The devastating fire at a Halkett Place drapery
One of the most notorious events in the history of St Helier happened in July 1866, when fire swept through three shops in Halkett Place destroying them and causing further damage to neighbouring properties.
It was not just the fire itself which makes this such a noteworthy episode, but the trial which followed in which the owner of the business where the fire started, Elias Ogier was accused of deliberately setting fire to his premises and attempting to defraud his insurance company.
Elias Ogier was born in Vale, Guernsey, in 1839, the son of farmer Pierre Ogier and Marie Priaulx. Elias, or Elizee as he was baptised, did not follow his father on to the land, but became a draper and moved to Jersey in his mid twenties, in search of better prospects, in about 1864.
To begin with he worked either for Mr Benest, at 19 Halkett Place, or Philip Nicolle, another draper at number 11 who had a Guernsey born seafaring son, John, living with him.
Elias soon met Nancy Le Touzel, whose late father had run a confectionery shop at number 27, and they were married in 1864 at St Saviour's Church by the Rev William Corbet Le Breton, Lillie Langtry's father.
Later that year Elias and Nancy started their own drapery business, Alexandra House, at 26 Halkett Place, which he rented from Philip Clement Falle, whose brother had been living there at the time of the 1861 census.
The business appeared to be doing well. Representatives from England and France came to the shop, Elias sold the latest fashions, ribbons and dried flowers, and always paid his bills on time. The only possible sign of problems was an incident of overstocking which led him to sell some goods at auction.
He arranged insurance with Provincial Fire and Life Assurance Company, gradually increasing the cover to £3,700 for the shop and £300 for furniture and fittings in the rooms above where the couple lived.
Early in the morning of July 19 1866, fire broke out in Alexandra House. Passers-by alerted the police, but numbers 23 to 26 were well alight by the time firemen arrived, the fire having been accelerated by the content’s of George Walker’s pharmacy.
The Chronique de Jersey reported events on the 20th under the headline " Incendie Desastreux". It took half an hour for the town pump to arrive and but little progress was made in fighting the fire until the arrival of a second pump from the Harbour.
The seat of the fire in the Ogiers’ shop was extinguished, but the two adjoining properties were well ablaze and further neighbouring properties were threatened. Soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment evacuated these premises, kept back the crowds of people who had gathered to watch and were then ordered to climb on to neighbouring roofs to break them down to stop the fire spreading. They succeeded in doing this without anyone being injured, although in the street below a policeman named Pirouet fell down an open manhole when he stepped backwards while watching what was going on above and injured his back.
A third pump was summoned from Fort Regent and within four hours the fire had been brought under control.
First newspaper report
The first published report was in the British Press and Jersey Times on the day of the fire. Their offices were just down the street at number 29½, which gave them an edge over their comptitors. The report read:
- "Our readers will regret to learn that St Helier's has been visited with a fire so destructive that it is estimated £12,000 will not cover the damage. Three of the principal shops in Halkett Place have been wholly destroyed, a fourth has been seriously damaged and other property is more or less injured. The three to which we refer are those of Mr Ogier, linen draper, at the corner of Waterloo Street; the one next to it - that of Mr Walker, chemist; and the shop of Mr Masters, grocer - Mr Milne's (music seller) has been completely gutted; and the premises and stock of Mr Messervy, toy merchant; and Mr Renouf, grocer, have been seriously damaged. The ruins are still burning, and a number of men are engaged in pulling down gable and other walls by order of the authorities, to prevent accidents."
Newspaper publishing at the time was highly political, so by the following day, when its rival was still catching up with the events of the fire, the Press and Times launched into an attack on the town authorities for the time it took to obtain sufficient water to put out the fire:
- "Had there, in yesterday's lamentable instance, been a high wind blowing westward along Halkett Place, it is much to be feared that, instead of four or five there might have been 40 or 50 houses and shops destroyed, with all that they contained, and with a loss of life, moreover, which it makes one shudder to imagine.
- "Yesterday's conflagration then, we say, afforded another melancholy proof of the great deficiency of means there is to check the ravages of fire. We are proud to say that there were most praiseworthy efforts made, not only by the police who were present, but by various individuals whom the alarm of fire had drawn to the spot. But what rendered it all, for so considerable a time, of such comparatively little avail was, first the utter absence of organisation, and next, and worst of all, the great want of water.”
