Roof Collapse on York Street in 1832

On 26 October 1832 there was a roof collapse on York Street in Westminster at about half-past eight in the morning. The roof collapse involved two houses: The first was No. 25 and occupied by Francis Jossens, a German who ran a coffee house but was supposedly a tailor by trade, and the second house was No. 26. It was occupied by a furniture broker named John Phillips. 

Today’s map indicating with the blue balloon the location of where No. 25 York Street was in 1832. Author’s collection.

Both houses were full of lodgers at the time of the roof collapse on York Street. In fact, the accident was so sudden, no one had time to escape. The Preston Chronicle reported:

“[T]he roof gave way with a tremendous crash, and carried away all the floors in both houses, and the inmates were almost in an instant buried in a pile of rubbish.”[1] 

York Street was immediately in an uproar. After the collapse, Mr. Lowry, the Superintendent of the B. division of Police, with a body of men, arrived on the spot quickly. He kept the crowd away as his men assisted in clearing away the rubbish. The parish overseer was also there and instructed some of the inhabitants to use baskets and shovels to dig out the victims, during which time the cries of the sufferers was said to be “heartrending.”

In a short time thirteen individuals were removed from the collapsed building. Six of the victims were so severely wounded and were immediately conveyed to the Westminster Hospital. Seven others were slightly wounded. There were also three dead bodies removed that were “mangled in a most dreadful manner”[2] — two sisters (age 18 and 9) and a 2-year-old female toddler.

There were also two miraculous escapes. The first was an elderly woman, who occupied one of the upper rooms. Fortunately for her, when the roof collapsed a small part of the flooring where she was standing did not give way. “A ladder was procured, and she was with great difficulty taken out of the window.”[3] The second miracle involved a poor fellow named Perry and his wife whose lodgings were in the back room on the first floor. He and his family had just sat down for breakfast when they heard a sort of rumbling noise. Perry described it “as if rats and mice were running behind the wainscot.”[4] The next instance the ceiling and floor gave way, and they were buried in rubbish. However, by some means Perry and his wife were able to maneuver themselves through an opening into the cellar.

Although Perry and his wife suffered nothing more than slight bruises, Perry’s two children could not be found. It seemed hopeless until a little after three o’clock in the afternoon a moaning noise was heard by one of the rescuers near where he was working. Focus was thus paid to that spot but reaching the children was a slow and tedious process. An hour later, “the bodies of the two children were found; the eldest, a fine little girl about eight years of age, was dead, the other, a boy about three years of age, was … alive.”[5] It appeared as if the boy’s injuries were not serious, but at the hospital, it was ascertained the child had received considerable internal injuries. Despite assiduous medical attention, he expired at half-past midnight, bringing the death toll to five (eventually the number would be six). When Perry learned that his son had died, his distress was described as “lamentable.”

Those cleaning up the scene worked hard and by six o’clock they had succeeded in clearing away most of the rubbish away. It was piled in the streets, leaving just enough room for a single carriage to pass but during the removal of the rubbish those assisting found themselves in imminent danger. The front and back walls of the houses were standing, but the back portions were in dangerous condition because of actions taken by the landlord, Jossens, the same man who occupied No. 25. Apparently, he “had, in order to obtain more room in some of the under parts of the house, cut away a portion of the piers or supporters of a stack of chimneys [which projected into the cellar].”[6] This weakened the walls. Several people advised him that he should not do it, but he refused to heed their warnings and behaved contrary to their advice. Thus, because of Jossens’ negligent actions, he was criminally charged.

Some building controls had been put in place in Britain throughout the 1700s so that by the mid-1800s, builders had to submit plans for any new buildings or alterations. However, this did not mean that landlords or builders followed the law. It also did not mean that surveyors who checked such things had any authority to insist alterations be properly done.

This became evident at trial when several persons testified that Jossens had made alterations that endangered the stability and strength of the building. For instance, his adjacent neighbor, Phillips, located at No. 26, testified that doors in his building became “very tight” and required easing. Soon after they were eased, Phillips claimed they required it again, and he also reported that he spoke to Jossens about the problem and told him that there was large crack in one of his cupboards.

A bricklayer also testified that he had a conversation with Jossens and that he wanted him to cut away part of the chimney. The bricklayer told him repeatedly it was unsafe to do so but Jossens would not listen. In fact, according to the bricklayer, Jossens told him, “Pooh, pooh, I know better than you do.”[7] The bricklayer said he refused to do the job and went away.

There were also numerous other witnesses against Jossens. Similar to Phillips and the bricklayer, they testified that they noticed the dangerous conditions in the building and warned him. They also claimed that despite their repeated attempts to get him to remedy the situation, Jossens either ignored them or refused to listen to them.

The District Surveyor who had been called to examine the party-wall and directed the sundry reparations, also testified. He argued that he had done what he could to get Jossens to fix the situation. He maintained that he was not responsible for the disaster as it was not “within the sphere of his duty to extend his examination further than the party-wall, and also that there [was] no other authority [or] power [that allowed him] to interfere.”[8]

After hearing witness testimonies, the jury went out to consider the verdict. When they returned a death-like silence reportedly engulfed the courtroom and it was reported:

“[The jury expressed their regret that the law had] not empowered some authority to superintend and control the internal alteration of buildings, in order to prevent so great a waste of human life, by the judicious and improper alterations of ignorant and unskilful [sic] persons.”[9]

Everyone then waited to hear the verdict related to the roof collapse on York Street. The only person not present was Jossens. He had mysteriously disappeared. Everyone noted that his absence was strange because he had been in the courtroom during the entire hearing and thus, when the verdict of “guilty” was pronounced, Jossens did not hear it. He also did not hear that a warrant had been issued for his committal to Newgate, the same prison were Elizabeth Fry tried to help female prisoners and the same prison where Elizabeth Ross and the infamous London Burkers were hanged.

Roof collapse on York Street - 19th-century Newgate

19th-century Newgate. Courtesy Wikipedia.

As news of the verdict spread, newspapers reported Jossens made good his escape and did not “mean to surrender himself at the sessions.”[10] Apparently, during the court case he realized that things were going bad for him and so he devised a plan to escape: He quickly disposed of his personal property and left for America. That was the last anyone heard of him and whatever became of him after his departure is unknown.

Everyone agreed the roof collapse on York Street could have been far worse. The ground floor of Jossens’ building served as a school for up to 60 young children, and if the collapse had occurred an hour later, school would have been in session. The Hereford Journal pointed out that if that happened “the sacrifice of human life … amongst the children [would have been] most dreadful to contemplate.”[11]

References:

  • [1] “Dreadful Accident,” in Preston Chronicle, 3 November 1832, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “Court and Cabinet,” in Morning Advertiser, 30 October 1832, p. 3.
  • [8] “The Late Lamentable Occurrence in York-Street, Westminster,” in Morning Chronicle, 31 October 1832, p. 3.
  • [9] Dreadful Accident in York-street, Westminster, in Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette, 3 November 1832, p 4.
  • [10] “Manslaughter,” in Staffordshire Advertiser, 8 Dec 1832, p. 3.
  • [11] “Dreadful Accident in York-street, Westminster – Several Lives Lost,” in Hereford Journal, 31 October 1832, p. 2.

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