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Alarming Fire in Oxford

Jackson's Oxford Journal, 2 March 1844

Text provided by Harold Pollins

On Tuesday morning last, between two and three o'clock, the St. Ebbe's watchman in going his rounds discovered fire on the premises occupied by Aaron Jacobs, a Jewish Rabbi, and his family, in St. Ebbe's-street and immediately gave the alarm, and aroused the inmates, consisting of Jacob, his wife, son, and two daughters, all of whom slept on the three-pair floor; and a labouring man named Tubb who, with his wife, occupied the second-pair floor. Tubb was the first who came down stairs and finding the shop in flames went back and succeeding in rescuing his wife and arousing Jacob and his family, who, finding it impossible to escape down the stairs in consequence of the fire raging to such an extent, directed their attention to the means of escape from a back window on the three-pair floor. Jacob's daughter Rachel was the first put out of this window on to the sloping roof of Mr. Price's wash-house, about four feet below it, and Mrs. Jacob was assisted by her husband in the same way, and helped down by Mr. Cutcliffe into the yard in perfect safety. The son, who has but recently returned from Poland, jumped out of the same window and fell on his head, injuring himself very considerably. All these escaped with nothing but their night clothes on, and were taken to the house of Mr. Cutcliffe opposite. The eldest daughter, Rebecca, and her father Aaron Jacob, through some cause or other unexplained, were not so prompt in availing themselves of the only means of escape afforded them and perished in the flames. It is however, presumed that Jacob was desirous of saving the little money and valuables he possessed, and in endeavouring to do so, remained till it was too late to escape: and this impression is strengthened by the circumstances that they were found close to him. While every exertion was made at the back of the premises to save the lives of the inmates, there was no lack of energy in the front to subdue the flames. for four engines were promptly on the spot, and with a good supply of water from the neighbourhood (no thanks to our city water works, which were as usual inoperative), succeeded in about an hour in quelling the fire and confining it to the premises where it originated, which were entirely consumed. The certainty that Jacob and his daughter had perished in the flames created the most intense interest, as soon as the fire was sufficiently subdued, a number of workmen were employed to search for the remains, and about ten o'clock the body of Aaron Jacob was discovered lying on its face near the window from which his wife and two children had escaped. The remains were in so horrible and altered a state that it was impossible to recognise a single feature, and were wrapped up in a sheet and deposited in the adjoining house occupied by Mr. Price. About two o'clock in the afternoon of the same day the remains of the daughter Rebecca was discovered on the floor of the cellar covered with an immense heap of timber and embers, and were in a more distressing condition that that of the father. The street and neighbourhood was in a state of the greatest excitement during the day, but it greatly subsided on the discovery of the bodies, as it was feared that nothing would be found to "tell the direful tale."

The first engines that reached the spot were those of the city and County Fire Office, and too much praise cannot be bestowed on Messrs. Coleman, Stevens, J. Fisher, Bulteel, Cutlcliffe, Laney, and the neighbours, who promptly rendered every assistance in their power, and by their exertions subdued the fire in an incredibly short space of time. The supply of water at first was very insufficient, and nearly half an hour elapsed before the engines were got into effectual play; it was, however, very disgusting to witness the apathy and indifference of several persons who could have rendered great service, but who declined lending a hand because they had on former fires been shabbily treated by some of the Fire Offices. It should, however, be a lesson to such offices that in cases of fire which, thank heaven, are in this place particularly infrequent, that nothing is lost by a fair and proper liberality.
 
During the time the fire was raging a person named John Buckle, in the employ of Messrs. Hall and Co. brewers, was noticed as being extremely active and doing essential service. This man beat a hole through the side of Mr. Price's house, and, carrying the hose through it, was enabled to play on the adjoining house of Mr. Woodward, and prevented its taking fire.

The attendance on the spot during great part of the day of Mr. Alderman Sadler and Mr. Justice Taylor afforded great protection to the property, and facilities in discovering the remains of the unfortunate creatures who perished; and much credit is due to those gentleman for the pains they took, and the kind consideration shown by them. On Wednesday the bodies were removed to the Horse and Chair to await the coroner's inquest.

We understand that some considerable damage was done to both of the adjoining house, Mr. J. Price's and Mr. Woodward's, and these, as well as the house destroyed, were insured in the Dissenters and General Fire Office, who have behaved with a degree of liberality that is well deserving of imitation. The stock of the unfortunate man Jacob was insured in the Phnix who, we doubt not, will act in their usual spirit of generosity. The stock and furniture of Mr. Price sustained considerable damage and the Dissenters and General Office, in which they were insured, have consented to allow the full amount of the loss as estimated by competent parties.


