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Devon County

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Shobrooke Park House

Shobrooke Park House

From our Post Card collection


From local press accounts:

The death toll in the fire which destroyed Shobrooke Park Mansion, near Crediton, during the early hours of Tuesday last has been increased to three schoolboys and one nurse.


9 year-old Peter Charlesworth, suffering from severe burns, died in the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital last night. The other dead are Charles Sheffield, whose home is at Newmarket, Suffolk, and Charles Gurdon of Hemel Hempstead, Herts, - both schoolboys - and Nurse Bell whose brother travelled to Crediton today. Nurse Bell is believed to have been single and to have had no permanent address.


Shobrooke Park Mansion was being used at the time of the disastrous fire by the St Peter's Court Preparatory School which had been evacuated from Broadstairs, Kent, just after was broke out. During the day on Tuesday, many of the schoolboys were given hospitality at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Crediton.


On taking his seat at Crediton magistrate's Court on Tuesday last, Mr T. Morcom said: "I would like to refer to the terrible catastrophe at Shobrooke Park. Sir John Shelley (owner of the house) is one of our colleagues and we deeply sympathise with him We also deplore the loss of life and our sympathy goes out to all concerned and especially to those who have lost their loved ones." 

The mansion at Shobrooke Park is owned by Sir John Shelley, vice-chairman of Devon County Council. The century-old fifty-roomed house was one of the best known seats in the county and a familiar landmark in the Crediton district. Since war broke out, the fine old mansion had been used by the preparatory school at which the Duke of Gloucester and the late Duke of Kent received their early education.


The fire was discovered at about 4 o'clock and soon after, according to the headmaster, the mansion was a blazing inferno. The suddeness of the outbreak and the rapid spread of the flames destroyed the telephone system so communication by this means was cut off and consequently delayed the flashing of the alarm which was first given by one of the scholars who, scantily clad, ran along country roads to the Crediton NFS station over a mile distant.


Back at the mansion, the staff and boys were faced with many perils. As the flames raged with ever-increasing fury, the immediate task was that of getting the scholars out from the blazing building to the safety of the surrounding grounds. Improvised ladders were hurriedly suspended from burning and smoke-filled rooms on the upper storeys. Many boys made the hazardous descent, hand over hand, in complete safety but a few, presumed to have leapt from the parapets and windows, were injured. A number of teachers and members of the domestic staff did likewise and some were also injured. Those detained in hospital are:

Martin Synge (53) fractured leg

Dorothy Hun (40) injured Spine

Eugenie Baker (53) fractures

Rachel Wright (22) fractures

Doris Nott (20) fractures

David Corbett (8) Burns

Charles Cox (9) Burns, shock and cuts

David Winslow (13) fractured legs

Another boy (not named) aged 10 suffered cuts on the face

When they received the alarm, the fire fighters reacted promptly and attacked the fire with the minimum of delay. An ample water supply was available from the lake near the house, but hard though the firemen worked, the task of saving the building and its contents was an impossible one.

As well as the Crediton firemen, other contingents were later sent from Exeter, Topsham and Tiverton. The combined efforts of the firemen could do no more than control the flames and prevent them from spreading to buildings in close proximity. Moreover, the members of the NFS, with the poice who were early on duty did much noble work in rescuing boys as tongues of flame leapt dangerously close. One group of 18 boys was rescued by firemen from a pillared porch over the main entrance..

Early offers from Queen Elizabeth Grammar School and the Crediton High School happily went a long way to solve the problem of accommodating and providing food and shelter to the luckless victims of the Shobrooke fire. Scholars and members of staff were taken to the two schools at Crediton by a fleet of motor cars which journeyed to and fro at frequent intervals.

The headmaster of the school was seen at the lodge by a reporter. With a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, he said, "My wife went round the house at 2.0am to make sure everything was in order - by 4.30, it was a blazing inferno                                          ."

Sir John Shelley was among those on the scene and expressed the opinion that the fire might have originated in the Nursery block on the ground floor. Near this was Muniment room and while the school records were all lost, Sir John thought some of his own private papers might have been saved.

The inquest on 3 of the 4 victims of the fire was opened by the District Coroner (Mr W. Rackwood Cocks) on Wednesday and adjourned for one week.

Mr Spencer Charles Fitzgerald Churchill Ridgeway, headmaster of St Peter's Court School, said after the fire had been got under control, the following were missing:

Miss Emily Bell, nurse and matron

Charles Sheffield and Charles Gurdon.

The remains of an adult and two children had since been recovered from the fire.

The father of Charles Sheffield was serving the in the army, overseas. The home address was The Larches, Newmarket. The father of Charles Gurdon was deceased. His mother had since remarried and is the Hon. Mrs Alistair Gibb of Highfield House, Hemel Hempstead. From enquiries made, it would  seem that the last time he was seen alive,  Sheffield was with Miss Bell.

Percy Bell, a civil servant gave evidence that his sister was the matron and nurse at the school and that she was a spinster a ged 57 and had been employed at the school for many years.

Evidence was given that Charles Gurdon was heir to the barony of Cranworth. His father had been Lieutenant the Hon. Robert Brampton Gurdon, only son of Lord Cranworth  who was killed in the Middle East. Charles's younger brother, 4 year-old Philip Bertram Gurdon now became heir to the title.  Their mother, a sister of Viscount Cowdray was married last November to Lt-Col. Alistair Gibb, late of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry.



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