Four died in blazing Portsmouth naval outfitters

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The Purbrook team are, left to right, Jon Harvey, Elizabeth Norris and Peter Emmett

THIS WEEK IN 1975: Purbrook Park is a talking success

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On the night of April 16, 1912, a terrible fire broke out in the premises of a naval outfitters at 94, 94A & 94B Queen Street, Portsea. The buildings were opposite the Camden pub.

At that time there was a small island of buildings surrounded by Queen Street to the south, the dockyard wall and Admiralty Road to the north.

The owner, Harry Harrison, had taken over the building in 1908 .

The fire was so ferocious it killed four people, a mother and her two children and a servant girl.

By the time Inspector Ogburn and his men arrived the building was ablaze.

The one adult survivor was Harry who escaped with his four-month-old son, Cecil.

He ran to the window fronting Queen Street where there were some men on the pavement below. They called to him to drop the baby into their arms, but he refused and disappeared back inside the building only to re-appear some moments later clutching an eiderdown which he tossed down to the men.

The men stretched the eiderdown taught and Harry dropped his son into their safe keeping. Harry thought he was too heavy to jump, went back inside the building and escaped through a rear window.

By the time the police fire brigade arrived the house was a raging inferno. They were helped by constables from the Portsea division and also men from the Dockyard police force who had dashed to the scene.

Somehow the firemen managed to save one of Harry’s other children, seven-year-old Celia.

Harry’s wife Flora, 26, and two other children Philip, four, and Sarah, two, died. Ellie Amelia (Nellie) Mason, a 16-year-old servant, was also killed.

Their bodies were recovered four hours after the alarm was raised and they were taken to the Camden pub.

Police Surgeon Dr Lysander Maybury inspected the bodies and confirmed they all died from smoke inhalation. Burns to the bodies occurred after death.

Also taken to the pub was Harry and his son.

Although the bodies were found on the second floor the fire appears to have started under the stairs leading to it.

On being interviewed Harry said he and his wife were in bed when the smell of smoke woke him. He went into the children’s room and grabbed hold of Cecil.

All of a sudden the place was ablaze and there was no way he could get to the other children or his wife.

Perhaps opening the window enhanced the fire although there was no wind that night to fan the flames.

The house, which at one time had been a pub, was built of wood and plaster with no cement floors of course. The flames would have spread like wildfire through the tinder-dry building.

But there is an odd end to this story – the fate of the toddler dropped from the window, four-month old baby Cecil.

It appears that when the baby was dropped into the eiderdown he was passed from man to man until reaching the arms of the childless couple who ran the Camden pub, Harry Reed and his wife. It appears they took the baby in and kept him as their own.

Eventually Flora’s parents traced him to the pub and the landlord and his wife were heartbroken when Cecil was taken from them.

Flora, Philip and Celia were buried in a family plot in the Jewish section of Kingston Cemetery.

Nellie was laid to rest in the Anglican section 200 yards away.