charred bodies were recovered from the ruins, Dr Severne identified two, those of Capt. and Mrs. Bazley White. At half-past eleven this morning, firemen from the Maidstone and other brigades were still playing water on the ruins, though only blackened walls remained standing. All the bodies with the exception .of that of the four-years-old child have been recovered.

The family had occupied Wateringbury Hall, pretty ivy covered house of two storeys, for the past two or three years. It stands a little way back from the main road, and adjoins the estate of Lord Oranmore and Browne. 

Capt. Richard Booth Leslie Bazley-White, D.S.0., who was born 1886, was a son of Gravesend, who married in 1876 Lady John White, formerley M.P. for Grace daughter of the eighteenth Countess of Rothes. Capt. Bazley White served with the Royal West Kent Regiment during the war, and was awarded the D.S.O. in 1917. In 1922 he married Katherine, daughter of Algernon Beckford Bevan, of Ickworth Lodge, Bury St. Edmunds. 

Mrs. Bazley-White is believed to have been the first person in the house to discover the fire. She rushed out of her bedroom to warn the maids, and then went back to fetch the child. Miss E. Butcher, one of the maids, jumped from her bedroom Window, ten feet from the ground. The other two were able to escape through the front door. The fire burned for nearly seven hours. When firemen had got it well under control they searched the ruins and found the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Bazley White, their child, and the nurse. They also found the charred remains of a little terrier, which was often to be seen the village with its master. 

Mr. Frederick Underhill, grocer's assistant, of Wateringbury, gave Press representative a graphic description of the fire.—"l was awakened" he said, "just before two o'clock this morning and dashed down to the Hall. There were then twenty or thirty villagers watching the fire, and the Maidstone Fire Brigade was working feverishly to get it under control. The centre the building was like a blazing furnace, and the flames, leaping to a great height, illuminated the neigbourhood for hundreds of yards. We could see the house being gradually destroyed, and the efforts the firemen seemed of little avail. When all was over only the walls and chimneys remained standing. When the firemen arrived there was absolutely no chance rescuing anyone." When the maids were awakened they made repeated attempts to reach the telephone on the ground floor in order to summon the fire brigade. Time after time smoke and flames drove them back until they abandoned the attempt and escaped." 

Mrs. Owen English, Manor Farm, Wateringbury, said: "I was awakened about one o'clock, and smelt smoke and something burning. Then I saw the Hall was ablaze. The fire brigade arrived about half-past one, and by that time the fire had got so fierce that it was impossible do anything. The flames lit the countryside, and the whole of the centre the building was gutted. The root fell in with a tremendous crash. house was built with old oak beams, and some of are still standing charred and blackened. Above the noise and crackling of the flames we could hear the barks and howls of a dog imprisoned in one of the upper rooms. It was pitiful to hear it, but nothing could be done and the dog was burned."

A special representative of the Press Association telephoned this afternoon: A vivid story was told me by Mrs. Whitfield, the cook, while she lay in bed at her parent's cottage not two hundred yards from the smoking ruins. She jumped from her bedroom window, a distance of some 14 feet, into the long grass below. About midnight, when I was just going sleep, I heard a scream from Mrs. Bazley White's bedroom at the back of the house. Her son was sleeping with his nurse in bedroom in the front of the house. Captain White was a bedroom in the left wing. I think the fire began in the sitting room upstairs, which is roughly in the centre of the hall. As I jumped out of bed I heard Mrs. Bazley White scream, "rush and call the Fire Brigade." I opened the door I was met flames and dense smoke, and, without to put on any clothing, I jumped out the window. Then I dashed across to my father's cottage, and sent my brother post haste on his motor-cycle to Maidstone to call the fire-brigade. I believe Mrs. Bazley White must have tried reach her son, though this course, was impossible- the sitting-room which separated bedroom from that which her little boy was sleeping was one big blaze. This is probably how she perished. The servants were in the rear of the house, and managed to escape by a back door." Mr. Butcher, Mrs. Whitfield's brother, raised the alarm, and the brigade arrived 1.15 a.m. The last body was not recovered until  9.30 a.m. Captain Bazley often hunted in the district, and intended going out to-day. 

Extract from Sheffield Daily Telegraph - Saturday 22 October 1927

BURIAL OF VICTIMS OF MANSION FIRE. At Mereworth (Kent) yesterday the funeral took place of Captain Bazley White, his wife, his son John, and Miss Weeks, nurse, who lost their lives in the fire Wateringbury Hall. Lady Grace Bazley White, the mother of Captain White, was present. There was a long stream of mourners from all parts of the district. Captain White’s body was in coffin covered with a Union Jack, the mother and the child were in another, and Miss Weeks in third. 

Extract from Kent & Sussex Courier - Friday 13 January 1928
THE WATERINGBURY HALL FIRE.— Rumours have appeared in week-end papers that the inquest on the victims of the Wateringbury Hall fire in October last was to be re-opened. We are able to state the authority of the District Coroner. Mr. A. H. Neve, that he has intention of re-opening the inquiry. An official of the Insurance Company concerned has also stated that his Company has settled the claims.


For stories of other fires in Wateringbury see Fire destroys Church steeple; Suspected arson at Pelican farm; child left home alone dies of burns.
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