From The Blizzard in the West
Published by Simpkin, Marshall and Hamilton 1891
During the night of the Great Blizzard (March 9th 1891), probably the most calamitous incident that occurred on land, was a fire which broke out at about 8 o'clock at 4, Wingfield Villas, Stoke, the residence of Mr. Venning, Town Clerk of Devonport, and which resulted in the total destruction of the house and its contents, as well as in material damage to the adjoining villa.
A chimney stack facing the direction from which the wind blew, gave way and, crashing through the roof of the nursery, carried with it a quantity of debris through the floor of the nursery into the drawing room below. Through the aperture thus made the fire from the nursery grate, and it is supposed also a lamp, were carried, and speedily ignited the contents of the drawing room. The fire, being fanned by the fierce gale, just then at its height, increased rapidly, and the premises were soon in a blaze.
Owing to the elevated position in which the house stood, the conflagration was visible at a great distance, and in spite of the weather, large numbers of people visited the spot, although the journey hither, under the circumstances, was one of the most difficult it is possible to conceive. To those who ventured on the walk, the sight presented was an extraordinarily impressive one. The flames raged like the blast of a furnace, and the mingling of the smoke, sparks and snow dust produced as effect that was as novel as it was terrible. Sparks from the burning building were carried immense distances, and beaten, with the snow-powder, against the windows of houses that faced the burning villa. Standing at a distance of nearly a mile, with eyes fixed on the blaze, it was impossible to believe that the roar of the fire could not be heard, so nearly did the howling and surging of the wind resemble the roar caused by a great column of rushing flame.
In connection with the fire, several narrow escapes are recorded. Mr. Venning's daughter, about six years of age, had a perilous escape. She had been put to bed by her nurse and, during the absence of the latter from the room for a few minutes, the chimney crashed through the roof above her room into the drawing-room below. Fortunately Mr. Venning's daughter received nothing worse than a severe fright, and she was quickly removed to a neighbouring house. The ladies who were in the drawing-room at the time of the crash were also greatly alarmed, and made a hasty exit from the building, being hospitably sheltered at Wingfield House by Colonel Goodeve, RA., and also at the house of a relative at Godolphin Terrace.
The efforts of the firemen to prevent the spread of the flames, under circumstances of great difficulty, were crowned with a well-merited success. Water was not readily available, and when obtained was not abundant, but notwithstanding this a gallant fight was made, and although to save the one dwelling was impossible, the contents of the adjoining one were safely removed, and the structure itself was snatched from total demolition.
In addition to the West of England and Devonport Fire Brigades, and a large staff of constables under the charge of Mr. Evans, the Chief Constable of Devonport, there were present Colonel Liardet, RMLI, the field officer of the day, and a detachment of men belonging to the King's Own Scottish Borderers, under Captain Haggard. Several manual engines from the troops in garrison were taken to the scene of the fire, but, with one exception, they were not brought into use. A number of civilians were conspicuous for their energy in performing voluntary salvage duty. the damage resulting from this fire has been estimated at something like £7000.