George Stephen Funnell served in the military, and was decorated for bravery. He joined the London police force  at the age of 26. Seven years later, he was still a constable, badge n° 261J, plodding the beat in the neighbourhood of Victoria Park. Shortly after one o’clock on the morning of Friday 22nd of December 1899, a glaring light in the darkness alerted him to a fire in the Elephant and Castle tavern nearby on Wick Road, Hackney.  He rang at the bell, and, hearing the shrieks of women, burst his way in to find himself surrounded by smoke and flames.
In an instant, his face was scorched, his hair and eyebrows singed, his hands burnt and blistered, but he rushed in to where the cries were, and dragged out the proprietress of the tavern, who was already burned about the face and arms. But there were others in the blazing buiding, and pausing merely to blow his whistle for assistance, he dashed in again through the flames and blinding smoke, and this time rescued one of the barmaids, and brought her safely to the street. He was terribly burnt by that time, poor fellow, but his noble work was not yet done. Once more, he ventured in, and seized on another young woman, shrieking and panic stricken, but she broke away from him, and rushing to another room, opened a door, letting in a fierce draught that fanned that fanned the fire, and overcome by heat and smoke, the poor fellow fell to the ground, but the young woman escaped into the street. By that time, other constables had arrives, and running in the rear of the premises, looked through a barred window, and saw his prostrate form. He was rescued with all speed, though in a state of insensibility, and conveyed to the infirmary. His face and eyes were terribly burnt, but he survived until the 2nd of January (1900) when he died. 
He was accorded a public funeral with several hundred members of the London Police Force and Fire Brigade in attendance. The local inhabitants took to the streets to pay their last respects to a local hero.
His wife, Jane Lilian, in delicate health, and two young sons George Stephen (born 1897) and Lenard A. (born 1898) were “very fairly provided for” by the police and received donations from the public through a society set up for this purpose. In 1901, they were still living in St Paul, Lower Homerton, London.
This is an adaptation of a somewhat sensational report in the News of the World dated 14th of January 1900.
Other reports in the Weekly Dispatch dated 7th January 1900 and 25th of March 1900 give different versions. The first, an account of the inquest on George Stephen’s death relates Alice Marion’s version that she “heard noise and detected a smell of fire. She roused the other inmates, and the potman found that the office was alight. She and the landlady escaped“. Police Constable Baker told the magistrate that he “noticed the fire and at once rang the fire alarm. With others, he entered the bar and tried to put out the fire but was beaten back by the flames“. The deceased jumped over the counter and disappeared. Minnie Lewis, another barmaid is the only witness whose version resembles the report in the News of the World.
Five policemen were decorated in relation with this incident. The latter article reports that bronze medals were awarded by the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire. The magistrate addressed them saying that “Sergeant Danyle arrived on the scene of the fire, and was followed by Constables Weavers, Reeves, Elrich, Baker and Funnell. They entered the house, and all were driven back by fire, smoke and heat, with the exception of Funnell” who managed to reach three women and save their lives.
Whichever the version, George Stephen Funnell was certainly a very brave man who died in a long and unimaginable suffering after saving the lives of others.
 In 1899, as the century drew to a close, the population of London had grown from 1,500,000 to 7 million. The Metropolitan Police upon its formation in 1829 had a force of about 3,000 men and in 1899: 16,000.
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Thanks to Lee Funnell who sent in the photos of his great grandfather and the memorial plaque (21/05/07)
Source: British Library Online Newspaper Archive
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