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The knowledge of this fact was sufficient to strike fear to the hearts of all, and particularly to those whose property was in immediate danger of destruction. All this time, the conflagration was increasing in strength and  intensity, and was quickly overlapping the adjoining houses - on the lower end being Mr. George Wicks' china shop, over which had been sleeping himself, his wife and two children, whilst on the higher side was a cottage occupied by John Ryder, a labourer, with his wife and five children. Both these families were got out in safety, but little in the way of furniture or stock was saved from the destroying flames.

 

Living in a part of Wicks' house was his brother, Alfred Wicks, a labourer, who was awakened by hearing cries of fire. His wife and two children were got out, with only time to put on the scantiest of attire. As the flames had then a big hold on Hawken's and Soper's houses, he was unable to save more than a little bedding, which was hurriedly thrown from the window. At the back, was a cottage  occupied by John Rowlands, a labourer. He was roused by a crackling noise, and on looking out to ascertain the cause saw that fire and smoke was pouring out of Hawken's kitchen. His wife and three children had time to get to a place of safety with a portion of their clothing, while Rowlands set himself to endeavour to save some of his furniture. The work of attempting to check the flames was, long before this, in active progress, and a telegram had been despatched from the station for the Totnes fire brigade and their steam engine.

 

The only satisfactory aspect in a situation, which had been rendered so much more serious by the lamentable lack of efficient appliances, was the promptitude with which the residents grappled with the difficulty. The flames had assumed a tremendous hold on the old buildings, but there were scores of helpers at work in but a brief space from the time of the outbreak. Every bucket almost, in the vicinity was requisitioned, and strong arms passed water from the nearest sources of supply to those assisting in checking the onslaught of the all-devouring enemy.

 

Ladders were soon run up and from the roof, water was poured on to the furnace below. Messrs Frederick Soper, W. Pearse jun., E. Luscombe jun., William Ealey, W. Soper and Charles Langdon were among the most prominent of those taking part in this dangerous task. Gradually, however, the workers were forced back by the spread of the fire, but stupendous efforts were put forth to stay the advance. Not only men but women worked with commendable energy in rendering aid to those on the roof. Mrs. Bunker and Mrs. Ealey are deserving of special praise for the plucky way in which they kept at their self-imposed task of handing buckets of water to the men on the ladders and the roof above. It should be stated, too, that while these women were  hard at work, many able young men stood by and watched the conflagration without making any attempt  to relieve or assist the workers. As might naturally be expected the neighbours were very much frightened at the first alarm but their terror increased at the rapid spread of the fire and frantic efforts were made to remove the contents of the houses on either side.

The residence of Mr. Harry Stidson, painter and decorator, at the corner of the street, seemed to be in considerable danger, and the furniture was quickly deposited outside. Next up from Ryders Cottage lived William Burch, whose invalid son had to be carried away, whilst others who removed a portion of their goods were Messrs. H. Veale, E. Hannford and S. Shilabeer. Still the fire crept on, and there was no sign of the engine from Totnes. It was seen that something must  be done to save the adjoining property, if not the whole street, from destruction, and the next work of the men on the roofs was to hack away the top of Ryders Cottage to prevent, if possible, a further spread that way. From Mr. Stidson's house, water was poured on to Wick's burning roof, and a stout partition wall - a contrast to the plaster partitions which had hitherto offered little or no resistance - was able to withstand the flames.

The unfortunate residents who had this in an hour or two lost home and possessions, were given shelter by friends, whilst some of them sorrowfully watched the course of the destructive element. As the supports were burnt out, the floor came crashing down, and altogether it was a time of great excitement for the workers and the bystanders. The clanging of a fire engine bell broke on the ear, and in a few minutes the Totnes Fire Engine dashed through the village, driven by Captain H. T. Distin. It was said that the long delay - it was now about four o'clock - was due to the difficulty in securing horses in Totnes*, but there was not the time for explanations, and the Brigade, with remarkable smartness, set themselves to the work of staying further destruction.

 

From the higher cottages to Mr. Stidson's house, the fire had too great a hold to admit of anything being done to prevent the total destruction of the buildings and efforts were directed to stay the further spread at the sides, and to the premises and cottages at the rear, where was situate Mr. Hawken's oil store. Fortunately, the fire was beaten back from this direction and had died down before four o'clock.

 

The origin of the fire is unknown, but it is thought to be probably due to a defective flue in the kitchen of Hawken's house. It is said that on Sunday night, before the family retired to rest, a crackling noise was heard but that no danger could be discovered.

 

* Sadly, the story of the quest for horses was all too true. The Totnes Times later reported:

"An urgent telegraph message was receive at Totnes Station from South Brent by Porter W. Drake as follows:

"Have town fire engine sent here; very large fire in village."

Porter Drake at once proceeded to the residence of Captain Distin, calling out Deputy Captain Brimicombe on the way. It was two o'clock when the news reached the Captain, who despatched his son to call up the members of the Fire Brigade, thinking that the town might not be disturbed, he himself hurrying to the Leechwell Mews to arrange as to the horses for drawing the engine.

 

A message was taken to Mr. S. Heard, asking that horses should be got out immediately, to go to a fire at South Brent. A refusal was given, and after seeing that the men were assembling at the Fire Station, another appeal was made to Mr, Heard for  horses, with a similar result. At about a quarter past two, nearly all the Fire Brigade were waiting with the engine ready to start. Fireman Seaford, having  been to the Leechwell Mews, stating the urgency of the case,now hurried to Bridgetown to consult the Town Clerk, whose advice was to procure any horses that could be procured and start as soon as possible. Already half an hour of valuable time had been wasted.

After a fruitless visit was made to the Seymour Hotel, Mr Mitchell saying he had no horses fit to go, Mr English of the Castle Hotel was aroused, and he offered three horses for the work and these were harnessed with all possible despatch. There was, however, no driver so Captain Distin promptly decided to take the reins himself, and with Jarvis, the Castle ostler, riding the leader, a start was made about 3.15, the crew having been ready for an hour past to depart."

(NB: Totnes and South Brent are just over 7 miles apart.)

 

THE TOTNES FIRE BRIGADE CREW

ON THE NIGHT OF 25 FEBRUARY 1901

Captain H T Distin

Deputy Captain J. Brimicombe

Engineer R. Read

Sub-engineer W. Seaford

Fireman F. Seaford

Fireman A. Welch

Fireman F. Southcott

Fireman E. Hooper

Fireman J. Potter

Fireman A. Shinner

Fireman F. Smith

 

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