On September 14th 1888 there was a fire at 91 High Street, Portsmouth, the premises of Messrs Hill and Co. cooks and confectioners. There was only one fatality, Miss Mary Palmer, aged 52 years, who died from the inhalation of smoke. Mary's death was reported by the Hampshire Telegraph on 22nd September 1888 which recorded the Coroners investigation in great detail but the incident would probably have been quickly forgotten were it not for a legacy left high on a column in the centre of St. Thomas's Church, later Portsmouth Cathedral, where a memorial to Mary Palmer survives to this day.
The inscription on the memorial plaque reads:-
TO THE MEMORY OF
WHO LOST HER LIFE AT A FIRE
AT HILL'S, HIGH STREET, PORTSMOUTH
ON THE 14TH SEPTEMBER 1888
This tablet is erected by
some Naval Officers as a
mark of esteem and respect
The fact that some Naval Officers should take it upon themselves to pay for the erection of such a plaque might lead one to presume that Mary Palmer had been renowned for the favours she bestowed upon those officers, but the truth is simpler - Mary was an exceptionally good cook, one whose demise was deeply regretted by the connoiseurs of culinary delight.
Mary was born on February 27th, 1831 in Weymouth, Dorset and christened on 19 June 1831. Her parents were Joseph and Mary Palmer (nee Wood). Her name first appears in the Portsmouth records in the 1861 census, when as a 24 year old she was already working as an assistant to the proprietor of 91 High Street, Mr. Henry Ryan, cook and confectioner. She continues to appear in subsequent census records at the same address until 1881 when she is again recorded as being a "Confectioner's Assistant" to Mr Henry Ryan, Confectioner, who was living with his wife Fanny (nee Hill, after whom the shop was probably named), 2 daughters of 17 and 19 years and two servants. By the time of the fire the managership of the shop, which by then encompassed both Nos. 91 and 92 High Street had passed to George Osborne Wells and Mary was identified as "Manageress". The shop was either known as Hill's or Fanny Hill's and by 1888 it had attained a reputation for excellence, but it had not always been so described, for in 1866 Sir Frederick Madden had eaten there and written that "The mock turtle soup was sour, and the cold beef tough; the Bath buns uneatable!" Plainly, by 1888 the fare had improved and that, if the "esteem and respect" accorded to her on the plaque is to be believed, must have been attributable to Mary.
In it's report of the inquest the Hampshire Telegraph first noted the testimony of Henry Leverett, "a licensed victualler keeping the Union Tavern, Broad Street" who identified the body of the deceased as that of his sister-in-law Mary Palmer. The only witness to the start of the fire was Annie Elizabeth Primmer, an assistant to Mr Wells who also lived at 91 High Street. She said that she had been reading a newspaper in the dining room over the shop when at about 10 minutes to eleven the oil lamp above the table exploded sending burning oil across the table and floor. She alerted Mr. Wells who went to the dining room to find it in flames. They both descended to the ground floor.
A second shop assistant, Amelia Bellchamber, had been near the dining room when the fire erupted and had immediately rung a bell in the hall to alert Miss Palmer, whose room was at the top of the house, and then proceeded to the street. When she realised Miss Palmer had not come down she tried to mount the stairs looking for her but was beaten back by the flames. A young man then took up the task and reappeared after a few minutes saying he had searched every room but had been unable to find her. The people in the street took this to mean that Miss Palmer had already escaped from the building, an impression that was compounded when Mrs. Leverett, the deceased's sister was mistakenly identified as Miss Palmer. Shortly a constable arrived and ascertained that Miss Palmer was in fact still missing and took it upon himself to enter the building where, after a few minutes he found the body.
Mr. F. Morley, surgeon, said that he examined the body and came to the conclusion that death had been caused by suffocation from foul smoke. The Hampshire Telegraph article ended with a report of Mary's funeral on 19th September in the following terms:-
The last chapter in the latest Portsmouth tragedy, was that which was enacted on Wednesday, when, amid, every token of deepest sympathy and respect the remains of the late Miss Mary Palmer, the unfortunate victim in last friday night's fire were interred in Highland Road cemetery; there was perhaps no inhabitant of Portsmouth, better known or more esteemed than Miss Palmer, and consequently as the hour for the cortege to leave Broad Street for the burial ground drew near, quite a large crowd and friends congregated, and by the time a start was made the thoroughfare of that part of Broad Street where the Floating bridge Company entrance is situated was occupied by quite 300 people. It was 1.35pm, before the undertakers men merged from the house and carefully laid their burden in the Washington Car that was waiting, and as the short distance from the doorway to the curb was transfered, the men reverently bared their heads and many of the women were unable to restrain a sob. The coffin was one of handsome design in polished oak with brass furniture but very little of it could be seen so numerous were the large and handsome wreathes that were placed there, and not only by relatives but a very large circle of friends including the messmen and stewards of the ships in Portsmouth harbour and the Wardroom Officers of HMS Vernon.
After the hearse came 6 carriages most of the gentlemen of the jury at the inquest were also present and so many tradespeople of Portsmouth including Charpentier. All along the line of the route which lay past the scene of the conflagation in the High Street and through King's Road, were spectators and at the cemetery the crowd was so large that the police had some little difficulty in keeping the approaches to the Mortuary chapel and graveside sufficiently clear.
The service was conducted by the Reverend E P Grant, Vicar of Portsmouth and the body was interred in the northern portion of the consecrated side of the cemetery. Mr Harris of Queen Street was the undertaker.
According to the Cemetery Manager, Mr. Long, who was responding to a query in 1996, Mary Palmer was buried in the same grave as a Richard J. Palmer but was later exhumed and re-interred in 2nd Central Plot Row 12B Grave no. 6. Sadly, despite the esteem Mary Palmer had garnered in life, her grave was allowed to deteriorate over the ensuing years until by 2005 it could no longer be identified. By great good fortune the remaining pieces were discovered under a layer of grass and weeds, but to date no effort has been made to restore the grave.
Photographs of the plaque and grave can be found on the Memorials in Portsmouth website.
with additional information from Jennie Stringer.