On the 18th November 1968 Henry Fulton Brown left for work at the upholstery factory of A. J. & S. Stern in James Watt Street. He was never to return to his family perishing in what became known as the James Watt Street Fire. In this blog, on the 53rd Anniversary of the tragedy his daughter, Joyce Davies describes the impact that his needless death has had on her and her family.
Forever my Father’s Daughter
Today is 18th November 2021 and I am 61 years old, married and a devoted mother of three wonderful daughters. I was born in Glasgow, but we have brought up our children on the Shetland Islands. I had a wonderful career as a Clinical Psychologist but now a new one has emerged for me, as an artist and a writer.
18th November 2021 – it might just be a date to you, but not to me.
This date to me, is like time has stood still. It is for me still 1968.
Every single year I begin to dread it in the weeks before. It feels like I am waiting for a death – all over again.
On this date in 1968, no doubt a cold winters morning, whilst I was tucked up in bed, my dad went off to work as an upholsterer at a company run by the Stein Brothers in James Watt Street in the Anderson area of Glasgow. My dad never came home again.
My life was shattered and 53 years later I am still picking up the pieces.
Grief simply does not happen at the time of a death. Shock happens and grief enfolds and weaves itself in and out of everything we do for the rest of our lives. I was 8 years old. My dad’s death was avoidable. My dad was Henry Fulton Brown, born in Bridgeton. Married to Mary.
My dad’s place of work was far from safe. That was a fact and very well known to all employees, their families, visiting inspectors and the fire service. He burnt to death. He was not alone. He must have been terrified and screamed in horror. 22 men, women and children burnt to death. There was no escape. Bars on all windows. A secure padlock on the outside of the only fire escape door. Wooden stairs that collapsed. Inflammable materials everywhere. No longer a direct link from the alarm system to the local fire service. The men who owned the company had stopped paying for it. Employees had spoken up about conditions at work but were intimidated and threatened with losing their jobs. There had been a previous fire in premises the two brothers had owned and where my dad worked before they moved to James Watt Street just the year before. The building was an old whisky bond. It was vile. It was inhuman. It shattered my life and many other families too.
Silence took over our home. My mum sunk into a deep depression. My dad was just 36 years old. They were a young couple. Four young children. Mum lived into her eighties, but I never heard her, on even one occasion, mention my dad. Her grief broke her. I became a very vulnerable child and so much happened that would never have done if my dad had lived. If his life hadn’t been taken, my dad would have been able to protect me.
My dad didn’t see me grow, he didn’t know of my achievements, could not attend either of my graduations, wasn’t there when I got married and was robbed of the opportunity to meet his five granddaughters and so much more. He would be so proud of my three daughters. They are all in their twenties and wonderful young woman. They care deeply about others. They all work in the National Health Service and over lock down, they have just kept giving of themselves. I wish they had known my dad, their grandad. I wish he had known them, everyone missed out.
In 2018 as we approached the fiftieth anniversary of the James Watt Street Fire I could no longer take the silence. My mother had now died, and I was finding my voice I started to campaign. I contacted Glasgow City Council. I contacted the late Archbishop Tartaglia. I pursued a campaign to make Glasgow sit up and listen because I wanted my dad and all the others to be remembered. There was nothing anywhere, apart from between the pages of the Fatal Accident Report held in Edinburgh to tell the story. I went alone to Edinburgh and sat in the National Records of Scotland Office weeping as I read it. I needed more than that. More than just a legal investigation. I had wanted to read the report. I wanted the truth.
On the 18th November 2018 we had a beautiful Memorial Service at St Andrews Cathedral on Clyde Street in Glasgow. It is a very short distance from there to James Watt Street and it was just a few days after the fire that in that very Cathedral they had held a Mass for all who died. The late Archbishop Tartaglia celebrated the lives of all those who died. He talked of my passion to find peace and justice. He really touched me deeply and I will always be grateful. Senior Fire Officers for the Scottish Fire Service came along and sat in the pews with those of us who were still grieving. I met people who knew my dad. There were lots of tears and hugs and memories shared. I was thanked so much but mostly I was grateful. Grateful that I had found the strength to make it happen. I sat and thought my dad would have been proud of me. We sang hymns, we prayed, we listened. I stood at the front of the Cathedral with James Smith, a retired Fire Officer, who was a young man in the Fire Service in the late 1960’s. He was there on the day my dad died and he fought to try and save all those who perished. I spoke with him and found a connection I never knew was possible. Until meeting Jim I hated Fire Officers. I hated Fire Engines. I hated the sounds. All I felt was those people never saved my dad. Meeting Jim , for the first time, it occurred to me, that he suffered too. He saw the faces of people through bars in windows that he knew he could not save. He had never forgotten James Watt Street. I realised Fire Officers suffer trauma too. At the Mass, for the first time, in fifty years I felt a sense of calm and a sense of forgiveness. I let go of some of my anger.
A year later, in 2019, after many more emails and a trip to the Glasgow City Chambers we got our long waited for memorial. It is there on the pavement where my dad died. It has all 22 names on it. Gone but Never Forgotten. At last, Glasgow has remembered. Nobody can now walk past the site without knowing, that it is there, that a significant part of the history of Glasgow took place. People will read all the names and they will remember; I cannot tell you in words how much that matters to me.
