‘Every window had someone hanging out of it calling for help’ - fatal hotel fire in Saffron Walden remembered 50 years on
PUBLISHED: 08:25 08 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:43 08 February 2019
It was a fire that killed 11 people and it changed the law on fire regulations for public buildings.
50 years ago this year, the Rose and Crown in Saffron Walden burnt to the ground. There were some astonishing rescues. One fireman turned himself into a human ladder because the rescue ladder was too short - so a woman could climb down his back.
Another elderly lady was not so lucky. She was waiting by a window, a fireman put his arm through the broken glass and held on to her, but just at that moment the floor gave way beneath her and she fell to her death. It was 30 years before he was able to talk about it.
Some 29 people were rescued but despite some residents trying to escape by climbing down knotted sheets, 11 people died.
The hotel was never re-built. Today it is the site of Boots the Chemist. This year it will receive a blue plaque to remember the victims of a Christmas celebration which ended in tragedy, in the early hours of Boxing Day 1969.
Eyewitnesses and firefighters spoke to the Reporter about what they remember of the day.
One of the first firefighters on the scene was Chris Phillipson. He was 20 and had been in the service for nine months.
He said: “When we got to the fire, I looked up at the front of the building and every window had someone hanging out of it calling for help. There was one man in the street who kept pulling at the leading fire officer’s harm saying: ‘Get my wife, out, get my wife out’.
“The fire seemed to spread so rapidly, it went up so fast, the building had an open plan staircase that acted as a funnel, like a chimney drawing the fire through.
“It was a horrendous night. I didn’t do anything heroic, I stood at the front of hotel for over an hour holding a hose pumping out 500 gallons of water a minute, but I watched other firefighters doing rescues.
“The ladder was too short to reach a woman waiting to be rescued at an upper window, so fireman Ron Whitten stood on the uppermost rung, he held on to the window sill and told the woman to climb down his back into the arms of another fireman waiting further down the ladder.”
Ron, who has since died, was one of three firemen who received commendations for their bravery that night.
The alarm was raised by the hotel manager, Emil Landsman, and his wife rang the alarm. But it is understood the alarm only sounded for a few seconds and some people never heard it.
The young Chris was still living at home with his parents at the time. All the firefighters had a special bell installed in their homes, which raised the alarm. He said: “When the fire bell went off, my mum would bang on my bedroom wall to make sure I was awake and my sister (Wendy, then aged 14) would be downstairs holding my jacket and helmet so I could go straight out.
“I got on my moped down the side of the Common and went the wrong way down Hill Street and I could see the smoke. When I got to the fire station, someone was on the phone to the control room in Harlow asking for the address of the fire, I said, it’s the Rose and Crown let’s go!”
There were four firefighters on that first appliance, two of them, Ron Green and and Tom Cook received bravery awards for the rescues they carried out that night.
Chris had a narrow escape himself. “I went up the alleyway at the side of the building to take over from one of the men at the back and within five minutes, the back wall collapsed, it just missed me.”
But even in the midst of a tragedy there were some bizarre moments.
“At the time, the town hall opposite the hotel was being repaired and covered in scaffolding. Senior fire office, Eric Ray asked a bystander to go up one of the ladders at the town hall and untie it so we could use it. He did but then the man didn’t get down again. He could have climbed down the scaffolding but he stood up there all night watching us fight the fire. We used one of our ladders to get him down at the end.”
The fire broke out around 1.40am, the alarm was raised at 1.47am the first crew arrived within five minutes. They didn’t leave until 7am and 10 other crews arrived from as far as Cambridge and Harlow.
Chris said: “It was a wake-up call. At 20 I might have thought I’d join the fire service and impress the ladies but on my way to this fire, I thought, this is a real job.”
In all his following years as a firefighter, this was the worst fire he ever saw. But terrible as it was, that night didn’t deter him. He continued to be a retained firefighter at Saffron Walden for the next 28 years and simultaneously served as a full-time firefighter at Stansted Airport for 32 years.
