The Fiery Furnace of Melvilles
A loud bang filled the night air, followed by piercing screams, and onto the street a man and a woman ran, covered in flames, flailing wildly, trying to extinguish the fire, and free themselves from the pain, but, the flames won, exhausting them of breathe from their lungs, the will to fight, and their very lives...
Sounds like some thing from a horror novel right?
This is in fact the very scene that shook King William Street on March 1920 out the front of “Collins & Greens” restaurant, just next to the Crown and Sceptre Hotel
It was an evening just like any other in what was known locally as “Melvilles Fish Shop” and the owners and staff were in the back Kitchen cleaning poultry for the evening dinners and tomorrows meals.
Mr Leslie Collins was dressing fowls in the kitchen with his brother Norman. The brothers worked well together, Leslie plucked the feathers, and Norman singed of the stubs.
Also inside the shop was Mr Green (co-owner), Normans Wife and 3 year old boy Norman Junior, one Miss Robinson (waitress) and young Miss Joyce Beckett who had come into the city to see her Aunt Martha.
At 5:45pm, as Norman was doing his “burning off”, which entailed him using a pan full of methylated spirits and holding the bird carcass above the flame, thinking the flame had died off, he poured more methylated spirits into the pan, which exploded in a massive ball of fire. The explosion was so great that it knocked the soot in the chimney of the adjoining “Messengers Ham Shop” into the pots and pans on their stove.
Confused by the explosion and the now roaring fire, which had set alight their clothing, the occupants tried to escape the now burning kitchen, only five of them made it outside. Leslie Collins and little Norman Collins were either trapped or overcome by the smoke and flames, and perished in the fire.
Norman and Martha Collins ran through the dining room out onto the street, where a crowd who had the explosions and ensuing screams, had began to gather – as soon as the witnessed the burning people they tried their best to put out their burning clothing, whilst others rushed to the rear of the shop to see if they could help.
Matters became more dire for the Collins and Green family when it was discovered the Police Ambulance was stationed out on Port Road, and nowhere near the city. Miss Robinson’s clothing was alight, and she had slipped into unconsciousness, Norman was seriously burnt on his back and his hands and Mr Green and Joyce Beckett seemed to escape fairly unharmed, and indeed, Ms Beckett was well enough that she did not need to be transported to the hospital
Ms Robinson died at the hospital around midnight that night, and Mrs Martha Collins a few hours later. Norman Collins Snr. lasted a few more days, but he too eventually succumb to his injuries, and passed away.
Norman Collins, whilst in hospital, informed a local constable that the entire situation was his fault, he had poured the methylated spirits, thinking there was no flame, and it had caught fire and exploded – he was heard running from the burning shop at the time screaming “I did it!, I did it! - I was the cause of it!” - It is thought, the weight of the situation played a part in his death.
The explosion and fire had been so intense that it took mere minutes for it to destroy the entire buildings kitchen, and partially damage the dining room, before the fire brigade managed to control it – from the road people reported being able to see two bodies lying in the kitchen...
Many of the fireman were distraught at the sight of the bodies in the kitchen and for the young 6 month old baby of Norman and Mrs Collins, who was now orphaned and without his brother....
Next week we visit King William Street again for a story from the neighbouring shop mentioned in this story “Messengers Ham Shop”....
© 2013 Allen Tiller
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