Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Fire at St Catherine's, Hatcham, 1913

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 Habderdashers 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”'.

(Transpontine note - This is the church next to Telegraph Hill Park. I have heard the story of the church being burnt by militant suffragists before. The Times story confirms that this was the view of some at the time, but I have been unable to find any evidence of anybody being charged with this, or of suffragists claiming it. The timing - in 1913 - does though coincide with the period when suffragettes were starting fires in public buildings, including churches. And the fire is reported - with the above photo - in Diane Atkinson's The Suffragettes in Pictures, Museum of London, 1976. The photo is also interesting as the public space where the crowd is standing does look bigger than what is there now - this is where the roundabout now stands at the junction of Jerningham/Pepys/Vesta roads).

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