“At the time, there were several hotel fires but there was interest in this one world-wide and it led to the Fire Precautions Act (for hotels and boarding houses) 1971 which said that fire doors must be made to open without a key.” People were found dead by fire doors and the key to a fire door was found still in its box.
“The alarms sounded for less than 30 seconds, it didn’t give people a chance to wake up. Several people were found dead in their beds, possibly they never knew that the fire had started. They looked as if they were asleep but they would have been killed by carbon monoxide.”
“Now, whenever I stay in a hotel, the first thing I do is look for the emergency exit. After the fire, it was all I could think about for a long time and I still think about it.”
It took 30 years for another of the firemen to describe the horror of that night.
Roy Vincent broke an upper storey window to hold on to the arm of an elderly lady who was trapped. But the floor broke beneath her and she fell from his grasp.
Three decades on, In 1999, after reading an article about the fire, Roy spoke about what happened for the first time. He wrote to the author: “I would like to tell you about something which happened which I have never told anyone about since the fire.
“I went round to the front of the building and went up the escape ladder to the second floor where an old lady was by the window. I tried to get the window open, but it just would not move. I called down for an axe to try to break the frame. It just would not break, it was like iron. The glass was broken so I put my hand through and held her arm. Before I could get a good grip, the floor gave way so suddenly she went down to the ground.
“After the fire, when I got home, I sat at the table and cried for nearly an hour, and for weeks I had nightmares about it. I hope she forgave me for not holding on to her.
“There was no counselling for us at the time, we were just expected to get by the best we could and handled it ourselves. After 30 years, I still wonder about it all.”
Roy died in April 2007, but his son-in-law, David Curtis, who was inspired to become a firefighter by Roy’s example, and was a firefighter at Saffron Walden Fire Station for the following 34 years becoming chief fire officer there, told the Reporter: “No one spoke about it. It was such a devastating fire. They (the firemen) kept it to themselves, most of them were ex-army, some of them had fought in the Second World War, They didn’t talk about things.”
David described how limited firefighters were on equipment.
“In the 1960s and early 1970s, breathing apparatus was limited to two sets to an appliance and not everyone was trained to wear it, later we were all trained and there were four sets per appliance.
“It was a very tragic fire. We never had proper cutting equipment, afterwards we were changed to ‘fire and rescue’. The equipment we have now is fantastic. I doubt if there is anything now that we can’t get into. But in those days, all we had was a 14lb hammer, a pair of garden shears and a crow bar.”
Commenting on erroneous national newspaper reports at the time that the first fire engine had taken 30 minutes to arrive, David Curtis confirmed that the first engine had arrived within five minutes.
“The call was at 1.47am and the first crew arrived at 1.52am. The fire was at one in the morning, all the men were in bed, we didn’t have cars in those days, we had cycles but men were on an engine within five minutes.”
He thinks the misunderstanding came from an eye-witness who had been woken up by the blaze.
In a traumatic situation, he said: “Seconds are minutes and minutes are hours.”
But after the misinformation was blazoned across the national press, he said: “There was talk of the firemen resigning saying if this is what the public think of us...” They didn’t though, they carried on.
Dunmow mayor Barrie Easter was a fireman in his mid-twenties and remembers arriving at the scene later on Boxing Day morning, after the fire had been extinguished.
Cllr Easter was part of the relief team, and travelled from room to room with police officers and other firemen.
He said:“I have never done it before or since. We had to go through all of the personal belongings of the people who were staying in the hotel (when the fire broke out). If you found a wallet all of us had to agree there was £5 in it. We all had to agree with each other about what was there. Down to if there were four pairs of socks, we had to say what colour they were.”
Cllr Easter entered the building through the fire escape and searched the more modern part of the hotel.
He added:“We just got on with our jobs. It was a funny thing to do, to go through people’s possessions that quick after the fire. All the bodies had been removed. It did seem a bit of a strange thing to do that quickly after.
Speaking of his 12 years as a fireman, the mayor said: “In those days we looked after each other. We were a family.”
