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The Rossmore Hotel: Cornwall's Deadliest Fire

Appeared in the Senior Citizen, May 2017.

Throughout Cornwall’s history there have been dozens of tragic fires that have destroyed businesses, and left Cornwall citizens homeless. The deadliest fire in Cornwall’s history, is the fire that destroyed a Cornwall icon: The Rossmore Hotel. The fire that destroyed the hotel also claimed the lives of twelve hotel employees and guests.

Cornwall’s Rossmore Hotel was built in 1888, and graciously stood three stories tall. The Hotel was so grand and so beautiful, that several newspaper outlets throughout the province labelled it as “the finest hotel in Ontario.” Nothing remains of the hotel’s original structure, and today the Bank of Montreal stands on the former hotel property at 159 Pitt Street.

On April 29, 1910, it is believed that a careless smoker dropped a match or a cigar on their way upstairs. Sixty guests were asleep throughout the three upper stories of the hotel. By the time the majority of the occupants and staff were awake, the staircase between the first and second stories was engulfed in flames. The flames mounted the stairways to the upper levels, and quickly spread throughout the entire building.

By looking at the people who lost their lives in comparison to the other guests, it was familiar boarders and employees that unfortunately met their death in the fire. The guests unfamiliar with the hallways and staircases jumped out windows, and used the rope fire escapes. Boarders and employees who sought to escape through familiar passageways, unfortunately died at the hands of the fire.

Those who perished in the fire were: Charles (C.J.) Gray, the manager of the Ives Modern Bed Company, his wife, Fannie Jean Gray, and their two children: ten-year-old Vivian Elsie Isobel, and their seven-year-old son, Robert Howard. Also lost, were: Benjamin Fielding, a 32-year-old accountant from the Sterling Bank, 26-year-old Bank of Montreal teller, Charles Gagné, and Mrs. Jane Agnes Archibald. Staff that perished in the fire were: Assistant Cook, Barbara Goeller, Hotel Clerk, Ernest Bullen, the Australian born Bell Boy, 19-year-old William Hulme, and two sisters that had the occupation as “Hotel servant”, Miss Jane and Miss Mary White.

Benjamin Fielding

Photo (right) used with permission from Benjamin's great-nephew, David Fielding.

Benjamin Fielding was born on January 20th, 1878 in Southport, Lancashire, England. He was the son of Benjamin Fielding Senior, and Sarah Chadwick II. Newspaper clippings from the late 1890s report that Benjamin sang (to a piano accompaniment) at numerous functions in and around Southport and Liverpool, including once at the New Brighton Tower. Benjamin was considered to have had “a fine baritone voice.”

Canadian Passenger lists detail that Benjamin arrived in Montreal from Liverpool, England, on September 17, 1905. He was 27 years old when he arrived in Canada, he was unmarried, and he had been educated as a Bank Clerk. When asked where he intended to live in Canada, he had told the teller “Toronto” was his desired destination. Despite that, five years later, Benjamin would find himself staying in Cornwall’s Rossmore Hotel.

Benjamin Fielding was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His grave was marked with a proud tombstone that reads: “In loving memory of Ben Fielding who lost his life in the Rossmore Hotel fire, Cornwall April 29, 1910, younger son of late Benjamin Fielding, Birkdale, England. Aged 32.” The tombstone cost twenty-five dollars, and the bill was paid by Mr. T.E. Fletcher, on November 10, 1910.

Everything Benjamin Fielding owned was lost in the hotel fire that took his life. The only possession that survived was a box of ivory chessmen that Benjamin kept at his club. The chess pieces were shipped back to England (to his brother JAC Fielding), and they remain in the Fielding family to this day.