At about 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Friday 10th March 1899 some children playing in St Leonard’s Road noticed smoke pouring from the windows of number 93, the home of Robert Hunt (1847-1915), his wife Sarah Hannah Smart (1851-1927) and five of their children. Robert and Sarah were at work whilst the younger children – Nellie (11) , Ethel (10) and Henry (9) – had finished school and were playing outside. Florence (20) and Lilian (18) were also out of the house and the three oldest girls were already married and lived elsewhere.
One of the children who saw smoke was May Mary Perkins (1888-1956) younger daughter of Sergeant Joseph Perkins (1857-1912) , who lived nearby at 73 Clarendon Park Road. May ran home to tell her father. Sergeant Perkins ran to the Clarendon Park Police and Fire Station at 139 Queens Road to fetch Fireman Gibson and Superintendant Joseph John Howe (1851-1914) and the “curricle” ladder.
They entered by the front upstairs window but the fire was found to be downstairs in the front sitting room. It looked as though the fire had been started deliberately – the couch and chairs were heaped together and covered in newspaper, and three petroleum lamps, without their globes, had been placed on the floor near to the couch. Fortunately there was more smoke than fire and it was quickly extinguished.
Known to be a man of eccentric habits, glove hand Robert Hunt was arrested when he came home at 10pm but as he denied all knowledge of the fire and as his wife would not testify against him, the case against Hunt was dismissed. But I suspect that if the police had had access to Robert’s previous history of fire starting they would have pursued the case further and brought a charge.
Thanks to the British Library’s searchable historical newspapers collection, I was able to discover that Robert Hunt was charged in 1876 with starting a fire in a haystack in Shepshed. He was seen by a farm labourer to be loitering next to the haystack, which was then set alight. He denied starting the fire but could not explain a used match found in his pocket and two stones against which matches had been struck. He gave the name William Brown to the police and said he was from Scotland, later admitting his real name and that he was from Leicester. Robert was found guilty despite a good character having been provided by his employer of seven years, James Brown, a hosiery manufacturer. He was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude. However, Robert’s friends and called upon the Sheriff of Leicester, who took up the case and petitioned the Home Secretary, describing Robert as “an honest, steady and industrious working man, against whom no charge has ever been made prior to the alleged crime of fire raising.” Robert received a full and free pardon.
I have no evidence that Robert was charged with any other fire-starting offences. He lived an apparently blameless but “eccentric” life. He married Sarah Hannah in May 1868 at St George’s, two years after the death of his first wife Elizabeth Clark (c1843-1866). They had fourteen children, nine of which survived early infancy. These were Mary Ann (1871), Ruth Baxter (1874), Beatrice Alice (1876), Florence Maria (1879), Lilian Baxter (1881), Nellie Eveline (1887), Ethel May (1888), Henry Robert Archibald (1889) and John William Charles (1893). They lived in a number of properties including Liverpool Street, Church Street, Dover Square, Duke Street and 56 Montague Road before moving to 93 St Leonard’s Road in 1898. Astonishingly after Robert set fire to that property the family were not given immediate notice by their landlord but presumably cleared the fire and smoke damage and stayed on living there until some time between 1906 and 1911, when they moved to 43 Ullswater Street. Hannah remained at Ullswater Street after Robert died in 1915 and until her own death in 1927.