Inspector John COMMELIN

Inscription, Police monument Toxteth Park cemetery
Liverpool Mercury, July 29th 1861


Yesterday afternoon one of the most disastrous fires which have occurred in Liverpool or the neighbourhood for several years, and, we regret to add, accompanied with loss of life, took place at the premises of Messers GARNOCK, BIBBY, and Co, Wavertree Rd. The scene of the conflagration is a large building in Wavertree Rd at the corner of Bishopgate St, extending backwards along the latter street upwards of 100yds. The business carried on is that of hemp and wire rope making by machinery, and the manufactory is one of the largest in the kingdom. With the building in Wavertree Rd is connected a shed which extends a considerable distance to the rear of the main building. Shortly after 3 smoke was observed to issue from a room in the centre of the building. The room contained a portion of the machinery used in rope making, the alarm was immediately given, but before assistance could be obtained the fire had progressed rapidly. The reels and line from Wavertree were immediately brought out, but, little could be done due to a deficiency of water. Shortly afterwards the reels from Prescot St and Olive St stations and an engine from Hatton Gardens, besides that of the West of England arrived on the ground. The county police were first in attendance, under the direction of Inspectors, MATHER and HENDERSON, subsequently Inspectors KELSEY and COMMELIN of the Liverpool force arrived and conjointly with the other officials and members of the fire brigade made every available effort to prevent the extension of the conflagration.

Little could be done towards checking the ravages of the fire, the building contained a quantity of, hemp, rope, tar and other materials of a combustible character, calculated to facilitate the progress of the devastating element. Shortly after the fire was discovered attempts were made to cut off communication with the main building and the shed at the back, this object being effected, but, with much difficulty by the police and several active civilians, the spread of the flames in that direction was stayed. In about an hour and a half the flames, which may have said to have raged unchecked consequent on the deficient supply of water, became partially subdued, and little remained of the building and its contents, but a heap of ruins. Several of the walls were standing but appeared to be in a dangerous condition. The firemen and police did all they could under the circumstances and continued their exertions as the fire subsequently made its appearance in detached portions of the building.

We regret to say in their exertions the life of a most valuable and efficient officer of the Liverpool police force was sacrificed. About 9 one of the walls at the rear of the building fell with a tremendous crash covering a large space with bricks and other materials. Inspector COMMELIN having been observed near the spot, actively engaged in the discharge of his dangerous duty, and fears were entertained he might be buried under the ruins. These apprehensions were unfortunately realised and after a search amongst the debris the poor fellow was found in a sadly mutilated state.. On being extricated he was carried to a neighbouring tavern accompanied by Dr WATLING, who came to render assistance, but his services were, however, unnecessary, for on examination it was found that life was extinct. The Inspectors head was literally crushed to pieces, and death must have been instantaneous. He has left a wife and young family to deplore his loss.

As regards to the building and its contents, they are almost totally destroyed, estimated loss being almost 20,000 pounds, and is understood covered by insurance in the Scottish Union offices and others. About 250 workpeople will be out of employment, the business of the firm will not, however, be stopped Messers GARNOCK, BIBBY and Co have another establishment at Old Swan, to which operations will be temporary transferred.

Nothing is know of the origin of the fire, the workmen left the premises on Saturday afternoon and by the rules of the establishment all fires were extinguished to be lighted again on Monday morning. Every precaution was taken for the prevention of fire, buckets and other appliances were provided for each room of the building. The building contained a large quantity of valuable machinery, it is said there were 15 machines costing 500 pounds each.

An inquiry will be instituted, more especially in reference to the death of the unfortunate inspector whose life has been sacrificed in the discharge of his difficult and dangerous avocation. He was an excellent officer held in great esteem, not only by the head constable and superintendents but by every member of the force.

Liverpool Mercury, July 31st, 1861



Yesterday Mr C. E. DRIFFIELD, county coroner, held an inquest at the Belle Vue Inn, Wavertree, on the body of John COMMELIN, inspector of the Liverpool Fire brigade, who was killed during the conflagration which destroyed the premises of Messers GARNOCK, BIBBY and Co, wire rope manufacturers, Wavertree on Sunday last.