Criticism of government
Not content with being critical of the response to the fire, the newspaper then turned its venom on every aspect of government:
- "How does it comes to pass that we are in so deplorably helpless a condition, in a place apparently so wealthy and so respectable as St Helier, as respects security against fire, there is but one answer that can honestly and truly be returned, and that is that our whole system of rule and governance is rotten, worn out, and ineffective. Our Legislature is in a state as feeble, as emasculated, as decrepit as it is well possible for such a body to exist to be. Our principal Court of Justice is a mockery, a delusion, and a snare. Our Police Establishment is a piteous specimen of wretched incapacity and indolence; in a word, we are in a state of things in which every sort of evil has full swing, and under which, neither life nor property is safe. Why, for instance, is there not an ample supply of water? Why, but the States delayed and dallied so long in passing the Bill required for the Water Company, that now it is found impracticable to raise the necessary capital, although at the time when the Bill was first applied for the whole amount was forthcoming."
Elias Ogier’s statement
A day later attention had switched to Elias Ogier, who was interviewed at the Police Station, setting rumours flying around the community. He decided to publish his own version of events in the newspaper:
- "Having heard that there is such a lot of false reports, I have thought it advisable just to explain to you as near as I can concerning the fire that took place in Halkett Place. This is how I think the shop came to catch fire: On Monday afternoon, about 2 or 3 o'clock, we had an escape of gas mended by Mr F Le Marquand's boy. The escape was by the meter under the counter near the window on Mr Walker's side. In the evening we still smelt the gas, but we did not see anything out of the way. After the shop was shut up we went on the harbour for walk, as we always did, to get a mouthful of fresh air. Before we left the shop to go on the pier we set the gas low - just left it lit a little so as to light our candle to go upstairs when we came back from the pier. We still smelt a smell of gas; and in going to turn off the motor for the night I looked to see if there really was anything wrong, but could not see anything."
- "We went to bed at half past 11 o'clock, without any fear, thinking it was only the gas-water we smelt downstairs. About 3 o'clock or so we awoke suffocated; we could scarcely breathe for the smoke. In getting up we heard someone knocking at the door calling "fire". We did not take time to look out of the window as we could see the smoke coming from down stairs. We dressed the best way we could, and I looked at the papers, bank book and receipts, money, watches and things we thought most valuable, and after saving ourselves on the leads of the house, finishing dressing ourselves at the same time. I heard someone still knocking at the door, it was a young man. I called out from the top of the house to him to run quick to the station-house for the fire engine; he said ‘yes’, and away he went, to do so.
- ”We were now dressed, and called out "fire" as loud as we could. I called out to Mr Walker to let us out by his house, and knocked with my feet as much as I could on the leads to awake him; but he did not open us his door; we were on the leads for about 10 minutes of a quarter of an hour. At last I saw Miss Singleton, Mr Walker's sister-in-law, down in the street, asked her to please let us out; so she came upstairs and opened and let us out by the back lane. We went quickly to help her as I was afraid our place would fall down on her house and kill them all. If the engine could have been brought more quickly there is no doubt the three storerooms from the top of the house, in which we kept the reserve goods, might have been saved, if there had been a good supply of water."
The Provincial Insurance Company was not satisfied with Elias Ogier’s story and sent their Mr Jarvis to the island to investigate the fire and insurance claim.
He studied the damaged stock, stock books, bank accounts; interviewed customers and suppliers, as well as Ogier on several occasions, and decided that this was a case of arson and fraud.
Ogier was sent for trial on 1 November 1866 before the Lieut-Bailiff, Durell Lerrier, because the Bailiff, Jean Hammond, had declared an interest in the proceedings because one of the destroyed houses was owned by his wife, Jeanne Penrose Le Breton.
The Royal Court report reads:
- "It is stated that on November 1 1866, Elisha Ogier and Mademoiselle Nancy Payn were accused of during the night of June 19 or 20 1866 they voluntarily and criminally set a fire in a certain house situated on the corner of Halkett Place and Waterloo Street, known as 26 Halkett Place in the Parish of St Helier which the same Ogier occupied and conducted his business from. He set the fire in the aforementioned house and environs to destroy merchandise and goods bought by the proprietor of the business, the aforementioned Ogier which, at the time of the fire was assured by the Provincial Insurance Company.
