Heritage: The Mawney Road bakery tragedy

Mawney Road Picture: Google Maps

George Bartlett had moved his bakery business to Mawney Road in 1895. - Credit: Google Maps

It's not easy to get teenagers out of bed in the morning, and Jessie Bartlett was happy to let her two older girls lie in on Saturdays.

It wasn't a school day, and the weather in March 1898 was awful – high winds, driving snow. Anyway, she was kept busy around breakfast time in the Mawney Road bakery as her husband George produced batches of fresh loaves for early customers.

Eventually, around 10.30, Jessie found time to head upstairs to rouse thirteen-year-old Ada – known as Dolly – and her sister Florence, aged ten. Their tiny bedroom was ominously still: to Jessie's horror, her daughters were dead.

Dr Ryan, the local medic, arrived quickly. The girls had been suffocated by coke fumes from the bakehouse. Time of death: 1 and 3am. The bedroom, he said, was still "choky". Dolly had collapsed on the floor: perhaps she'd tried to get help.

Born in Devon around 1856, George Bartlett had moved to Romford to work as a pastry cook for a High Street cake shop. In the early 1890s, he started his own business in Como Street, moving to larger premises in rapidly growing Mawney Road in 1895. The Bartletts also had two younger daughters.

Viewing the girls' bodies, laid out in the bedroom where they'd died, the coroner's jury found their "peaceful expressions" deeply moving. Dolly was "an especially fine-looking girl." The formal inquest followed at the Mawney Arms.

With little doubt about the cause of death, the inquest reconstructed the girls' last hours. George mysteriously reported that, on Friday, "the children were eating snow ". Was "snow" some egg-white meringue – a delicacy prepared by their father – or were the youngsters guzzling white flakes from the sky? Perhaps the latter, for Jessie despairingly wondered whether eating snow had killed her girls.

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Jessie had put Florence and the younger sisters to bed around eight o'clock. As a treat, Dolly stayed up late to have supper with her parents. When she went to bed, around eleven, her mother checked that the other girls were safely asleep. There was a smell of burning coke throughout the house, which Jessie blamed on the wind. Both parents insisted that they'd noticed fumes indoors only once before during three years at Mawney Road.

The bakehouse fire was stoked up late at night, perhaps by Walter Wyatt, the baker's boy, who lived with the Bartletts. Coke produced a fierce but even heat, ideal for baking. The oven was at peak efficiency when George started baking around 5am. The bakehouse flue ran up the side of the house, discharging its fumes alongside the chimney pots.

Blizzard conditions hit Buxton in the Peak District

The weather in March 1898 was awful – high winds, driving snow. - Credit: PA

The key factor was the weather. Training that Friday for the Boat Race and doggedly rowing into zero visibility, the Cambridge crew were almost engulfed on the Thames. At Luton, a snowdrift blocked the railway.

Dolly and Florence slept in a bedroom barely eight feet square. Windows were obviously firmly closed. There was a fireplace, but no fire. Gusting gales and blanketing snow had driven the bakehouse fumes down the chimney, killing them both.

When George Bartlett died in 1913, he was "well known and much respected" in Romford. "Among the wreaths was a tribute from the Poor Children's Boxing Day Dinner Committee." He'd honoured the memory of his lost daughters by helping disadvantaged kids.

Urging the construction of an entirely separate bakehouse flue, the coroner's jury blamed coke gas for the tragedy. They were only half right. The acrid fumes burned off by coke contain carbon monoxide, silent, odourless and deadly. Once it gets into the human bloodstream, it blocks the oxygen that keeps us alive.

The death of the Bartlett sisters was no Victorian melodrama. Carbon monoxide still kills around sixty people annually in England and Wales. Solid fuel, gas and oil-burning appliances can all be dangerous if not properly ventilated. For starters, check the advice on havering.gov.uk.

* This is the final weekly heritage column by Prof Ged Martin, who has chosen to retire. He has written some 350 features for us since 2012 and we wish to express our gratitude and thank him for all his work in providing such an entertaining, popular and educational addition to the Recorder.