THE INQUEST

An inquest was held on the bodies of Aaron Jacob and Rebecca his eldest daughter, by Mr. Brunner, on Wednesday afternoon at three o'clock, at the Horse and Chair in St. Ebbe's, and a highly respectable Jury, composed of the following persons, was sworn:- Mr John Chaundy (Foreman), Messrs. R. Smith, R. Chaundy, R. Stevens, W. Taylor, - Howse, J. Goodall, W. Bailey, J. Jones, J. Carter, and - Smith.

The jury then proceeded to view the body of Aaron Jacob, which presented a most lamentable appearance, the back part of the head, one of the arms, and legs being completely burnt away, while the trunk was charred, and the features so obliterated that not one could be recognised.
Abner Savage, University policeman, was the first witness sworn, and he deposed that he was on duty on Monday night in the parish of St. Ebbe's, and other parishes included in that beat; he passed the house of Mr. Jacob several times, and at half past two, when there was no smoke or anything wrong, was in company with John Randall, St. Ebbe's watchman; a few minutes after heard an alarm of fire given, and at that time he was on Carfax. About ten minutes after witness left Randall, he met Curwood inspector, who gave the alarm of fire, and said it was at Mr. Price's, in St. Ebbe's-street, and desired witness to go to Mr. Stevens for engines which he did; came down with the engines, and assisted in putting out the fire: discovered it to be at Mr. Jacob's, next door to Mr. Price's, and staid (sic) till it was got under. The house was entirely consumed.

John Tubb, a labourer, lodged at Mr. Jacob's house, occupying the front room on the second floor, with his wife. On the night in question he went to bed between eight and nine; heard the St. Ebbe's watchman call the time between two and three in the morning, and heard him ring Mr. Price's bell; got up, and opened the window and looked out; heard him say he thought there was fire in some of the buildings, as there was a popping. Witness got a light and went down and met him at the back door, and let the watchman in. He said the fire was in Jacob's shop, and saw the smoke coming through the cracks of the door. Witness ran up stairs and awoke Jacob, who slept in the garret above him room, in the back part, and gave him a light, after telling him the shop was in flames; saw his son and his wife where Jacob was, in their night clothes: took the key and opened the shop door, when the flames burst out, and knocked the candle out, and himself down the stairs, which are close to the door: called his wife, and dragged her down stairs through the flames, and out at the back door: did not go back, as he expected that all were out of the house, having given them the alarm: took his wife, who was in her night clothes, on his back to her sister's in St. Aldate's: never saw Jacob nor any of his family after he gave him the key of the shop door. The only words Jacob said to him were "Give me a light -dear me, Tubb, what shall we do?" or to this effect. Jacob, his son, wife, and two daughters, and Tubb and his wife, were all the persons in the house. The daughters slept in the front room over his room, but he did not see either of them. Jacob and his family lived in the room over the shop. There was a fire-place in the shop, and they used to have a fire in it in cold weather.

John Randall, watchman of St. Ebbe's, was in Pembroke-street, at half past two yesterday morning, with Abner Savage; when they parted, he went towards St. Aldate's, and witness came up St. Ebbe's-street on the right hand side, and heard something popping when he was close to Jacob's shop; knocked at his door with his stick, but got no answer; he then rang at Price's bell, and one of his daughters looked out of the window, and he told her he thought there was fire at Jacob's shop. She wished him to go to the back door, which he did, and met John Tubb, the lodger, who let him in. Tubb went up stairs again, and got the key of the shop, which was in a blaze when they unlocked the door; went to the back and got the child down the slates of the wash-house, carried her across to Mr. Cutcliffe's, and then gave all the alarm he could; went away for such of the firemen as he knew; did not see Jacob at all, but saw his wife getting out of the one-pair back room window, when he was taking the child away. When he came back from Cutcliffe's she was down and being led, but did not speak to him. Saw Tubb taking his wife away on his back.

