A survivor's tale - 1889 Forest Gate Industrial School Fire

Monday, 1 January 2018

It is always a great delight to get feedback on articles that appear on this website - particularly from families of people whose stories are affected. It is even more so, when the responses move the story on a little and add further detail to it.

What follows below is an account by one of the great-grandchildren of a resident of the Industrial School on Forest Lane, who was a hero on the night of the tragic fire that killed the 26 boys on the night of New Year's Eve, 1889.

We have written of that fire before, see here, here and here.

The Industrial school ablaze, New Year's eve 1889
Reader, Peter Norton, contacted this website, and said:

Below is an excerpt from a short essay I wrote about my great-grandfather, for my great grandmother, who mourned his death from 1918, until she died in the mid 1960's.
"Charles George Hipkins was born in 1877 in Poplar, to Joseph Hipkins and Sarah Creamer. Joseph was born in the Midlands and by the time Charles was born, he was a boiler maker in London.
Unfortunately, he died when Charles was 10 and the family fell apart, with no money and ended up in workhouses and schools for the poor.
At the age of 12 Charles Hipkins was a boarder at the Forest Gate District School, – the parish charity school for the poor of the Whitechapel and Poplar Union.  He was there when a fire burnt the building down on the night of the 31 Dec 1889.

Fire in the dormitory - source
Illustrated London News
 According to the Illustrated London News 26 boys aged between 7 and 12 died and 58 were rescued from 2 locked dormitories.  There were 636 children in the school that night. 
Memorial to the 26 fire victims,
West Ham cemetery
Charles was awarded a Silver Medal from The Royal Society for the Saving of Life from Fire and was given 5 guineas.  Only 4 others got this highest award for that incident and they were all adult workers at the school.  Already Charles was proving his bravery! 
The silver medal Charles was awarded
for his bravery on the night of the fire
The fire in Forest Gate lead to the government taking urgent action.
It issued a binding circular to all Boards of Guardians urging the importance of leaving dormitory doors unlocked at night, conducting fire drills and establishing voluntary workhouse fire brigades, maintaining telephonic communications with fire stations wherever possible and providing fire escapes.
A second illustration of destruction in the
dormitories - from the Illustrated London News
By the 1891 census Charles Hipkins was a Houseboy at ‘The Brigade Institution’,  147-153 Ebury Street, St Georges Square – another charity school. 
He worked as a coachman and aged 17 he joined the Army Service Corps working as a driver in the 5th Battalion East Surrey ‘Queens’ Regiment.    He married Edith Croxson in 1899 in West Ham. How they met, as she was from  Kirton in Suffolk, I do not know.  
They then lived in South Wimbledon and had a son Charles William George Hipkins, in 1900. Just one month before his son was born Charles senior went to South Africa with his Regiment for two years for the 2nd Boer War (where was awarded the South African campaign medal).  When he returned Charles and Edith had their second and final child Edith Hipkins (ed: author, Paul Norton's grandmother) in 1903.  
Charles was working as a house painter when the Great War started and voluntarily re-enlisted ‘for the duration of the war’ on the 29 September 1915.  The attached photo shows him in the East Surrey’s uniform proudly showing his Forest Gate and South African Medals.  On the back of the photo, he wrote ‘ for mum’.

Charles, proudly wearing the medal,
twenty five years later, when he
re-enlisted into the army, to fight in WW1
I  (ed: Paul Norton) have also researched the others who won awards that night but still cannot find out exactly what Charles did. He was certainly the only boy to be awarded the highest award - the silver medal.
The London papers listed all the awardees, they, their status and award are listed, below.

Distraught parents at the inquest into the
Industrial School fire-deaths - source: The Graphic
The lists shows: Name of recipient (details about the person) - nature of award:
 Charles Hipkins (12 year old pupil) - Silver Medal
 Thomas Jones Oakley (Neighbour to school, who helped in the rescue) - Silver Medal
 Henry Elliot (Yardman* , staff) - Silver Medal
 George Hare (Assistant yardman*, staff, aged 22) - Silver Medal
 Charles Duncan (Superintendant of school) - Illuminated Testimonial
 Miss Maria Julia Bloomfield (Wardrobe woman) - Illuminated Testimonial
 Herbert John Roe (Staff?) - Illuminated Testimonial
 Miss Laura Terry (Head sewing mistress) - Certificate
 Mrs Eliza Roe (Staff ?) - Certificate
John Malcolm (Neighbour to school, who helped in the rescue) - Certificate
 Walter Edmond Crisp (Unknown) - Certificate
Frederick William Roe (Staff ?) - Certificate
John Blagdon (Police constable) - Certificate

* N.B., Yardsmen slept in the dormitories, with the boys." We would like to thank Peter for his contribution, and as ever, would be delighted to hear from other descendants of survivors who could provide further details to the tragic story of the fire and its aftermath for the individuals concerned.

We would be delighted to hear other stories of survivors from the fire that night, or indeed any details of any residents of the Industrial School.

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