The following witnesses were examined :-

John WEBB, sergeant in the county police, stationed at Wavertree, said about quarter past three on Sunday afternoon he observed flames and smoke issuing from the premises in question, when he got done there at twenty five minutes past three the whole range of buildings were in flames. Mr JONES was the owner of the ropery but it was known as Messers GARNOCK, BIBBY and Co, assistance was given immediately and engines soon arrived from Liverpool. It was nearly an hour before they could get anything like a supply of water from the mains. There were two reels and two engines besides the one belonging to the West of England on the spot, they made the best of the water supply. The fire was got under about 5pm, the whole of the buildings were gutted then, the sheds were saved by the communication between them and the main buildings being cut off. Insp COMMELIN was killed about 9pm, he had been very active indeed both in working and giving directions to the men, between 8 and 9pm witness asked him to play upon that side of the building next to Bishopsgate St where the flames had again broken out, he and a fireman named MELBOURNE went round for that purpose. He left them playing about the spot, five minutes later he heard a noise like the report of a cannon and was nearly blinded by dust. The first thing he saw was MELBOURNE lying in a ditch on the opposite side of the road. He looked for the inspector and could not find him the wall next to Bishopsgate had fallen on him and buried him beneath the debris. MELBOURNE called out, Oh the inspector, some people came running to the spot, shifted the fallen bricks and found the body. The deceased was lying face downwards, it appeared he was trying to make his escape when the wall fell. He was extracted in two or three minutes, but quite dead, his head and face being completely crushed. Witness could give no information on the origin of the fire when he first saw it the buildings were in flames from top to bottom. Every possible exertion was made to extinguish the fire.

By a juryman, the wall in question was bowed soon after 5pm ?

Witness thought one half of the property might have been saved if they have had a good supply of water. He got on the building with the hose to play downwards, for the force was so slight the water would not carry upwards , nor sufficient to send the water to the top of the building.

A juryman here said, they had reason to complain of the manner in which Wavertree was supplied with water, it was turned off three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, from Saturday night till Monday morning, so what ever occurred during that time they had nothing but the, slack water. No one was allowed to interfere with turning it on but the turncock, and the turncock nearest to them lived in Old Swan. The speaker found it objectionable the man lived so far off, whatever happened between Saturday night and Monday morning, they had no water supply to assist them.

The Coroner, said, gentlemen must remember they are not in borough of Liverpool so had no demands on the corporation. He was not aware under what circumstances water was supplied to Wavertree it being an out-township, for the act of Parliament provided for them being furnished with water, they had the remedy. One thing is certain some arrangement must be made to meet such an emergency as the one in question, either by the township or the proprietors of property. Had any complaints been made to the water authorities?

Juryman, he did not know that it had.

Coroner, observed in this instance it was a question between Mr JONES, the owner of the property destroyed and the water authorities. He did not think the jury should interfere when Mr JONES did not think it worth his while to attend and say anything concerning the matter. Even if he were present he did not think they could go into the question unless it could be shown there had been a complaint or representation made to the proper authorities, it had been altogether neglected. It was not their business to interfere between the corporation of Liverpool and the township of Wavertree on the subject of the supply of water.

Divisional Supt QUICK stated, when the firemen got the full supply of water, which was about 5.30pm, there was no necessity to use the engines, the reels were quite sufficient.

John MELBOURNE the fireman alluded to being with the inspector when he met his death was then examined. His evidence was principally corroborative to what has already been stated, at the time the accident occurred he was alarmed by some bricks falling from the top of the wall, and ran in the direction of the field on the opposite side of the road, but was knocked down by falling material just as he reached the ditch, and so much injured he was not now able to attend on duty. In the ditch he called the inspector but could not see or hear him. He believed the inspector was 2 or 3yds behind him when the wall fell. He believed the fire started in the engine-house, but could give no positive information on the subject.