- ”In the course of the fire he also caused the destruction of the house number 25 Halkett Place, owned by Mrs Jeanne Penrose Le Breton wife of Jean Hammond, and also damaged number 24 Halkett Place, the home of Mr William Smith and a further house, number 23 owned by Mr Frank John Milne and destroyed effects and merchandise that were found in the aforementioned houses.
- ”The fire was also prejudicial to Mr Philip Clement Falle, proprietor of the aforementioned house number 26 Halkett Place, occupied by the aforementioned Elisha Ogler and to the prejudice of Jean Coutanche, solicitor, agent in this Island of the Alliance, British and Foreign Life and Fire Assurance Company which Society the aforementioned house was insured against the dangers of fire, and also to the prejudice of John Henry Hubert, agent of the Provincial Insurance Company, who also insured some of the effects and merchandises in the home of Elisha Ogler."
Ogier had paid the Provincial Insurance Company £306 2s 10d to insure his goods against the danger of fire for £3,700, plus £100 for lace and £300 for personal belongings in the house. James Jury, the company’s surveyor stated that the insured value of the goods exceeded what had been destroyed in the fire.
The British Press and Jersey Times reported the trial in full, including all evidence and legal arguments.
Ogier was represented by Advocate Westaway assisted by a solicitor, Mr Baudain. The jury consisted of John Daniel Chevalier (foreman), Thomas Pritchard, Joshua Le Clercq, Philip Le Breton, Philip Le Feuvre, Amiraux Godfray, George de Garis, A Amy, D Le Montais, Philip Touzel, P Gallichan, Charles Le Boutillier, Francis Jeune, John Remon, Matthew Le Gallais, F P Le Marquand, John Gallichan, H de Gruchy, J Le Neveu, John Coutanche, and John Laurens.
A total of 85 witnesses were summonsed and the trial proceeded to hear evidence on the charges of arson and fraud, despite defence counsel’s argument that they should be separated as criminal and civil matters.
The first witnesses were Centeniers Perrot, Le Lievre and du Jardin who had been involved in the arrest of Ogier. It transpired that Centenier du Jardin was a friend of Ogier and had witnessed him on the roof of his house before the fire started, but had gone back to bed as he was reluctant to become involved. He only admitted having witnessed the accused out on the roof when pressed by Le Lievre.
His son had woken him at 3.15 in the morning to say he thought something was wrong at Alexandra House. He, his wife and daughter saw Ogier and his wife on the roof of the house and he believed that they were both fully dressed. Unable to sleep he got up again and, looking out of the window, saw smoke issuing from the windows of the house. He stated that Ogier definitely did not call out fire until other people had appeared on the street.
Centenier Le Lievre, also resident in Halkett Place, was awoken by cries of fire just after 3.30 and stated the first time he saw Ogier was in the street doing nothing, but later he began to assist in carrying buckets of water. He stated that when he first saw the accused he was better dressed than he was himself, having just got up and was suspicious that Ogier should be so tidy in an emergency.
When he went to the scene of the disaster, Ogier's house was completely down, and that of Mr Walker partly on fire. He saw Ogier and his wife on the roof before the fire broke out. He was also asked whether he thought the Ogiers, while they were out on the roof, were making an effort to hide from the view of passers-by. He said no, he saw Ogier "peep over the parapet, although he thought that Mrs Ogier leaned backwards as if afraid of being seen".
Asked why he did not charge Ogier on the night of the fire, du Jardin said he was not obliged to bring a charge because he was not the Centenier for the week; he had no intention of having Ogier prosecuted as he was a friend.
A neighbour, George Philip Benest, was one of the first to arrive at the scene and he helped Ogier to carry buckets of water to dowse the flames.
A number of people who were out and about in Halkett Place at the time were called to give evidence. Peter Pine, the gaslighter, was on his rounds and walking down Halkett Place, smelt something burning at about a quarter to four, saw no fire, but noticed a man on the roof. He immediately crossed the road and knocked on the door of the house and received no reply.
He said there was nobody else there except another man who was rapping on the side door in Waterloo Street, also calling ‘fire’. As other people began to arrive he decided to go on to his work at the gasworks, but about 4 o'clock became worried and returned to the site to find the fire had spread.
