The House in Green Man Street
Green Man Street c.1890
In the 19th century a family named Frith lived in Ewell, originally in West Street. After the death of their parents, two of the daughters, Sarah and Mary, moved to Green Man Street (now High Street). Mary died in 1877 and Sarah continued to live in the house until her own death in 1882. They had a brother called James, who was a clerk in the London Docks and lived in the London area: he had been widowed and his second wife was a woman named Emma, born in about 1821 in St Helier, Jersey. I have been unable to track her down in any census apart from 1881, but that does not matter for the purpose of this tale.
After Mary Frith died in 1882 James moved into the house in Green Man Street with Emma; he died in December 1884 and she carried on living there with a newly-engaged servant called Annie Wright.
On the evening of 18 March 1885 Emma Frith told Annie Wright that she could go to the nearby Lecture Hall, which was showing dissolving views (magic lantern slides) - this was ironic considering what Emma had in mind for her own evening's entertainment. Annie did not want to go, but Emma said that she must and gave her a shilling (5p) to pay for the admission of herself and a Miss Hawthorne, who lived two doors away.
At about 8 pm Emma herself went to the Lecture Hall, sitting apart from Annie and Miss Hawthorne, and after a while she told Annie to come out because something was wrong. They trooped along to the house with another neighbour, Mrs Lee, in tow, whereupon Emma told Annie to enter first. Annie declined, so Emma unlocked the door. The downstairs of the house was filled with smoke and smelled of burning and paraffin, the source of the problem appearing to have been a now melted paraffin lamp which was in its usual position on the table. Two young neighbours, William Barron and Benjamin Symonds, had followed the ladies from the Lecture Hall. William disposed of the smouldering tablecloth. Benjamin, holding a naked light, went to check a smoking cupboard beneath the stairs and Emma told him to put out the light, since the cupboard contained paraffin. He brought out some blazing brooms and extinguished them.
Annie Wright was baffled as to how the cupboard could have caught light under its own steam from a lamp which was still in situ, albeit dissolved, quite a few yards away and on the following day said so to her employer, who just laughed. She laughed again when Annie said that Emma did not care if people were burned in their beds and effectively told her servant that she was making a towering inferno out of a camp fire.
Once the house had been made safe, Emma announced that she wanted to go elsewhere for the night, taking Annie with her, which actually seemed a sensible idea given the perfume of burnt brooms, smoke and paraffin that pervaded the premises. Benjamin was concerned for Annie's safety and, having persuaded her not to go, arranged for Mrs Lee to stay there overnight. I must say that Benjamin's thinking was not entirely understandable. Surely, if he thought Emma Frith was dangerous, as he must have done, then adding Mrs Lee to the melting pot merely increased the number of potential victims. But he hadn't been a particularly bright spark all evening. He lived next-door to Emma Frith and it had been he who first noticed the strong smell of paraffin. He checked his own stock of the substance, decided all was well and thought no more of it. At about 8.15 pm he was stifled by smoke, so opened the doors and windows, cleared it out and again went about his business. About five minutes later the smoke was back and it was only then that he thought it might be an idea to investigate outside, went next-door and sent his sister-in-law, Mrs Lee, to fetch Mrs Frith.
The night in the barbecued house in Green Man Street passed uneventfully, but on the next afternoon the matchless Benjamin noticed smoke issuing from the back bedroom window. Top marks to him on this occasion - he went round straightaway, even having the foresight to take a can of water, and found that the canvas partition dividing the front room from the passage was ablaze. He put out the fire and told Emma that he was going to have her taken in charge. She apparently replied, 'What a fuss about a paltry fire. A thing like you give me in charge!' While this was going on, Annie Wright had remained steadfastly asleep beside the kitchen fire, having sat up all the previous night (or her condition might possibly have had something to do with alcohol, which seemed to flow fairly freely in the house - she was allowed a pint of beer for lunch, a pint for dinner and a pint for supper, plus a glass of rum). Benjamin sent for the police and Emma was taken into custody. She was charged with feloniously setting fire to a house in her possession with intent to injure and/or setting fire to goods with intent to defraud. Her case came up at the Old Bailey in April 1885.
Police Constable Henry Beling said that he had inspected the house, which smelt very strongly of paraffin, on the evening of 19 March and thought that there had been three separate fires. He had then arrested Emma Frith, who was very muddled and seemed to have been drinking heavily, and took her to Epsom Police Station, where she was charged.
Harriet Miles, a female searcher at the Police Station, testified that she had found an insurance policy in Emma Frith's pocket, which covered the household goods for £200. Emma had two bags with her but the policy was actually in her pocket. (Most people manage with only a handkerchief and perhaps some loose change in their pockets and I don't even carry an insurance policy in my handbag - how about you?)
Inspector Francis Huntley said that he had received information during the night of 18 March about the first fire. He had apparently done nothing and was then told on the 19th of the second fire. He deigned to amble round for a look at the premises on the 20th and roughly estimated the value of the furniture at £20.
In her defence Emma Frith claimed that she had not intended to burn down the house and that the three fires mentioned by PC Beling had been part of the same fire. She went on to say that the witnesses all owed her money, which was their motivation for testifying against her. She had been drinking for some time past, she said, chiefly through the inducement of Annie Wright. She was found guilty of setting fire to the goods with intent to burn the house and sentenced to twelve months' hard labour.
Green Man Street c.1910, having survived the inflammatory Emma Frith
Linda Jackson - © December 2011