David HUGHES night watchman and William BALL engine tenter, were examined, they could give no information as to the origin of the fire, they stated that on Sunday morning they were engaged in putting new bars in the boiler furnace and used a hand lamp during their time at work, which was put out safely at 12 o clock. They used the fire at the smithy but that was at the ends of the sheds 200yds from the main building. It transpired during the evidence that the carters and other persons had keys to the premises and could enter when they chose. The carters were there on Sunday when the men left to tend to their horses.

The Coroner closely examined HUGHES and BALL as to whether any of them had been smoking during their time at work on Sunday, but, both positively denied having done so.

The Coroner remarked he thought the jury had, had sufficient evidence to show clearly how the death of the deceased had been occasioned, the object of the inquiry was not so much for the purpose of ascertaining the origin of the fire as it was to ascertain the circumstances under which the deceased man met his death. The jury at once returned a verdict of, Accidental death.

Divisional Supt QUICK spoke highly of the deceased inspector, observing he had been selected by Major GREIG to take charge of and train the young men of the fire brigade. The head constable entertained a high respect for him and was grieved his death should take place under such melancholy circumstances. That feeling was shared by Mr QUICK, and by the whole force, over whom the lamented affair had cast gloom. Inspector COMMELIN has left a widow and five children, the eldest 10yrs and the youngest only 6mths old to deplore his loss. He was a man of firm intrepidity and thoroughly honest. By his death the borough had sustained a great loss, for he gave his undivided attention to the duties of the fire police.

Liverpool Mercury, Aug 1st, 1861


The funeral of Inspector COMMELIN whose death, under circumstances of a most melancholy character took place yesterday. As a mark of respect to the memory of the deceased, a large number of his brother officers followed his remains to the place of interment, the cemetery in Smithdown Lane. The police force to the number of 325, including superintendents, inspectors etc, were mustered at the fire station in Hatton Gardens about 1.30pm. The body of the deceased was removed to the station the previous day, shortly after the holding of the inquest.

At the muster of the funeral brigade in the yard attached to the main bridewell the men, previous to being moved off, were inspected by Brigadier General BROWN, a distinguished officer who had served in India and was present at some of the brilliant victories obtained during the last war in that country, and who is now on staff at Aldershott and is a personal friend of the head constable having served with him in the same regiment some years ago.

Among others present at the station were Mr CLINT chairman of the Watch Committee, Mr STEAINS, Mr CORBALLY, Mr JOB and Mr P. F. CURRY, borough coroner. The funeral cortege moved off in the following order :-

A detachment of the borough police, the body covered with a pall and borne on a fire engine pulled by four horses, driven by postilions, 6 firemen officiating as pall bearers they being the oldest members belonging to the force, two mourning coaches containing the relatives and friends of the deceased, the fire brigade, headed by Supt HEWITT, the West of England engine and brigade, under the direction of Mr BARRETT, several officers in the borough engineers dept, a number of watermen, a body of the ordinary police, succeeded by Inspectors, superintendents, and two divisional superintendents, Mr QUICK and Mr RIDE and the head constable.

From the fire station the cortege moved off down Dale St, Castle St, Lord St, Church St, Bold St, Rodney St, Duke St, Canning St etc, to the cemetery in Smithdown Lane. The procession as it moved slowly along the route presented a solemn and impressive aspect and was watched with intense interest by thousands of spectators who thronged the streets. Seldom, indeed, has an event of a similar kind created such wide spread public sympathy. On entering the cemetery, a large portion of the police formed in line on each side of the road, the body of the deceased followed by the mourners, being borne up the centre to the church. The funeral service was read by Rev J. MC ALISTER, this portion of the ceremony concluded the body was borne to the grave, the remaining portion of the funeral rites having been performed, the numerous assemblage slowly retired.

We understand Mr BENNETT chief clerk in the police office, now absent from Liverpool, in a letter addressed to Supt RIDE, refers to the death of Inspector COMMELIN, and speaks of him not only as an able and zealous officer, but as a man highly esteemed by every member of the force. Several gentlemen have come forward with subscriptions on behalf of his widow and children.

Copyright 2002 / To date