Rumour has it Shakespeare may have performed at the Rose and Crown in 1606.
The Rose and Crown was described as “the hub of the town” by Margaret and Tony Watson who held their wedding there, 300 years later, in April 1960.
Not many other places could have accommodated their 90 guests. Tony said: “It was the centre of the town. I was a Round Table chairman and our headquarters was the Rose and Crown.”
He remembered: “The dining room was rather dark, it was on the first floor at the back and looked out onto a courtyard.”
They heard about the fire, which happened nine years later, via a phone call from South Africa.
Margaret’s parents had retired and moved to South Africa.
She said: “They heard about the fire on the news and phoned us to make sure we were alright.”
A guest at their wedding, estate agent, Bruce Munro, also heard about the fire on the news, though he was only a few streets away. He said: “The first words I heard were ‘eleven people died in a hotel fire in Saffron Walden’. We went down to see in the afternoon and it was still smouldering, it was terrible.
“Every market town had an inn, serving good quality food and drink. They were part of the Trust House Group. The Rose and Crown had a lovely dining room. The building was Tudor or even earlier. It had 20 bedrooms.”
Asked how often he went there, he said: “As often as possible. It was used for dinners by the Rotary Club, the Conservative Party and weddings.”
Mr Munro said the façade of the hotel could have been saved but Trust House didn’t see that it could ever be a place of celebration again.
But something of the old structure does still remain. Outside an upper floor of the building which replaced it in the Market Square - now Boots – hangs a bunch of what look like grapes. Actually, they are hops. Saffron Walden was once a place where hops where grown and picked.
Malcolm White, a former town clerk of Saffron Walden, who was 19 at the time of the fire, recalls the scene being fenced off the next morning and firefighters continuing to dampen down the building.
“The Rose and Crown was the centre of social life in what was a proper market down back then,” Malcolm said. “It’s where the farmers and workers would go on market day. To me, the fire was the start of the end of Saffron Walden as a market town - it was symbolic of the decline of our rural connection. The cattle market and pig market soon went. It’s a very different town now to what it was back then.”
Malcolm was one of those who signed the petition to recognise that the firefighters had reached the scene within five minutes.
“It was a national newspaper who made us out as some sleepy town who took 30 minutes to get to the scene - it was a slander on them. That upset a lot of people. We all signed the petition because I knew the firefighters and I know damn well that they were good men and they were putting their lives at risk.
“In the end they did receive recognition and a point was made that they got there so quickly. I was always proud of the way those firefighters responded under the circumstances. I knew some of them and they were always reluctant to talk about what happened and what they saw. It was a terrible tragedy.”
Multiple fire engines were called to the scene, including two from Saffron Walden, one from Thaxted and Whittlesford, two from Haverhill and others from Cambridge, Bishop’s Stortford, Newport, Linton, Harlow and Ongar.
The fire gutted most of the Rose and Crown premises and despite efforts to retain the facade which faced onto Market Square, surveyors found the structure unsafe and the building was demolished.
In January 1970, the inquest took place. Forensic evidence confirmed that a television set in the resident’s lounge had overheated and caught fire. The fire spread quickly up a chimney and also through an open door to the entrance hall, spreading up the staircase to the first floor.
Mr Landsman, the hotel manager, told the inquest he was woken by shouting and the alarm he sounded only rang for two or three seconds.
He said there were fire warning notices in every room, fire exit signs in the required places and safety doors in place.
A verdict of accidental death was recorded for the victims of the fire.
In April, 1970, the bravery of the firefighters at Saffron Walden Fire Station was recognised by Essex County Council and three firefighters were also given individual commendations for their efforts to save people from the fire.
One month later, Trust Houses, the owners of the Rose and Crown Hotel, confirmed that they would not be rebuilding the hotel.
Fire regulations for public buildings were changed after this fire.
The Fire Precautions Act 1971 was passed by the Government as a direct result of the hotel fire that Boxing Day in Saffron Walden where guests, some from the town, others from cities far away had booked in for a Christmas treat.