At 9 pm on 23 May 1899, the sound of the bell ringing alarmed the people of Cue. Smoke billowing north-west of the town confirmed their fears: fire.
People rushed towards the origin, and, as they drew closer, many realised that the camp burning belonged to Charles Litchfield, who was the Government surveyor and draughtsman.
The Captain of the Cue Fire Brigade, James Campbell, reached the fire first. He surveyed the scene and quickly concluded that the hessian and iron structure and everything inside was beyond saving. The fire had taken hold, and there was nothing anyone could do. He also noticed that outside the camp was a sewing machine and other items of furniture, raising concerns that someone had endeavoured to save the belongings.
Mrs Cairns lived nearby and was next to arrive. James immediately began questioning her, trying to ascertain if she had seen or heard anyone within the structure. Items outside gave the impression that someone had been at work and increased the possibility that that person was trapped inside.
The rest of the Fire Brigade arrived, and, along with other people, they tried to save the building material used to construct the house. One fireman thought he noticed the body of a man lying among the flames, and they eventually dragged it outside. It was just as James feared; Charles Litchfield had been inside and had died in the fire.
Charles was born in 1870 in Taree in New South Wales and was 28 years of age. In 1897, he married Ada Johnson in Cue, and in 1898, their child, a daughter named Amy, was born. Everyone immediately felt for Ada and Amy. That despair only heightened when knowledge spread that they were on holiday in New South Wales and had just returned to Western Australia – the same day the fire took place.
Quite a gloom has been cast over the town by this melancholy event, which has cut off a young man in the very prime of his life and has wrecked a happy home.The Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette (Cue, WA : 1894 – 1925); 25 May 1899; Page 2; Terrible Burning Fatality
On the following morning, an inquest was opened at the Court House by the Resident Magistrate, Edmond Dowley. The empaneled jury viewed the body, and, pending the arrival of witnesses, proceedings adjourned for two days.
The funeral took place that afternoon. The procession began at the Government buildings, with Government officers acting as pallbearers. It ended at Cue Cemetery, where Charles was buried.
On Friday, 26 May, the inquest resumed. Robert Hadlow gave evidence and stated that he saw Charles at about a quarter to eight on the night of the 23rd. Charles stayed for an hour and then went home. Moritz Cohn lived at the camp with Charles and stated that he last saw him at 8 pm that night. He also confirmed that when he left home, he had made sure to extinguish all the lamps. The Resident Magistrate summed up, and the jury retired. After a few minutes, they declared that the remains were Charles’s and that he had come to his death through misadventure, with no evidence to show how the fire originated.
Whether the house was on fire inside when he reached it, and his opening the door allowed the wind to fan the flames, or in lighting a lamp or other article of the kind, the conflagration was caused, will never now be known.The Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette (Cue, WA : 1894 – 1925); 25 May 1899; Page 2; Terrible Burning Fatality
Concerned for Ada and Amy, residents of Cue came together to organise a subscription. Three hundred people from various places donated, raising a total of £221 for their future.
People initially thought that Ada and Amy would return to New South Wales, but they instead remained in Perth and then went south. Charles’s brother George was living at Greenbushes, and, for a while, they lived there with him.
Where newspaper articles end, the Cue Police Station Occurrence Book (held at the State Records Office of Western Australia) provides a little more information. The sewing machine that Charles had managed to save was still in their possession, and they performed their duty in organising its return to Ada. On 15 August 1899, Constable Alexander Pitman wrote an entry in the book.
…conveyed to Railway Station one Sewing machine & one parcel to be forwarded to Greenbushes per train, to Mrs A Litchfield they being part of the effects saved from the late fire in which the late Mr A Litchfield lost his life.State Records Office of Western Australia; Cue Police Station; Occurrence Book; 1899-06-04 – 1900-01-03; AU WA S4801- cons731 10.
This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast on 26 September 2020. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO
- 1899 ‘TERRIBLE BURNING. FATALITY.’, The Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette (Cue, WA : 1894 – 1925), 25 May, p. 2. , viewed 20 Sep 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article233222055
- 1899 ‘THE INQUEST.’, The Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette (Cue, WA : 1894 – 1925), 25 May, p. 2. , viewed 20 Sep 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article233222053
- 1899 ‘THE FUNERAL.’, The Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette (Cue, WA : 1894 – 1925), 25 May, p. 2. , viewed 20 Sep 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article233222045
- 1899 ‘THE RECENT FIRE.’, The Murchison Times and Day Dawn Gazette (Cue, WA : 1894 – 1925), 27 May, p. 2. , viewed 20 Sep 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article233222106
- Photo of the Singer Sewing Machine courtesy of Museums Victoria Collections; https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/items/256822 Accessed 27 September 2020
- State Records Office of Western Australia; Cue Police Station; Occurrence Book; 1899-06-04 – 1900-01-03; AU WA S4801- cons731 10.