Let me tell you about the events that took place on Wednesday the 24th of May in 1939.
At that time the occupant of number 57 Hurst Street, next door to the corner shop, was selling books and newspapers. The owner of the business was John Edward Hunt. Three years earlier, he’d taken over the business that had been started there in 1915 by a Hetty Jaggs.
John’s mother Marie Josephine, aged 59, and his sister Hilda, 18, lived above the shop with the first floor room being used as their living room. The top floor room, or attic, was used as their bedroom. John did not live on the premises; his sister and mother ran the business.
Later events made it clear that the two women would habitually change into their nightclothes in the living room, which would have been kept warm by a gas fire before making their way up to bed.
One day in May 1939 the pair went up to bed as usual and they were woken in the morning by shouting in the street. At about 6.30am, workmen walking along Hurst Street saw smoke pouring from the first floor window above the shop, and then the two women appeared at the top floor window, shouting for help.
“There were not many people about at that time,” Mr A Read, a motor driver, of 12/65, Dymoke Street, told a reporter from the Evening Dispatch, “but within a few minutes about 20 of us were trying to rescue the women. Someone kicked open the door of the shop and tried to get up the stairs. But the room above the shop was a mass of flames, and it was impossible to get through. We got a ladder, but found it was too short to reach the upper window, so several of us raised it and held it firm while the young woman, who was in her pyjamas, climbed down. The mother tried to get out of the window, but it seemed to be too much of an effort for her. She went back into the room.”
A report in the Birmingham Mail said that “Mrs Hunt was a big woman weighing 15 or 16 stone, and it seems that she would not be able to get through the attic window without smashing it. The fire, had evidently spread up the attic staircase, cutting off escape except through the window. Medical evidence was that Mrs Hunt had burns involving her whole body.”
Mr Read went on to say “A man in overalls, who tried to climb the ladder and get into the bedroom, fell and was knocked out. At that moment a bus came along, and we suggested that the driver should put it on the pavement, so that we could take the ladder from the top deck into the window. One man ran up the stairs and opened the window on the top deck, but then the Fire Brigade arrived, and the bus was moved so that the firemen could get to work. The firemen beat a way through the flames and smoke and brought out Mrs Hunt, who was taken to the General Hospital in an ambulance.”
The first-floor room was almost destroyed. Fire appears to have broken out in this room, isolating the women in the attic above, to which the only access was by a narrow winding stairway.
A neighbour, Mrs W H Read, who occupies a similar shop premises two doors away, said that she and her husband were aroused by the shouting of the crowd collecting in the street below. “There is a motor coach station close by, and at first we thought that the noise came from parties starting for the Derby. Then we heard them shouting ‘Back the bus’ and when we looked out we saw a bus being backed against the wall of Mrs Hunt’s place. Smoke started to come into our bedroom, and we realised what was happening. When we went outside we saw Mrs Bailey, a niece of Mrs Hunt, in the crowd. She was shouting ‘My aunt’s inside that burning room – get her out!’”
Property at the rear, adjoining the shop and giving access to a yard, was threatened, and occupiers were warned of their danger. Mr and Mrs Sam Joseph were in bed when one of the rescuers burst the lock of their door and ran upstairs, shouting, ‘Get up, get up – there’s a fire’. “We were very scared,” said Mr Joseph. “When we got up there was smoke in our bedroom, and afterwards water started coming through the dividing wall and running down the stairs.”
District Officer Percy West, of the Birmingham Fire Brigade, said “It was impossible to get up the bedroom stairs owing to heat and a bicycle obstructing the landing. Eventually the old lady was found on the bed.” The fire, he believed, originated in the living room. He came to the conclusion that something had been smouldering in the armchair in the living room. “It is a tragic thing,” he agreed with the Coroner, “that untrained people open doors and windows and thus make a flue for the fire. Had the bedroom door been closed after it was opened and kept closed, there would have been quite a possibility of saving Mrs Hunt.”
The alarm was received at the Central Fire Station at 6.37, and two minutes later five machines had turned out from headquarters, Moseley Road, Albion Street, and Bordesley Green. They returned soon after 7.15.
The loss of his mother in such circumstances would make you think that John Hunt would close his business, but he continued to run his newsagents shop throughout the Second World War until 1945 when it was taken over by Mannie Gorfunkle – but more about Mannie elsewhere.
Many years later, in the 1980s & 90s, this shop was used by one of the many tailors that were located in the area. In this case it was George Saunders (more about Mr Saunders elsewhere). George had a very successful business and he must have chosen to use the top floor of No 57 as a fitting room. George set the room up so that his customers could be seen in their new suits as the work progressed. Being at the top of the building there was more daylight to be had through the small sash window than at street level.
George had attached mirrors to the walls, but he discovered that each time he fitted a mirror it would, within a few days, crack.
Many don’t believe in ghosts, but does it not make you wonder if Marie Hunt had anything to do with this unusual phenomenon?
Information about this tale and the photographs are taken from contemporary newspaper articles in the Evening Dispatch, the Birmingham Gazette and the Birmingham Mail.