From the Totnes Times
2 March 1901
South Brent was, on Monday morning, the scene of a fire, which not only wrought disaster and rendered several residents homeless, without scarcely a single worldly possession, but exposed in a truly distressing manner, the utter inefficiency of the arrangements for coping with a conflagration, and the total inadequacy, not only of the water supply, but of the water appliances.
What might have happened had it not been for the heroic efforts of many willing helpers, it is difficult to imagine. As it was, four houses and a tenement were entirely destroyed, and a cottage partially ruined, and it may safely be said that part of this extensive damage may have been averted had the most ordinary precautions have been taken to deal with an outbreak of this kind.
About one o 'clock, the town was roused by the ringing of the fire bell, a sound which happily, had not disturbed the peace of the residents for many years. From the direction of Church Street came the alarm - "Fire! "Fire!" and very soon scores of people were hurrying to that thoroughfare, to find that the premises of Mr. J. E. Hawken, baker and grocer, and those of Mr. Philip Soper, gardener and greengrocer, were burning fiercely.
The flames were already assuming considerable proportions and fast enveloping the houses in their fiery grasp. Mr. Hawken had been aroused by his servant, a girl named Hannaford who, in terror-stricken tones, stated that her bedroom, at the back of the house and situate over the kitchen, was full of smoke. He at once went to ascertain the cause, and found not only that a volume of smoke was proceeding from the kitchen, but also that it was impossible to leave the house by way of the stairs in consequence of its density. In addition to Mrs. Hawken and a baby about eight months old, there was an old lady in the house, aged 87 - an aunt of Mr. Hawken's - so that the position was one of considerable difficulty and danger. There was no time to dress, and egress was attempted through a trap door leading into a passage way below. Mr. Hawken and a young man named William Soper, who assists in the business, and who had been sleeping in a back bedroom, got the baby down the ladder, but in that short space of time the passage was ablaze and further escape that way was cut off.
The alarm of "Fire!" - a dread cry even in cases where no danger to life is concerned - was raised, and a dash made for the window. Mrs. Hawken and the aunt were hurriedly dropped down into the street, their fall being broken by William Soper, although fortunately, the distance was not great, only some ten feet. The premises were now in a mass of flame, Mr Hawken being slightly burnt in rescuing his wife, so that there was scarcely time to think of saving any of his possessions, much less to make the attempt, and he reached the street by dropping from the window. Downstairs, in the kitchen and shop, a fierce fire was raging, it having now spread to the adjoining house, occupied by Mr. Soper, almost before it was known that anything was amiss. Mrs. Soper had heard the shouts of "Fire!" and found that the bedroom was fast filling with smoke. She awoke her husband and two children, and Mr. Soper ascertained that the back part of his house was being fast consumed by the flames. The parting wall from Mr. Hawken's house was very thin and the smoke soon penetrated. There was just time to get downstairs with the children when the fire burst through and enveloped the front of the house as well, all chance of saving any portion of the furniture being quickly gone.
Among the first on the scene were Messrs H. Veale, E. Tall and J. Stanbury, who assisted Mr. Hawken in rousing the neighbours and spreading the alarm. Messrs R. Rowlands, J. Stephens, T. Andrews, W. Soper and others setting to work at once to render assistance. Mr. Veale rushed away to the recently acquired fire engine - a small manual engine purchased about twelve months since, at the expense of some £6 by the Parish Council. There was, however, a difficulty in obtaining possession of the key of the new fire engine house, which was built a few months ago at a cost of about £50. No one seemed to know exactly who had the key, and various persons were called up, it being eventually secured from Mr. Cranch. At last the engine was got to Church Street but where was the fire brigade?
It had been understood that the Parish Council had constituted themselves into a fire brigade when they made the momentous decision to acquire the engine and appliances. Presumably, however, there had been no arrangements for calling the members of this Council Brigade together and, as some of the Councillors live some miles from the town it would, in any case have been a task not quickly carried out. There were only three members of the Parish Council early on the spot - Messrs H. Veale, J. Veale and E. Luscombe. When the manual engine arrived on the scene there was no lack of willing helpers to man the pump but it was upwards of half an hour before the engine could be got to work. As soon as the hose had been attached to the hydrant, which was, fortunately close at hand, it was found to be useless, owing to its rotten condition.
Then another piece of short-sightedness was discovered: only one standpipe for attaching to the hydrants could be produced, this being the only one in town. The hose kept by the water authorities was then procured, but that burst as soon as any strain was put on it; and so South Brent had reached the limit of its own resources to fight the fire!