A Fire Fatal at Milton Regis by Alan R. Anstee
In February 1915 with large numbers of troops billeted in and around Sittingbourne the potential benefits of having troops in the area was demonstrated by the effects of a fire in King Street. The following account is based on reports in the Kent Messenger (KM) of the 6th February 1915 and the East Kent Gazette (EKG) of the same date. The later as well as reporting on the fire gave a full account of the subsequent inquest, article in the EKG by implying that military regulations on showing light by ensuring that the shutters were close may have contributed to the severity of Mrs Gibb’s injuries by preventing the fire being see early enough to save Mrs Gibbs.
The information that came out at the inquest held on the following Monday February 1st tells the story in full. The fire occurred at 12 King Street on Friday 30th January 1915 where Mrs Elizabeth Jane Gibbs, a widow, lived with the three youngest of her eight children. A neighbour who saw flames “roaring up the chimney” raised the alarm, the Milton Fire Brigade was called and in the meantime Mr R. Hampton started the ball rolling by throwing the first bucket of water into the house. Sapper Alfred Ernest Tapp R.E. (T) who was billet on Mr Hampton joined in, as did Sgts Kettle and Couldrey, both R.E.s and A.B. Cook Everest of Torpedo Boat No 12. Between them they stopped the fire spreading until the Fire Brigade arrived.
As the flames died a little Mrs Gibb’s body was seen near the door and Spr Tapp, a former member of the Tunbridge Wells Fire Brigade, rescued, what was found to be, her lifeless body. At this time it was thought that Mrs Gibbs young son was in the house but fortunately he was not. The prompt action of those who helped before the arrival of the brigade may well have prevented a major catastrophe by removing from the next door property, occupied by a Mr G. Jordan, quantities of flammable material including gunpowder and paraffin.
At the inquest a variety of witnesses told their story, Spr Tapp said that he thought it took about seven minutes before he got the body out and that the most likely cause was upsetting the oil lamp. Another witness Capt Norval Harry Prentis stated that the Fire Brigade arrived at ten past seven, just as Spr Tapp was bringing the body from the house. He said the front room was ablaze but the did not believe that it was caused by coals from the fire but it was more likely that the table had knocked overturning and smashing the lamp.
Harold William Archie Gibbs, the son of Mrs Gibbs stated that he left the house about 6.30 leaving his mother well. The lamp was lit and on the table, which was a good one and although the fire was lit there was not much fire in the grate and it was protected by a guard. He went on to say that although his mother had had a fit a few days before she was well and about to read a book when he left.
The Coroner Mr C.B. Harris told the jury that he believed that Mrs Gibbs had had a fit, and in falling upset the oil lamp; and had died in the ensuing fire. The foreman of the jury Rev E.D. Bowser the Vicar of Milton stated that the jury agreed with the conclusion of the Coroner and added that perhaps they should recommend to the Local Authority that all people known to have epilepsy should be provided with lamps that could not be overturned. The Coroner replied that he thought this rather Utopian. Final Sgt Kettle of the R.E. proposed a vote of thanks to the Fire Brigade for their prompt action the whole row of houses would have been lost.
The reason the author paid so much attention to the reports both of the fire and the inquest is that he was researching the unit which built the field works in Swale. It had been know for some time that it was one of three R.E. Fortress Companies who built them but which one. In the report of the inquest it stated that Spr Tapp’s full name Alfred Ernest and the (T) after R.E. that he was a member of the Territorial Force, which the three companies were. Fortunately his army record still exists and gives his unit as 2/4th Kent (Fortress) Company R.E., one of the three known to have worked on the Kent field works, thus solving the mystery and it is hoped providing an interesting local story as a by product.