Monday, 31 August 2009

Medway Court: Winnipeg's 'Fiery Holocaust'

This is one in a series on Winnipeg's deadliest fires.

Medway Court Fire

On September 1, 1929 the Medway Court Apartments were destroyed by fire. It was one of Winnipeg's deadliest fires, killing nine and hospitalizing nine others.

West side Edmonton St. looking toward Central Park ca.1927 (source)

Medway Court was a three storey walk-up apartment block located at 307-309 Edmonton near Ellice, today part of the the parking lot behind the former Free Press Building. At the time, it was part of a bustling residential just off the downtown. 

Classified ads advertised space for students and single businessmen but the block also had spacious five-room suites intended for families, the proximity to Central Park making it an ideal location.

Winnipeg Tribune, September 2, 1929, p. 1

Just after 2:30 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, September 1, 1929 a passing motorist noticed a fire on the main floor and called it in. By 2:45 am it was a two alarm fire and a few minutes later every on-duty fireman in the city was at the scene.

Manitoba Free Press September 2, 1929, p. 1

The fire was centred on the main floor near the entrance, blocking people from escaping. Flames climbed the building through the back wall making the fire escape useless. The only way out was to jump from windows and balconies.

A Free Press reporter described the scene as a "fiery holocaust" of "shrieking, struggling humanity".

Manitoba Free Press September 2, 1929, p. 1

The death toll would have been higher if it weren't for the heroism of onlookers like cabbie Fred Prout of Sherbrook Street who risked their lives to bring people through the flames. Others crawled up next to the burning walls to drag away those who had jumped.

Rear of former Free Press building

The block was located behind the Winnipeg Free Press building on Carlton Street. Newspaper night staff triggered their building's internal fire suppression system then dragged the hoses across the back lane and aimed them from upper story windows to rain down on the building's fire escape.

Though their efforts did not put out the fire, the staff: George Stringer, night engineer; W. Graham, night fireman; and night watchmen Arthur Young, C. Kash and Mike Kegan later received bonuses from their employer for putting their lives at risk.

Manitoba Free Press September 3, 1929

Later that morning the fire chief proclaimed this to be the worst fire in the Winnipeg region's history. Worse than the St. Boniface Cathedral fire that killed eight in 1922 and the previous year's Casa Loma Apartment fire that killed five. (I have only been able to find one fire since - the Haselmere Apartment fire of 1974 - that equalled the number of dead.)

Winnipeg Tribune, September 5, 1929
Funeral of Mrs. Gaunt

By the end of the following day nine bodies were found and another nine were in hospital. The victims were from five suites:

- Sarah Gaunt (68) and Ralph Weighton (adult);
- Madge Edwards (34) and children Marjorie (9), Gordon (14);
- Alfred Applebee and daughter Irene (11)
- Mabel Butler (adult)
- William Edwards (adult) died the following day in hospital

The seriously injured included Nellie McIntosh (23) and Mrs. A. Applebee (adult).

Funerals for many of the victims took place on Wednesday, September 4 at sites across the city. Many Winnipeggers, still stunned by the tragedy and the fact that three small children died, turned up to join funeral corteges and stand outside churches to pay their respects.

Former site of Medway Court, Ellice Avenue

On September 3, 1929 a coroner's inquest began. The first witness called was the coroner himself who had to identify the body of a close personal friend.
Through the testimony of witnesses and officials a number of facts came out:

- The fire likely began under the main staircase on the main floor;

- Earlier that weekend painters had varnished the entryway. Wokmen said that the only items left behind were their ladders - the paint and varnish were stored away from the building;

- The Medway's last fire inspection was in 1920;

- Overgrown trees and cars parked next to the building hampered efforts to get ladders to some windows and to properly assist some who jumped;

- Not one survivor said that they used the fire escape staircase as a means of escape.

The inquest wrapped up on September 11, 1929 with the jury unable to pinpoint an exact cause of the blaze. Subsequent fire investigations came to the same conclusion.

Casa Loma Building
The Casa Loma, Portage at Sherbrook

This was the second disastrous apartment fire in a year, the previous being the Casa Loma fire on Sherbrook at Portage which killed five. The city was determined to make a better fire code for apartments, hotels and lodging houses to prevent future tragedies.

A two-year process involving engineers, architects and building inspectors resulted in a new fire code and safety by-laws that would apply to both existing buildings and new construction.

The by-laws were fought by the industry who warned that new apartment construction would cease in the city.
In the end, the code passed but continued industry pressure and the downturn in the economy due to the stock market crash forced council to repeal it in 1931. It was not until 1943 that many of the recommendations were re-implemented.

More about some of the victims:

Manitoba Free Press September 4, 1929

Nine year-old Marjorie Edwards appeared at her second storey window screaming for help. Firemen called back instructing her to jump into the net below. As she was about to jump her nightdress caught fire and she fell backwards into the suite. Her body could only be identified at the coroner's inquest by the jewellery she was wearing.

