The death of London fireman Joseph Ford met with universal sorrow, coupled with a huge outpouring of admiration for the act of bravery which resulted in his untimely death
His plaque in Postman's Park is inscribed:- "Joseph Andrew Ford, Aged 30, Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Saved Six Persons From Fire In Gray's Inn Road, But In His Last Heroic Act He Was Scorched To Death, October 7, 1871."
"A fireman named James Ford died in the Royal Free Hospital, on Saturday night, from injuries which he received at a fire which occurred in Gray's-inn-lane that morning.
He lost his life in the gallant discharge of duty, and, but for him, the lives of six persons would probably have been sacrificed.
Having previously risked it in saving five of them, he made a still more desperate attempt to rescue a sixth, in which he succeeded, but in that heroic act he fell a victim to his own courage.
He has left a widow and two children..."
Commander Shaw, the Chief Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Board, duly compiled a report on the tragedy, and this was published in the Evening Standard on 14th October 1871:-
"Ford was on duty with the fire escape, no 22,stationed in Bedford-row.
He was called to the fire at a few minutes before two and proceeded with the utmost possible speed.
Before he reached the fire three persons had been rescued by the police, who took them down from the second floor window on a builder's ladder, and on his arrival there were six persons in the third-floor.
He pitched his escape to the left-hand window, and with great difficulty and much exertion and skill succeeded in getting the five persons out safely, the woman in the right-hand window being in the meanwhile rescued by the next escape, and he was in the act of coming down himself when he became enveloped in flame and smoke , which burst from the first-floor window, and, after some struggling in the wire netting, he fell to the pavement.
I have carefully investigated all the circumstances, and I am of the opinion that Ford must have become entangled in some of the netting or other gear aloft, and had to break his way through it in order to clear himself, and that while struggling he got so severely burned that his recovery became hopeless.
It was a work of no ordinary skill and difficulty to save so many persons in the few moments available for the purpose, and when it is mentioned that some of them were very old and crippled, it is no exaggeration to say that it would be impossible to praise too highly Ford's conduct on this occasion, which has resulted so disastrously to himself.
He leaves his wife and two children - one a daughter aged two years, and the other four months.
Ford was a respectable and trustworthy man, and in all respects and excellent servant to the board."
There was a great deal of discissuion at the subseuent inquest into Joseph Ford's death as whether the escape shoot, the wire meshing of which Ford had become entangled in as he made his way down from the burning building, was faulty.
There was also considerable press coverage as to whether or not his widow and children would be left homeless and penniless by his death.
Both issues were mentioned in an article that appeared in The Graphic on the 14th of October 1871:-
"We are glad to see that the act of bravery by which the fireman Ford lost his life is not to go unrecognised, but that a subscription is being raised for his widow and children.
He was engaged in rescuing some people from a burning house in Gray's Inn Lane, had, indeed, already saved five, when, as he was about to pass a woman down the escape, the flames shot out from one of the lower windows and set the canvas shoot on fire.
The woman fell but was not hurt.
Ford got jammed in the wire-work of the escape, where he was exposed to the flames.
He struggled desperately in his agony, broke loose and fell upon his head, crushing his helmet, and so severely injured himself that he died soon afterwards.
It was a brave deed and we hope the proposed subscription will be a good one, but while honouring the dead let us not forget the living.
Police Constable Carter appears to have ably seconded him, and only saved himself by sliding down the lever ropes, cutting his hands to the bone in so doing.
The question has been raised once again whether the canvas shoot cannot be made uninflammable, but Captain Shaw stated at the inquest that this was impracticable. A solution of alum had been tried, which however lost its power on exposure to rain. He states, however, that experiments are still being made, and we cannot but think that our chemists might devise something for the purpose..."
The aforementioned Police Constable Carter gave a moving account of Joseph Ford's final moments at the inquest into the fireman's death.
The Daily News reported his testimony on 19th October 1871:-
" George Carter, a police constable, deposed that he saw deceased bring down an old woman named Cook.
He went up again and sent down two other women.
He saw the fire break out in Ford's escape.
Ford made an attempt to get down the shoot, but he was kept there 10 to 15 seconds.
Ford tried to get down, but his feet got entangled in the wire and he was swinging from the ladder, or hanging from it, with his back to the flames.
He afterwards fell right through the wire work, head foremost, a distance of some 20 or 25 feet..."
The Inquest into the death of Fireman Ford ended on Wedensday 18th October 1871.
The Illustrated London News carried a report on the findings and recommendations of the jury, together with a report on the renumeration that his widwo was to receive, in its edition of the following Saturday:, 21st October 1871:-
"The Coroner's inquest was brought to a close on Wednesday, when the jury returned a verdict of "Accidental death," but appended the remark that if the fire-escape had been covered with gauze wire instead of netting, and had the canvas been rendered un-inflammable, the fireman's life might have been saved.
At a meeting of the Metropolitan Board of Works, yesterday week, the case of the fireman Ford was before them.
The board put on record a warm eulogium of his heroic conduct, and agreed to allow his widow £1 a week for the next six months, after which they would determine what further provision should be made for her..."
Meanwhile the funeral of the deceased fireman had taken place on Saturday the 14th of October 1871.
His coffin, draped in a Union Jack, rather than a pall, was transported to Abbney Park Cemetery on one of the brigade's fire-engines, which was pulled by four chesnut horses.
According to The Illustrated Police News:-
"...On the coffin were placed the half-burnt tatters of clothing the torn and smoke-begrimed coat being marked with the meshes of the fatal net-work; the badge, with the name of the dead fireman branded on the handle; and the brass helmet, bruised and batterred, and having one long, deep fearful indentation along the side on which the wearer fell headlong. The crushing force of the concussion was terribly apparant in the beating-in of the strong headgear; and it was but too apparent that the metal must have been driven with great violence on the skull.."
There can be no doubt that Joseph Andrew Ford was a brave man who lost his life in carrying out his duty.
On the 28th October 1871, The Graphic opted to treat its readers to a narrative poem, which had been written in honor of Fireman Ford by Arthur Locker.
Although the poem itself was distinctly melodramtic, the sentiments expressed were well-meant; and they, no doubt struck a chord with the paper's Victorian readership.
Recalling the events of that dreadful night, one of the final three verses read:-
My fireman comes with his quaint machine,
A burning house is a nightly scene
To him, so he's not perplex'd;
He climbs for the bees of this smoking hive,
He clutches them - one, two, three, four, five!
He has saved all these unhurt and alive!
And now he mounts for the next.
Horror! An envious tongue of fire
Darts, like a snake, through the netted wire,
The canvas is all aflame!
He falls! He falls! Is there none to save?
Ah! cruel, to think one so brave
Who snatched five souls from a fiery grave
Should perish by the same!
Not really cruel. If Providence,
In place of our dull earthly sense,
More godlike eyes had given;
Like Jacob's ladder, years ago,
Perchance that fire-escape would glow
With angels passing to and fro
To point the way to Heaven."