Edward Cutcliffe lives in St. Ebbe's-street, exactly opposite Aaron Jacob's; was in bed, and between two and three o'clock heard a knocking at a door on the other side; got up directly and dressed, hearing it said that they thought there was a fire; made for the back of the premises, and there saw Jacob's wife, daughter, and son come out of the three-pair back window on to the roof of Price's wash-house, and helped all three get down; they all went to his house, and he then asked Jacob's wife and child if any one else was in the house, and she said "Yes. Rebecca and her husband." Knew the deceased, his wife and two daughters well, but the son had only recently come from Poland. Did not see Jacob or Rebecca at all, but did all he could to arouse them. The fire was raging from the ground floor upwards after he assisted the wife and child; saw no mode of saving anything, and went for the engines. The child told him that her sister Rebecca would not leave until she had put her frock on, and the wife said she supposed Jacob went back for his money. The Town Hall engine was first on the spot, and he helped to drag it, which was about a quarter of an hour after the alarm of fire was given; when he got back the house was a mass of flame. Believed from what the wife said that Jacob and Rebecca were in the house, and he called "Rebecca" several times; knew the house in which the deceased lived; the ground-floor was the shop, and the next pair was one large room; the second-pair front, was occupied by Tubb, and there were two rooms over these. The stairs were close to the back door. Witness has known Jacob between two and three years; he was a very steady man. The wife was ill in bed last night, and is worse to day (sic).

Edward Laney resides in St. Aldate's, was in St. Ebbe's-street between two and three o'clock; heard an alarm of fire, and on reaching Jacob's house found the front door had been broken open, and saw the fire raging, and it appeared to have been burning for some time, for it was a bright red flame; saw Cutcliffe come out of his house within a minute after reaching the spot. Both went to the back to assist in getting Jacob's family out of the window; heard the son say some words which he believed to mean his father, and made an effort to get into the house, first on the roof of the shed where they had taken the family from, and after at the back door, but could not so do in consequence of the smoke and fire; saw nothing of Jacob; noticed the top window to be in flames; saw no one else except those he assisted in getting down.

Rachel Jacob, daughter of the deceased, in her twelfth year, an interesting child, then gave her evidence very clearly, and said that on Monday last a fire was lighted by her sister in the shop at about four o'clock in the afternoon; they had been in the habit of having a fire there all winter. The family lived and had their meals in the room over the shop. Her father, mother, sister, and brother, and Mr. and Mrs. Tubb, were in the house. Her mother went to bed about a quarter before ten, and her father soon after; her brother was gone to bed before, and herself and sister went about five minutes after ten. Witness slept in a little bed by herself, and her mother and sister in the same room, which was a large room parted off, and in the other part her father and brother slept together; this was up three-pair of of (sic) stairs. Her brother had only been home three weeks, and cannot speak English. Her sister, Rebecca, took off the fire before they went to bed, and they went straight to bed from the shop. The fire was a pretty good one, and her sister put some of the coals under it and the rest on the side of the grate, but threw no water on it. There were second-hand and ready-made clothes and grocery kept in the shop: boys' and girls' and men and women's clothes on the shelves, and some hanging up, and some on the counter. There were shelves over the fireplace, and there were women's gowns tied up. Northing had been hung before the fire to dry, and she was in the shop all Monday evening after tea till she went to bed. The shop had a boarded floor, but there was a hearth-stone and fender: did not see any thing near the fire and when she went to bed more than there usually was. There was but one candle burning the in shop, which they took to bed with them; her sister locked up the shop, and put the key as usual on the table in her father's room, through which they had to pass to get to their own. Saw her father and brother in bed; her mother was also in bed; was disturbed about half-past two in the morning and heard John Tubb, the lodger, speak to her father, and say there was a light down in the he shop, and it was like a fire. Tubb had a candle with him and her father opened the room door and said there was fire in the shop; her mother got out of bed, and herself and sister did the same; all went part of the way down stairs, about four stairs, but no further account of the smoke: went back again, and her brother went to the front window, but her father called him to the back, and broke the window, and her father put her out on the slates of the kitchen, and Mr. Cutliffe (sic) caught her. The window where her father put her out was that which lighted his room where he slept. While she was on the slates she heard her father call "Rebecca," but never saw either of them again after being put out of the window. Her brother pitched out of the window on his head, and after him her mother was put out; her father put herself and mother out, and had his great coat on. Her father kept what money he had in his pocket. Heard her mother tell Mrs. Wolf that her father had 7 in his pocket that night. Her mother is very ill, and her brother has hurt himself very much. Thinks her father insured his stock. Know there were some rings in the shop, but did not know that there were any watches.