Winnipeg Tribune, September 4, 1943

Edna Applebee
lost her husband and a daughter in the fire and was left paralyzed from her jump that night. She died at the age of 48 on September 3, 1943, almost 14 years to the day of the fire. She left behind another daughter.

Manitoba Free Press Oct 15, 1928

Then there was poor Mrs. Gaunt.

Less than a year before her death, Gaunt appeared in a testimonial ad for a product called KEENO, a sleep remedy for those with "fragile nerves." She is quoted in the ad saying: "I could not sleep soundly and restfully" but "using KEENO for a short time I found my nervous system stronger and I could sleep more soundly and restfully. Continuing the use of this efficient medicine I am improving right along."

At the coroner's inquest, which knew nothing of the ad of course, it was noted that Mrs. Gaunt was found dead lying in her bed. She likely slept through the commotion and died in her sleep.

UPDATE: 2009

There is no marker or memorial to note this tragedy. This is a notice I posted at the site on Sept. 1, 2009, the 80th anniversary of the tragedy:


Ed said...

thanks for the story.

Jamie Isfeld said...

This was a fascinating story. Thank you for telling us about this little aspect of Winnipeg's history I wouldn't have learned otherwise.

Chris Gumprich said...

Horrifying incident, great writeup.

(Does this mean you've resolved your issues with WFP archives? I've been holding off on subscribing because you mentioned having problems.)

mrchristian said...

You're welcome ! It was interesting, and sad, to do this one. I didn't know anything about it either until a couple of days ago.

I did post an abbreviated version of this spot over the lunch hour on a tree near the spot.

As for the WFP archives, for the past couple of days I have not had a problem so that's a good sign !

Alice Pope St. Onge said...

Thank you for your wonderful article.

Alfred Appleby was my maternal Grandfather, Irene Appleby was my Aunt and Edna Appleby was my maternal Grandmother. My Mother Alice Edna Appleby (daugher of Alfred and Edna Appleby)jumped from the family's third floor suite. She broke her back and was in hospital for 6 months. Her Mother had been completely deaf and her Father travelled with CP Rail so they always lived in apartments so the family would feel safer. Her brother Charles
(17) Appleby was away at a beach cottage for the long weekend.

My Mom married my Dad, Neil Pope, on February 2nd, 1932. She had my sister Irene the end of 1932, my brother Neil in 1934, my sister Patricia in 1937 and I was born in 1950. She had 10 grandchildren and many greatgrandchildren.

Even though she had lingering problems from the fire she was a very wonderful person and raised happy kids. Dad and Mum were married for 54 years. They lived in Winnipeg all their lives. Mum passed away in Winnipeg on April
20, 1985.

She is buried in Chapel Lawn cemetary close by her family that was killed in the fire.

Again, thank you for writing the article. I did not know about the Free Press personnel who helped.

Alice Pope St. Onge
St. Albert, Alberta
Still a Winnipeger-at-Heart!

mrchristian said...

Thanks Alice for filling in that information. It's great to get information about what happened to people after the fire which, of course, the newspapers don't really follow up on.

Eurydice said...

Great article, though no follow-up story on the Medway Court itself is included. Vince Leah, who wrote a detailed account of the fire in his book "Pages From the Past", ended the write-up with simply, "The Medway Court was rebuilt."
It seems that it did indeed straggle on as a rental accommodation for about ten more years.
My attempt to ascertain when the Medway vanished uncovered something strange. The number of suites (post-1929) was drastically reduced from the pre-1929 numbers, suggesting that the building was partially demolished down to a stump of its former self, perhaps to just the basement and the first floor. It disappears from the Henderson Directory around 1939. "Bowl Arena", A bowling alley, replaced it by the early 1950s. This was itself destroyed by fire in 1966, after which the site became, and remains, a parking lot.

Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks for the update Eurydice. I didn't go beyond 1929 because I was focusing on the fire.

I did a quick run through of newspaper articles in the following years and the city and property owners squabbled over what to do about the charred remains. The owners wanted to rehab but the city stuck by its bylaw which said that any structure more than 40% damaged by fire had to be demolished.

The reconstruction, incredibly, did not happen until 1937. The owners received permission to rebuild, but it had to be a brand new block with alterations to the design and, of course, up to the modern fire code, (Apr. 29, 1937 Tribune) and the Sept. 2, 1937 Free Press has a picture of the demolition in progress.

Looking at the next couple of years, the name Medway Court does not appear again, (except in reference to the fire), so the new building must have had a new name.

Carol in SoCal said...

Fascinating story! I came across a mention of the Medway Court fire while working on my family's genealogy (Charles married my husband's father's cousin Jeanne Paquet) and wondered how Charles had survived unscathed, and to learn he was away... wonder what he carried with him for the rest of his life. Thank you for the story, and the forum for further information.