George was born in Berkshire village, Littlewick Green in 1874, into a large family of gardeners. Rather than follow in their footsteps, he went into ‘service’, first as a butler to a wealthy widow in Oxford and then as a footman at the magnificent Harewood House in Yorkshire. His life took a dramatic turn when he fell for maid Louisa. Louisa fell pregnant and the pair married. Their daughter Olive was born in 1903 and not long after, both left their jobs and moved to London, possibly dismissed due to their romance. Sadly, we’ve no evidence that Olive came with them - all we know is that in 1911 she was living in an orphanage in Wakefield, and died unmarried in 1980.
George began work in Clapham’s Arding & Hobbs (now Debenhams and just ten minutes down Lavender Hill from Battersea Arts Centre), carving in the restaurant. Built in 1885, it was the first department store south of the Thames, attracting shoppers from across the capital. On the 20th December 1909, an electric light was knocked over in a Christmas window display, setting alight to highly flammable celluloid combs assorted on a bed of cotton wool snow.
The Daily Graphic on 21 December 1909 reported ‘within a few minutes the place was blazing like a matchbox, and the lamp lit darkness of the Lavender Hill was turned into one broad red glare. Mingled with shouts and screams was the blowing of police whistles’.
Local residents took to the streets to help the rescue effort, whilst others gathered on the station platform to watch the growing flames. MP John Burns was amongst the makeshift fire crew, passing buckets of water and unrolling the hoses. The fire escapes were packed, with many forced to jump from upper storey windows. The heat was so intense that it cooked the turkeys hanging from the awnings in Lipton’s Butchers opposite.
And then, amidst it all, George was spotted in a third story window of Arding & Hobbs. A witness quoted in The Daily Graphic on 21 December 1909 said
‘Just as the fire was about at its worst I saw a heroic act which I believe cost the hero his life.
I saw him at a window on the top floor just as the fire escape had been run up to take him down. As he was about to scramble out of the window he went back and then reappeared with two women shop assistants.
He placed one of the assistants on the escape and sent her down; but as she neared the bottom she fell, and was picked up by the firemen. The young man then put the second girl on the escape, and she also fell before she reached the bottom. They were both carried away.
Then, to my horror, the young man suddenly threw up his arms and fell backwards, out of sight. I did not see him again.’
From this point in George’s story, all sources suppose he perished, his remains were never found.
A plaque dedicated to George’s memory was installed in Battersea Town Hall (now Battersea Arts Centre). This can still be seen today, situated in the old box office area in the Grand Hall foyer space.