Mr. J. Taylor, a Justice of the Peace, having heard there was a fire in St. Ebbe's, went there yesterday morning about eight o'clock, and at that time search was being made for the bodies supposed to be burnt. Witness went on Mr. Price's premises, and up the staircase, and, on looking through an aperture, his attention was drawn to what appeared to be a body, which was nearly covered with slates, the roof having fallen in upon it; with a stick he touched it, and it proved to be the body of Jacob, which was lying near the window; the workmen removed it into Mr. Price's house, and it was afterwards wrapped up in sheets by the Jews. Witness saw enough to satisfy him that it was the body of Aaron Jacob, who was of the Jewish persuasion.

Joseph Liddell, Mayor's serjeant, was present when the remains of the deceased were found, as described by Mr. Taylor; assisted in receiving the corpse through the aperture in Mr. Price's house, and in putting it into two linen sheets. The body was very much mutilated and burnt; about three-parts of the head, and the trunk and thighs were all he noticed. Knew the deceased, and recognised the body from the squareness of the shoulders.

John Beechey, labourer, lives in St. Thomas's parish; was not at the fire till it was partly out, but assisted in searching for the remains of the persons supposed to be burnt in the fire at Aaron Jacobs': heard Mr. Taylor say he thought there was a human foot; got a ladder and went up to the place pointed out, and found the remains of what proved to be a body, which he put into a sheet. At the same place discovered some property, consisting of coins, which were also put into a sheet. Has seen the body since, and assisted in putting it into a coffin and bringing it to this house. The body was lying on the face, and the money, rings, &c. lay under him. The money and property were handed to Mr. Alderman Sadler and Mr. Butler. Knew the deceased and believe the remains to be those of him.

The Coroner commented on the evidence, and remarked that that of Savage, the night policeman, only went to show that he was on duty at the time of the fire, and was at his post; while that of Tubb's (the lodger) proved how many persons were in the house at the time, and that he had done all in his power to arouse them. The evidence of Randall, the watchman, satisfied them that he had performed his part and gave the alarm, and that he had also adopted the most prudent course in calling up such of the fireman as he knew lived in St. Ebbe's. The witness Cutliffe (sic) had given much information respecting the fire, and had spoken of facts, which induced him (the Coroner) to have the girl, Rachel Jacobs, called, and he trusted the Jury approved of the course he had taken, for her evidence was the most satisfactory of the whole. The evidence of Mr. Laney only went to confirm what had fallen from Mr. Cutcliffe; but that of the child was most important, and was given in a manner which entitled her, to a very great credit; she sufficiently explained that there was no culpable neglect either on the part of her father or mother, or any one else. Everything she said was most satisfactory, and must entirely remove any ideas from their minds, if such had existed, that the fire was caused by any neglect or want of proper precaution. The evidence of Mr. Justice Taylor related chiefly to the discovery of the body, and he (the Coroner) embraced the opportunity of thanking that gentleman for the kind consideration and interest he had shown in this most distressing event, for the public were much indebted to gentlemen who, like Mr. Taylor, gave their attention and services on these occasions. On reviewing the whole of the evidence he (the Coroner) did not see that they could come to any other verdict than that of "Accidental Death;" in which opinion the Jury entirely concurred and a verdict to that effect was recorded.

The Jury then proceeded to view the remains of Rebecca Jacobs, which were in a still more distressing condition than those of her father, the greater portion of the body being entirely consumed and the remaining part so disfigured as scarcely to be recognised as the remnants of a human being. The evidence in this case was the same as the last, with the additional testimony of Samuel Rouse and John Beechey, who discovered the body on the floor of the cellar, covered with an immense quantity of timber, &c. The Jury returned in this case a verdict of "Accidental Death."

The widow of the deceased Aaron Jacob entered the room, and the little property, consisting of coins, trinkets, &c. discovered near the body of her husband, was handed to her. The poor woman appeared broken-hearted, and was led out of the room by several of the Jewish persuasion, who feel very acutely the loss they have sustained in the premature death of one who, as a Rabbi or a neighbour, commanded the respect and esteem of all who knew him. The inquest lasted from three o'clock to eight, and was conducted in a manner highly creditable to the City Coroner and the respectable Jury empannelled (sic) by him. The same evening the bodies were conveyed to London, in order to be interred in the Jewish burying place.

Previous to separating, the Coroner alluded to some observations which appeared in the Times and Farmer's Gazette, respecting his absence from Oxford without appointing a deputy, and satisfactorily explained that there was no ground of complaint against him, and the Jury expressed their entire approbation of his conduct.

 

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