Ian Tasker, Project Worker of the Charity Scottish Hazards has supported me since making contact in 2018. When I organised the memorial service I did a lot of work with the media – social media, radio, television and newspapers. I was trying to reach as many people as I could. It was successful, the Cathedral was busy that day. People cared. Glasgow cared.
I love the fact there is now a memorial and, as a family, we go whenever we can. My eldest daughter now lives and works in Glasgow. But I live on the Shetland Islands and here, on days like today and other important days, but also just on days when I miss my dad, there is nowhere to go. There is no international workers’ memorial here on the islands where I live.
This year we managed to get the local council for the first time to light up the Town Hall purple on International Workers Memorial Day – 28th April. It wasn’t our first try as COVID prevented previous commitments to do so . I sat outside the town hall and tied flowers on to a bench but there is no stone or bench dedicated to all those who died as a result of work, be that fatal injury, occupational disease, work related road traffic accidents or, sadly suicides related to work,
On our islands there are some memorials, for those who died in both World Wars, for the Shetland Bus, for the Super Puma Helicopter Disaster and for many fishermen who have died at sea. These Memorials are important.
But many of us have been lost family or friends who have died as result of work, either here on Shetland or in other parts of the world. Our pain is no less. We need a place to go.
Shetland Islands Council Chief Executive, Maggie Sandieson has very recently agreed to an International Workers’s Memorial here on Shetland. We are one of very few Scottish Local Authorities who don’t have one yet. So now it is in our grasp.
We are however being asked questions by the Council – “where do you envisage such a memorial might be located?” “How will it be funded?” and “How will it be maintained?” These questions hurt me when I received them in an email this week from a Senior Manager of my local council. (The Chief Executive gave him the role to work with us ).
The words hurt me deeply. Just a few weeks ago a plaque was unveiled in Lerwick to honour the Television Series “Shetland”. Unveiled by the Actor Douglas Henshall. Funded by Shetland Islands Council with tax payers’ money. Placed at the site of the property were the lead character of the television show lives in the TV Series. The television series brings tourists and therefore money to Shetland. That is significant I am sure.
I found myself very angry and continue to be grateful to Scottish Hazards for their support.
So today, 18th November 2021 I have nowhere to go. Nowhere to grieve. Not a grave. Not here. Not anywhere. Not a Memorial Stone. Just a photo of the one in Glasgow. Just a memory of a Memorial Service.
I was too little to have images of my dad firmly fixed in my head. . The image I have is from a photo from the day he married my mum. No photos existed in our house of them both. My cousin gave me this photo just a few years ago when I tracked her down. My mum had stopped all contact with my dad’s side of the family when he died but I am now finding my family and hearing their memories. Precious memories. Everything about my dad is precious.
I hope so much that this is the last year that I have nowhere to go. I know other families here like ours. I know a family where a young father died in an accident at work, I know a family where a father died on his croft, I know a woman whose husband died in a diving accident at work. There are many more I am of no doubt. Many, many more people, with no place to go. No memorial stone or bench or tree. No significant place at all. Many like me, who may have memorials remembering their loved ones killed at work in other parts of the world, places they cannot get to when they most need to, such as anniversaries of the day their loved one was taken from them.
Growing up without a father is hard. Growing up where you know his death was politely called “industrial manslaughter”, but you know was murder is something nobody can understand unless they have walked in your shoes. I have fought hard, email after email, phone call after phone call, meeting after meeting. I started that fight because I felt I could. I fight because my dad was important. His life mattered. His memory matters. As much as everyone else’s.
As long as I live I will remember him. Next month he would have celebrated his ninetieth birthday but his last one was a celebration of being just thirty six.
We need to do so much more to keep workplaces safe. Every time I read of another senseless death of someone at work I ache. Every time I hear of a child losing their parent I pray they get support , the kind of support, I never received. I hope the person they lose is talked about and celebrated and that they get to grieve. I hope they find peace. I am grateful to Glasgow City Council , the Catholic Church, the Scottish Fire Service and Scottish Hazards.
I hope Shetland Islands Council act now and stop me from being in the same place next year on the 18th November. I hope a memorial will be in place and that as an employer and as a public body they see it as their responsibility to do what as a charity we are asking them to do.
But for now, I will honour my dad today in the only way I can. By speaking out. By remembering him. By remembering the dead and fighting for the living. Ten people each day in Scotland die as a result of workplace injury and disease. Ten too many.
We will keep speaking up until we have a place to go. We may have to fundraise to make it happen. We may have to keep sending emails and having meetings. I struggle to figure out as a lone person on behalf of Scottish Hazards I can personally maintain a memorial but if that is needed then I will find a way. But, I believe Shetland Islands Council, trade unions here on Shetland, our churches and others could share that responsibility, come together and make a Workers’ Memorial happen.
Forever the optimist. Forever the hopeful. Forever my father’s daughter.
Daughter of Henry Fulton Brown
Scottish Hazards Volunteer