The man knocking on the side door in Waterloo Street was identified as Clement Stark, son of Philip, who stated that he saw Ogier leave his house at the time the smoke was coming out, from the side door in Waterloo Street.
The last witness on the first day was 14-year-old Jane Marsh who was minding the children of Mr Le Sauteur in the Divan pub in Waterloo lane, which ran along the back of the houses in Halkett Place. She got up at 1 o'clock to give a drink to the children and saw a light on at the back of the Ogiers’ house. This ended the evidence of the first day.
The jury spent the night at the Pomme d'Or Hotel and the trial reconvened the following morning to hear from Mr Jury, the surveyor for the Provincial Insurance Company, who confirmed the details of the insurance.
He explained that once Ogier had put in a claim, the insurance company asked for proof of his levels of stock, and he was unable to provide them, as most of the stockbooks had been destroyed in the fire. Out of his total insurance, Ogier claimed for £3,360 13s and 6d as he was able to produce invoices for stock purchased over the last 12 months.
After being cross-examined, Mr Jury the witness turned to the jury and addressed them directly saying:
- "The company I represent has nothing to do with the prosecution, and if Ogier had made an honest claim it would have at once have discharged, but as it was much more than a suspicious case, to use a mild expression, a dishonest case, they were determined to resist it."
Advocate Westaway leapt to his feet and complained and the Lieut-Bailiff censured the witness for "travelling beyond his role".
The next witness was Mr Booth from London, who gave several lists of the goods purchased from his employers, Westhall, Bagly and Co, mercers. Advocate Westaway asked how Ogier paid for his goods and the witness stated "he paid me over the counter in cash. I come every month and every journey he paid for the goods he had on the previous journey. He never allowed his account to go over the month". He also stated he saw nothing unusual in the shop and was convinced that Ogier was trading successfully.
When the Attorney-General took over the cross examination he asked "have you ever spoken to Ogier about his sending goods to auction sales". The witness replied "I did on one occasion and that was in November 1865 I think. I taxed him with it and told him that the house would close their accounts if he carried on that sort of business. He admitted that he had sent some flannel and that in doing so had been influenced by some remarks I had made to him against young beginners overstocking themselves. I then said that if that was the case the house would overlook it. Ogier told me he was not in the habit of sending goods for sale by auction".
Several witnesses described the house immediately after the first alarm. Robert Houston, Dennis Charlotte and T W Le Sauteur all said that they saw smoke issuing from the premises and Ogier and his wife on the roof.
William Warren, the man Ogier had said had come to investigate a gas leak confirmed there was an escape but said he had made the necessary repairs to joints in the pipes.
Philip de Ste Croix had taken goods from the shop and sold them on May 11. They included children's stockings and mens' nightcaps, calicoes, flannels and silks. Ogier had received £186 12s 1d from the sale. Advocate Westaway asked the witness if the goods were brought to him in a concealed manner. He said "no, they were brought after shop hours, at nightfall. All the streets were crowded with people, there was no attempt of concealment". Asked if the goods sent for sale were remnants; "the greatest part, but there were whole pieces especially calicoes" he replied. He confirmed that drapers in Jersey sold remnants and out of date stock and that he had sold for many other respectable treader.
Gustave Chesnel saw Ogier on the roof of the house and told the person who was knocking at the side door to "desist, as the gentleman was not burnt yet". He saw Ogier come out of the lane with his wife and go to Mrs Le Touzel's on the other side of the road. He was carrying papers under his arm. There were several others who confirmed this.
Mrs Masters told the court that they were awoken by cries of ‘fire’ and evacuated the house immediately as it was beginning to catch fire. Ttheir home was destroyed by the inferno.
Other neighbours were called to give evidence as to what time they thought the fire had started, one of whom pointed out that a few days before the fire the shop windows had been whitewashed and large placards put up announcing a reduction of prices.
Frances Breadmore said she had worked for Ogier since he opened the shop two years before and had no knowledge of goods being sent out to auction. She said that a very good trade was carried on at the shop and the general business was ready money. There were four employees and just as much business had been done at the time of the fire as at any other period. She confirmed the story of the gas leakage as she had discovered it. She had often assisted in stocktaking and said she could identify the stockbooks as she recognised Iguer's writing.
