Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Fire at St Catherine's, Hatcham, 1913 - a Suffragette attack?

[post updated, 15 March 2021]

St Catherine's Church at the top of Pepys Road was seriously damaged in a fire on May 6 1913. At the time it was widely reported that campaigners for votes for women had started the fire. The photo below from the New York Times, May 18 1913, was accompanied by an article which stated that the fire was caused 'presumably by a suffragette “arson squad”'.

The report in The Times includes the vicar, Rev. Howard Truscott, blaming the fire on 'the work of suffragists or of incendiaries':

London Church Burned - Cause of the fire unknown (Times, May 7 1913) 'The church of St. Catherine, Hatcham, situated in Pepys-road, New Cross, was practically destroyed by fire shortly after noon yesterday, and the damage, which is partially covered by insurance, is estimated at several thousand pounds. The walls and centre-arches are not seriously injured, and it is hoped that little will have to be expended in their restoration. At half-past eleven the vicar, the Rev. H.J.H. Truscott, visited the church and found everything as usual, but half an hour later he was amazed to see the building in flames. He states that the gas was turned off securely and that the heating apparatus had not been used for a fortnight. This would lead to the belief that the fire was the work of an incendiary, and it has been suggested that suffragists are responsible…. The church occupies a commanding position at the top of Pepys-road, and is a landmark for many miles around. It was erected about 20 years ago at a cost of £18,000 by the Haberdashers Company… 

The fire was first noticed from Aske’s school by an employee who immediately gave the alarm. The vicar hurried to the building with the intention of saving the more valuable ornaments and furniture, but the flames were so fierce in the chancel that he was obliged to give up the idea of entering that part of the church. He was able, however, to get into the vestry, from which he removed the registers and church documents to a place of safety…. The sight of the burning church attracted large crowds. The firemen were greatly handicapped in their work owing to the fact that the water had to be pumped a considerable distance up the hill… About 5 o’clock the fire was under control, and when the firemen were able to enter the building it was apparent that the outbreak occurred near the organ… The side chapel was practically intact and also the stained-glass windows, which are situated at the far end of the building. Many of the oak pews in this part of the church had not been burnt. The vicar informed a newspaper representative that he was convinced that the outbreak was the work of suffragists or of incendiaries. He said “ Last night I noticed two women and a man hanging about outside the church, although there had been no service. I went away for a short time and when I returned they were still there”'.

The crowd views the ruins. From Diane Atkinson, The Suffragettes in Pictures, 
Museum of London, 1976

Fire brigade inside the church, Daily Mirror, 7 May 1913

Update March 2021 - while it is clear that suffragettes were widely blamed for the fire at the time, nobody seems to have been prosecuted for this and until recently I wondered whether it could have been a convenient story to distract from other possible causes, such as negligence. I had not found any mention of it in the suffrage press. However  I have now found the fire included in an end of year summary of 'the more serious attacks on property which have been attributed to Suffragettes during the year 1913' (Suffragette, 26 December 1913). This refers to 'St Catherine's Church, Hatcham, burned down', on the day when a Woman Suffrage Bill was defeated in the House of Commons. The very next day a bomb was found in St Paul's Cathedral and a week later St Anne's Church in Eastbourne was damaged . This was a period when suffragettes started fires in public buildings, including churches where clergy were seen as hostile to their cause. It does then seem highly likely that the St Catherine's fire was caused by suffragettes.

'The Suffragette, 26 December 1913 - read full issue at LSE Archive

Some doubt was cast on this at the time One contemporary account stated 'Mysterious fire not traced to suffragists', and reported that 'investigations failed to reveal any trace of the Suffragists having been in the building, and the fire brigade officials appeared to disregard the suggestion as highly improbable' (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 9 May 1913). However, a couple of weeks later the Evening News reported that 'a copy of the Suffragette for April 25 was found thrust between the leaves of some music in the organ loft, where the fire undoubtedly started' (Evening News, 24 May 1913).

In a strange twist to the story, the vicar received widespread publicity for later claiming that in the previous year he had received a letter from an astrologer in Paris warning that 'In May 1913, on the 6th, you will lose something particularly dear to you'. He also drew attention to the 'strange escape' of a book during the fire: 'The strangest incident, in Mr Truscott's view, is the manner in which the keepsake, a valuable Service book on the vicar's table, escaped destruction. Conducting The Evening News representative into the ruined building, the vicar pointed to an unburned spot on the desk in front of his own charred and blackened seat. Though the edges of the desk itself were blackened all round, one little space in the centre preserved unharmed a paper pasted on the wood giving a list of notes for services. On this paper the book had rested, and in the midst of the fire and the deluge of water had sustained no damage. Not a spot marred its crimson cover, and the leaves were as clean as though the volume had been purchased yesterday'  ('The Astrologer's warning: remarkable coincidence in Hatcham Church Fire', Evening News, 24 May 1913).

Front page news in Daily Mirror, 7 May 2013 -  'Fire yesterday practically destroyed St Catherine's Hatcham, one of the finest and largest churches in South London. Locally, it is being asked, "Is it the work of suffragettes?" and the vicar, the Rev. H.J.H. Truscott, who is a relative of Sir George Wyatt Truscott, a former Lord Mayor of London, is certain that incendiarism has been committed... The building crowns Pepys-road, New Cross, and it is a conspicuous landmark in South London'

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