Percy’s Ramblings

The World has come a long way in such a short time. Before the Second World War every one stayed at home as there were very few places to go – Lockdown did not come into it.

The importance of the motor car has grown out of all proportion from little run arounds to the SUV’s we see today on every road.

Families used to have two bikes, a ladies and a gents, now they have two gleaming giants sitting on their drive, or in the garage, and one of them probably has very little use. It would be more economical for family finances to sell one and use taxi’s when needed.

It was in the nineteen sixties that ‘Minicabs’ as opposed to Taxi’s,  became a bye word for an easy quick and a low cost way of getting about. We were lucky to have owned such a firm in Ilford in what is now Greater London, we also had an office in Hackney running a twenty four hour service from both.

We had competitors and one of these was on the top floor of a semi derelict building in High Street, Honiton, not very far from Hackney. Harry, a lovely, friendly, down to earth guy, managed our Hackney branch and knew the people who had opened this office, and sometimes he would visit them.

It was late one night, Jean and I had gone to bed leaving Fred our Ilford Manager and one of our first employees, working on control to direct the cars.

The internal office phone beside our bed started to ring at 2.15 am. Fred was telling me that there had been a serious fire in Hackney and people were injured.

It was a relief to be told that it was this other office, not ours. Not knowing at that time, the full horror of what had taken place. We later learned that Harry and two other drivers had gone there to celebrate someone’s birthday

By the time we got there ourselves the fire was almost under control with smoke pouring from the upper floor windows where the minicab office was. It was obvious the building was gutted.

As we arrived the last of the ambulances was taking away a badly burnt corpse in a body bag.  We stood in shock, looking at this extraordinary scene, trying to keep out of the way of the fire fighters.

Water flooded the pavement, pouring from the building with  thick hose pipes lying and shuddering across the wet ground, still pumping liquid from  the four red fire engines pulled up at odd angles near to the burning building.

A horrendous sight with the orange glow of the streetlights reflecting off the wet pavement in the dark of the night with flames still writhing and trouncing around inside the building, reflected from other widows in the street, fire fighters in their face mask, helmets and orange  apparel  moving around in some form of mortality dance.

There had been eight people in the minicab office, and they had opened the windows calling for help. The fire had started from the ground floor, roaring up the stairs and through the room, killing all the inhabitants.

The Rubbish Fire By Percy Chattey

One person had tried to escape by jumping out of the window but was dead when he hit the pavement.

The police, when they knew who we were, asked us if we would identify the bodies. We followed them to a scout’s hut close by where all eight had been laid out in open body bags, but they were too badly burned to be able to recognise any of them.

It was a horrible sight something I have no desire to repeat, and we left without being of any help in their work of recognition. Harry was identified later by a ring on a finger he had recently bought.

One of the drivers should have finished his shift at midnight. His wife was phoning frequently asking where he was.

It was early morning, and light was just breaking in the East when we arrived at her house. The door opened very quickly, the lady stood there in a pink dressing gown, tousled blond hair and a look of sheer terror on her face. She felt something bad had happened and started to scream, collapsing on the floor. The noise woke the two young children who started crying from somewhere deep inside the dark property.

Other friends arrived to look after her and it was time for us to leave. We learned that her parents were on holiday in a caravan near Southend which was about thirty miles away, but there was no way she could get in touch with them. Jean and I drove to Southend to find this caravan, on a caravan park, to give the parents the bad news.

The funeral cortège was very long as there were many drivers who wanted to show their respect, and they used their cars to do so. One report said the line of cars stretched for two miles along the main road from the City of London Cemetery in Manor Park, East London.

One reason so many drivers attended was because all the newspapers had fuelled a war between the taxi and minicab owners. It had even been a taxi driver who had reported the fire in the first instance, from where it had started in the unused shop, which was full of discarded rubbish on the ground floor

Beware Rubbish and Fire!

Percy Chattey