The first witnesses on the third day of the trial were the various agents of the insurance companies, who stated how much money they had paid out on claims on the various other properties that had been damaged in the fire.
After Advocate Westaway's speech for the defence the jury retired for three hours , eventually returning a ‘guilty’ verdict.
After hearing pleas for clemency from his advocate, the Attorney-General told the Court that in his opinion the sentence for the crime should be deportation. However, the Royal Court did not have the power to pass this punishment without referring it to the Queen in Council. The case appears in the Orders of Council of 28 December 1866. The Council ordered Ogier to be transported out of the Island of Jersey to such places Her Majesty may hereafter be pleased to direct for the term of seven years, the term of his transportation to commence from 5 November 1866, but there is no mention of where he was sent. It is most likely to have been one of the prison colonies in Van Diemen's Land.
By 1874, you will find that all the businesses damaged by the fire were trading again, with the exception of Mr Walker, who had no insurance and was bankrupted by the damage. Other chemists rallied around and raised money for his family, but he never went back into business on his own account and eventually left the Island.
After the sentence was passed Ogier was transferred to a prison in England. Jersey and Guernsey newspapers received many letters, some claiming that he had not had a fair trial and others that he was innocent.
A Petition was organised and offered to the public of both islands to sign. It concentrated on the fact that two charges had been brought simultaneously - one for arson and the other for attempting to defraud his insurance company. It was considered that the first was a criminal action and the second civil and the charges should not have been heard together. One published letter stated: the Fire Insurance Companies were in want of a victim for a long time, and that they had got one in the person of Ogier".
Another stated that the fire may have been caused by a faulty chimney in the shop next door, the chemist George Walker. The author, who signed himself "A Jerseyman", wrote:
- "Two years ago a workman with whom I am personally acquainted was at work in Ogier's house when his attention was called to great heat which proceeded through the partition that separated Mr Walker's house from Ogier's by placing his hand against the wall which was, he found, very hot. It is well known that Mr Walker was yet so poor he could not keep up the payments on his insurance policy and could but with difficulty provide for his household. Would it be unreasonable to ask whether Mr Walker had not neglected to have his chimneys swept? A foul chimney on fire would burn with the rapidity and intensity of a furnace. The flues in both houses were only separated by a single brick, burnt on both sides. Ogier's shop had a condemned fireplace in it, which was covered with a thin lining; the bottom of the flue, filled with the residue of carpenter's chips and shavings would readily ignite if burning debris from next door should fall in it. Unfortunately for the victim this seems to have been overlooked."
Writer, historian and agitator, John Sullivan, began to investigate and eventually took up the case with the Home Office.
Ogier never left England. Newspapers of September 1869 indicate that he had been kept in Portland Prison while this new evidence was presented. His pardon was issued on 30 August 1869 after he had been locked up for nearly three years. An announcement of his impending arrival in Jersey appeared in the ‘’British Press and Jersey Times’’ of 9 September. A thank-you letter from his wife to John Sullivan was printed several days later.
The 1881 census shows Ogier living at his mother-in-law's property at 27 Halkett Place. Having taken over Nancy Le Touzel's shop, his occupation wass listed as ‘baker’. He was aged 41 and living with him were his 40-year-old wife Nancy and a four-year-old daughter Clara, as well as Nancy Le Touzel, aged 71 and listed as a retired baker; she died the following year.
The business remained advertised under Mrs Le Touzel's name until 1885, when it was taken over by a Captain Le Seelleur. An advertisement for his business appeared in the British Press and Jersey Times Almanac.
By the time of the 1891 census, Ogier was living at Landscape Grove, Mont Cochon and had taken up farming, assisted by his wife and daughter. The three of them were still living at Landscape Grove in 1901, but 62-year-old ‘Elisha’ is described as having his ‘own means’, but in 1911, their daughter having apparently left home, Elisha is again shown as a farmer, living with wife Nancy.
He died of a heart attack on 26 April 1915 and was buried at Almorah Cemetery in the same grave as his wife’s parents, Thomas Le Touzel and Nancy Payn.
- This article is based on one written by Alex Glendinning and first published in the Island Eye newspaper in 1992.