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Confusion!

Sometimes logic goes out the window, especially where London is concerned. Take this example.

Q. I'd like to go and see Mansion House in the City. Is Mansion House underground station the nearest?

A. No it's the third nearest, Cannon Street is two minutes walk, Bank is only a minute, while Mansion House station is about four minutes away.


To be fair it's not down to anyone's ineptitude in naming the stations it is, as you may already have guessed dependant on the chronological order in which the station were opened.

A rather subdued notice published in the 1871 Pall Mall Gazette to announce the station's opening and also rather economical in their description of distances. I measured it.

Bank of England 352 yards,                 

The Royal Exchange 528 yards                

General Post Office an eight minute walk.

I made mention of ineptitude earlier and dismissed it immediately as being of no consequence, but the station does have a link to a story of ineptitude, confusion and a blatant disregard for human life that was to prove fatal.

The illustration above dates from 1881 and it is hard to make out the station, but it appear just as today that the entrance sits within the corner part of a substantial building. I mentioned that being the first station chronologically it now seems a bit strange that being called Mansion House it is not situated all that near, but at the time of opening it was probably a very handy place to alight if you were working in the financial heart of the City. It was also very handy for the workers at the General Electric (GEC) factory that sat at the opposite end of the same block.


GEC's workshops and offices took up a large section of the block stretching from 67-71 Queen Victoria Street. The company manufactured "Everything Electrical", Kettles, fans, circuit breakers, dynamos and even fire alarms.

As an aid to some of the manufacturing processes, GEC stored several volatile flammable materials in the building and so had to pass an annual safety inspection. As part of this and as a precaution the building had one of GEC's own fire alarms fitted. It also had a resident fire brigade, made up of workers from the factory's different departments.

On the 9th June 1902 the factory was it's usual hive of activity, but there was an extra job on it's books, that of producing the decorative street lighting for the upcoming coronation of King Edward VII. It was a prestigious job to undertake and despite the factory running at maximum capacity the task of producing many hundreds of yards of swagged and decorated lighting was deemed too important to be subbed out to branches outside the capital. Management at the time earmarked a storeroom on the fourth floor of the building that could be quickly converted into an assembly room.

For the decorations GEC would supply the wiring, sockets and bulbs. The wiring and the sockets for individual displays had already been sent out to subcontractors who had garlanded the wires in imitation foliage and had also produced individual basket displays for lamp posts. There appears not to have been a lot of profit in the venture from the outset, and so cost, including labour had been pared back as much as possible. The cheapest form of labour was casual workers and the cheapest casual workers were women, so a team of young girls was given the job of assembling all the various parts and were consigned to the fourth floor storeroom.


Let me take you back to the fire alarms as there are several things to note. Firstly, being used for storage, the fourth floor was deemed not to need an alarm system and so the alarm bells only went as far as the third floor. The bells used to sound the alarm were of the same tone that signalled the start, finish and breaks in the working day, along with other uses, such as signalling for mechanics to attend machinery due to breakdowns. The system had been in place since 1900 but had still not been connected to the local telephone exchange.

In 1902 GEC was, in it's managerial style, still firmly intrenched in a Victorian mindset with a strict hierarchy and a "need to know" doctrine. Upper and middle management were inducted into how the fire system worked as were one or two personnel on the shop floor, but there was no organised fire training or drill, or even a plan of evacuation. The internal fire brigade who were scattered throughout the different departments only trained when the factory was empty and so few in the factory knew who they were and they knew next to nothing about the workforce outside their own individual department.


Around 4.15 on that July afternoon a fire broke out on the second floor of the building. For some reason it was not detected for some time and had taken hold by the time the alarm system had been activated. The Bells which rang in a different pattern to the normal workday bells alerted those in the know, but many as with the girls on the fourth floor didn't know what they signified and carried on working. Those that did started to evacuate staff from the many departments. Two men who found themselves temporarily on the fourth floor did know what the bells signified and hurriedly exited the storeroom without telling the remainder of the staff why, and sadly this began to consign the fate of many of them.

The designated person for the third floor found himself on ground level by the time the alarm sounded and did make his way to his designated floor to facilitate the evacuation of the remaining staff, but having done so and knowing there were staff on the fourth floor he made his way to the spiral staircase that gave the only access to that floor. By this time smoke was billowing up from the floor below and he decided not to climb up to evacuate the girls, instead shouting up to them to "evacuate immediately". He then used the main staircase to exit the building and for some bizarre reason busied himself in helping to transfer the ledgers from the finance department across the road to a bank for safe keeping.

Apparently the girls heard the command, but having received no training on how evacuate confusion set in. Some did manage to get to the staircase but were beaten back the chocking smoke and so had to return. One opened a window at the back of the building but this quickened the ingress of the smoke.


By the time the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and London Salvage Corps (LSC) arrived at the scene, the whole building was ablaze and the faces of the terror stricken girls could be seen crowded around the only other window which looked out over the street. The MFB deployed their ladders, but at fifty feet in length they failed to reach the trapped girls, some of which decided their only option was to jump into a tarpaulin stretched below by the police and onlookers.

Fifteen-year-old Alice Thompson was the first to jump and suffered minor injuries to her head and back. She was followed by twenty one year old Arthur Paget who was not so lucky and missed the tarpaulin and later died of his injuries. Three more girls followed receiving burns to their faces as they plummeted through the fire.


Some time later a seventy foot ladder was brought to the scene and two firemen bravely entered the fourth floor and found the eight bodies of the trapped girls. With them, the unfortunate Arthur Paget and seventeen year old Mabel Amos who though rescued died later of a heart attack the death toll stood at ten.

Little is known about the lives and families of the ten victims. It is known that London’s Lord Mayor sent a letter of regret and sympathy to the parents, but they seem to have been quickly forgotten and no lasting memorial was ever erected either by GEC or the London County Council. GEC did not admit culpability or pay any compensation, although the coroner was scathing in his summing up. It seems to have been quickly consigned to history so much so that I was only able to find two names of all the girls who died on the fourth floor that day.

Phyllis Elliott (14)                      

Gladys Chambers (14)


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