Recently, a postcard with the title ‘Funeral of Fireman Wale, March 30th . 1906.’ came into my possession and I immediately set about finding the story behind the elaborate event.
Fire Constable Arthur Wale lost his life aged 46 in the Derham Boot Factory fire of 1906. In fighting the blaze, one other firefighter (Sergeant Charles James Harrison) was seriously injured by falling masonry (‘a front wall fell out’), but Wale was the only one to lose his life, crushed to death, leaving behind a wife and eight children.
Born in 1860 in Norwich, Norfolk, he grew up in nearby Thorpe where he enjoyed a relatively long time in school, considering his age and economic background. Recorded as still attending school at 11, by 21 he was a Fire Constable, living above Bridewell Police Station with other unmarried officers.
His wife Rachel Harris worked at a nearby butcher’s shop as a servant and the two married in 1855, wasting little time, they are recorded as having four children in six years. Now living in Bedminster, Bristol, Arthur was promoted to the role of Assistant Engineer with his wife taking up the role of Police Station Caretaker.
In 1892, the family endured the tragic loss of their daughter Rosina May at the age of 14 months. However, by 1893, the couple and their surviving eight children were living in Silver Street, Bristol. By this point, Arthur was a Police Fireman and two of his sons were in employment, as a hairdresser’s assistant and a Post Office errand boy.
According to research conducted by a Mr Paul Townsend, the 1901 census records Arthur Wale as living at 5 Silver Street, St Augustine with his wife and eight children.
Additionally, Wale’s wife was pregnant when he lost his life, as on the 1911 census, a four-year-old daughter, Beatrice-May, was recorded as living with the family.
Derham Boot Factory was established between 1830-40 and was one of the forerunners of mass-produced footwear. Dealing in wholesale, manufacturing and exports, Derham’s premises were found in several locations including Nelson Street and All Saints Street in Bristol and Hackney Road, London.
In the early hours of 27thMarch, 1906, a blaze broke out at Derham’s Boot Factory in Bristol city centre. The cause of this blaze does not seem to have been established, but reports from the time state that there was a particularly strong wind at the time.
The Western Daily Press recorded that it was ‘a fire that no water could touch’.
These weather conditions fanned the flames to such an extent that the fire consumed the building and threatened to tear through the surrounding cottages in no time at all.
As a precaution, Bristol police evacuated the area and temporarily moved all surrounding inhabitants to the Central Police Station. This proved to be doubly difficult as the fire occurred during a localised measles epidemic, meaning that local authorities attempted to evacuate and isolate the affected individuals simultaneously.
Despite the attendance of ’29 firemen, 6 river police, 3 steamers, 1 chemical engine, 2 escapes, 5000ft of hose… (with) Brigade in attendance (for) 84 hours’, the fire at St James Street could not be contained and Derham’s building was razed to the ground in the blaze.
Arthur Wale’s funeral was conducted three days later. Carried on the back of a horse drawn fire tender, his coffin was draped in a union jack and covered with elaborate floral wreaths. Wale’s final journey began at Bedminster Police Station and paused at St Mary Redcliffe church for his service. As his funeral cortege moved through the streets to the cemetery, it was flanked by crowds and, walking alongside the coffin, were fireman and policeman, accompanying him to his final resting place.
Wale’s body was interred at St Mary Redcliffe Cemetery, which sits opposite the gates of Arnos Vale Cemetery in Brislington.
After becoming a widow at 43, Rachel Wale never remarried and lived with her children in Bedminster until her death aged 66 on August 25th1929. She joined Arthur and Rosina May in the family plot, where her children added the inscription ‘a devoted mother.’
Since 2006, St Mary Redcliffe has been closed for burials and to the public, sitting in the care of Bristol City Council. As with so many disused cemeteries, it is through the (often dismissed) grit and dedication of volunteers that the cemetery is maintained with new gates and restored stones.
Today, Arthur’s plot is clearly visible in the far left corner with a bright white headstone that still glints in the sunlight. This restoration is entirely thanks to the cemetery volunteers, as the stone was previously damaged, toppled and hidden from view.
Although the upkeep of disused cemeteries would never be a priority for the council, I can only hope that the gates will reopen once again and more people will be able to explore and discover the stories hidden inside.
Western Daily Press via www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Avon Fire and Rescue Pensioners Association -https://afrspensioners.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/arthur-wale-1860-1906.pdf
Paul Townsend of ‘Bygone Bristol’ on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/groups/bygonebristol
Contemporary images of St Mary Redcliffe Cemetery courtesy of Daniel Flew