According to Captain Shaw, the Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the sacrifice made by fireman George Lee was, quite simply, "...the greatest act of bravery ever shown by any fireman in the world."
His memorial plaque reads, "George Lee, Fireman, At A Fire In Clerkenwell Carried An Unconscious Girl To The Escape Falling Six Times And Died Of His Injuries. July 26 1876."
The Globe carried a full report on the events of the previous day in its edition of 27th July 1876:-
"At twenty minutes past eight o'clock last evening a fire was found to have broken out on the premises of Mr. C. M. Smith, hatter, 97, St. John-street, West Smithfield.
The flames spread with great rapidity, and quickly caught the adjoining house - the Horns tavern, kept by Mr. V. E. Humberstone.
Their families were soon removed, but it was believed that some of the lodgers on the second floor of Mr. Smith's house, which was let to a Mr. Francombe and his family, were in their rooms, to which all access by the stairs was cut off by the flames.
In a few minutes after the alarm had been given the fire escape arrived, but by this time the flames bursting out of the drawing-room windows rendered it almost impossible for any one to ascend.
A fireman named George Lee, however, amidst the cheers of a tremendous crowd, rushed up the ladder and succeeded in rescuing some of the inmates.
It was then stated that the wife of the lodger was still in the room, and again the fireman rushed up the ladder into the room.
The sides of the escape ladder had now caught, fire, and three of the brigade men below, alarmed for the fate of their comrade, ascended the escape.
Just as they were up, the fireman came out of the window, and, as he swayed to and fro on the top of the ladder, now fast burning, the flames at the time enveloping him, the excitement of the crowd was intense.
By a great effort he got down a couple of the rungs, but, as his weight came upon the burning part, the ladder snapped, and the four men fell to the ground.
Two of them escaped with but slight injury, but two others were seriously hurt. One was Lee, who is attached to Whitecross-street station, and the other James Pelley, belonging to the Clerkenwell station.
Both men were removed to the hospital. Pelley is badly burnt about the face and hands.
By the aid of many engines the fire was got under, but Mrs. Francombe was burned to death.
Captain Shaw reports also that Mary Kate Francombe, aged 15 years, was very severely burned, and Walter Francombe, aged 19 years, was burned on the face and hands. They were both taken to the hospital.
On inquiry at St. Bartholomew's Hospital this morning we were informed that George Lee, the injured fireman, lies in a precarious state from the effects both of burns and fractures.
J. W. Pelley, the other fireman, is severely burned, but not so much as to cause any apprehension as to his recovery.
The lad Francombe, who was supposed to be in a critical condition last night, is better this morning."
Sadly, George Lee never recovered from the injuries he sustained at the fire and he died in St Bartholomew's Hospital on Monday 7th August 1876, revealing a heart-rending personal twist to the story:-
The Reading Mercury reported his death on Saturday 12th August 1876:-
"George Lee, the fireman, who was frightfully burned while rescuing the inmates of a house in Clerkenwell on the 26th of last month, died on Monday in great suffering at St. Bartholomew's Hospital.
He was only 22, and was about to be married."
The inquest into the death of George Lee was held at St. Bartholomew's Hospital on Wednesday 9th August 1876; and the proceeding were reported in Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper on Sunday 13th August 1876 under the above headline:-
"An inquest was held on Wednesday at St. Bartholomew's hospital on the body of Geo. Lee, a fire-escape man, who died on Monday from injuries sustained whilst endeavouring to rescue several persons from a fire in St. John-street, Clerkenwell.
Captain Shaw said deceased, when at the hospital, made the following statement:-
"When I got into the room it was full of smoke, and I saw a girl on the floor and crept to her, and, taking her in my arms, tried to make for the window. The heat overpowered me, and I fell. I picked her up again, and again fell some five or six times. After the last fall I threw her over my shoulder and managed to grasp the window. I never lost my hold of her from first to last. I managed to put her into the shoot of the escape and threw myself on the ladder. She stuck, and I did my best to get her loose, but the flames were playing all round us."
In answer to the Coroner, Captain Shaw said the deceased had previously saved life at a fire.
After a very long experience, he believed this was the greatest act of bravery ever shown by any fireman in the world.
The evidence of the house surgeon went to show that the deceased was much burned, and that the cause of death was lock-jaw caused by the injuries.
The Coroner said he felt sure that the jury would unanimously agree with Captain Shaw. It was another instance of a pure and unhesitating self-sacrifice at the call of duty.
The jury, cordially endorsing the remarks of the learned coroner, returned a verdict of "Accidental death," and handed their fees to the sister of deceased."
In the same edition, Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper also carried a report on George Lee's funeral, which had taken place on Thursday 8th August 1876:-
"The remains of George Lee, the fire-escape man, who died on Monday from injuries sustained whilst endeavouring to save the lives of persons during the fatal fire in Clerkenwell, were interred on Thursday afternoon in Abney park cemetery.
In consequence of the bravery displayed by him on that occasion, the route through which the cortege passed was crowded by spectators.
The funeral procession included a detachment of police; 12 firemen, four deep; the G division band; fire-engine (drawn by four horses), on which was laid the coffin, draped with a Union Jack, over which was placed the helmet, hatchet, boots and uniform of the deceased, followed by six firemen as pall-bearers; mourning coach, containing the relatives of the deceased; Captain Shaw, chief officer of the Metropolitan Fire brigade; two superintendents; about 150 firemen, four deep; seven fire-engines; Dr. Franklin; volunteer firemen of the auxiliary brigade; 200 men of the G division of police, in charge of Mr. Chief Inspector Harnett, and Inspectors Peed, Dunn, and Oliver; and three engines of the Volunteer Fire brigade.
The band played the "Dead March" as the procession passed along the Barbican, Long-lane, through the central avenue of Smithfield market, up St. John-street, past the scene of the fire, Wilderness-row, Old-street, Kingsland-road, and along High-street, Stoke Newington, to the cemetery.
Along the route, more especially in the parishes of St. Luke and Clerkenwell, the shops were partly closed as a token of respect to the deceased."
On 14th August 1876 The Swindon Advertiser, in reporting on the deaths of both Fireman Lee and the girl he had died trying to save opined, in sentiments that almost foresaw the Watts Memorial:-
"...Surely, such bravery is as much worthy of reward as when displayed on the field of battle, and in the case of death, the nearest relatives of the deceased should have some token of the public appreciation of such heroism."