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Devon County

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From the Exeter Flying Post

10 April 1878




"The inhabitants of the pleasantly-situated and usually quiet village of Silverton were greatly alarmed by a fire which broke out about noon on Sunday, and spread with such rapidity that before it could be extinguished sixteen houses were destroyed, and their occupants to the number of about 60, found themselves homeless and well-nigh destitute.

The fire originated in the chimney of a cottage at the head of Parsonage Lane, occupied by a labourer named William Davey, and was first discovered soon after noon, just as people were leaving church. Parsonage Lane is a narrow thoroughfare, branching off the main road at the north end of the village, and most of the houses in it were very old and inflammable, being built for the most part of cob and covered with thatch. These cottages, were with one or two exceptions, occupied by labourers and old people past work. Prompt measures were taken to extinguish the chimney and there the damage would probably have ended had it not been for the high wind which carried flakes of burning soot on to the thatched roofs adjoining, and quickly set two or three of the buildings in a blaze. A man named Gosling, who lived just opposite, was about to sit down to dinner with his family when the alarm was raised and almost before he had time to look round the whole cottage was wrapped in flame.

In a few minutes the local engine under the direction of Mr. Loaring, was on the spot and shortly afterwards the engines from Bradninch and Thorverton arrived. The power thus brought to bear was however soon found to be quite insufficient to master the flames, which spread from house to house with alarming rapidity, and accordingly, a telegram was sent off to Exeter, via Thorverton, for more help.

In less than an hour after the receipt of the telegram one of the West of England engines, under the command of Captain Honey, had been conveyed to Silverton - a distance of eight miles or more.  The Sun engine, commanded by Captain Tucker, followed shortly afterwards. By this time, the fire had worked its way down Parsonage Lane, having obtained the mastery of the whole row of cottages, except one or two which were partially saved by stripping the thatch and another which had a tiled roof.

The Exeter brigade, seeing how matters were going, at once set to work to prevent the fire extending up and down the central thoroughfare and across it. The road is very narrow at the junction with Parsonage Lane and, as many of the houses in the locality were thatched, the task of checking the progress of the flames was a very arduous one. The houses on the opposite side, including the Lamb Inn, caught fire readily; but the constant stream of water directed on these buildings from the several engines, seconded by the efforts of men armed with buckets, prevented the flames from obtaining a hold on them. Very fortunate, indeed, this was, for had the fire once obtained any headway in the central part of the village, the greater part of it must have gone.

For a time a good supply of water was obtained from ponds in the neighbourhood, and though it was almost exhausted in a couple of hours, it lasted long enough to get the fire under. The roof of the Methodist Chapel , close by Gosling's house, at one time caught fire, but the building received no material injury. Cotton's Row, at the end of the lane, a property of considerable value, given to the parish by the late Dr. Cotton for the benefit of the poor, was placed in considerable jeopardy. Four times it caught fire, and was only saved from destruction by the watchfulness and activity of the Silverton and Thorverton firemen. By four o'clock all apprehension of further danger was removed and in a short time the fire was completely subdued.

During the progress of the fire, those of the neighbours who were not engaged in working the engines or fetching water, rendered valuable assistance to the unfortunate cottagers in removing the old and infirm to a place of safety, and saving their furniture and chattels. In one of the houses an old man named Thomas Courtney had been invalided for years, and he had to be carried out on his bed. Ann Courtney, between 80 and 90 years of age, who had lived in the house for a great number of years, obstinately refused to leave, but was gallantly rescued by PC Dameral. who rushed in through the blinding smoke and brought her out just before the blazing roof fell in.

The clergyman of the parish, the Rev. H. F. Strangways was amongst the foremost in his exertions on behalf of his poor parishioners; Mrs. Strangways took charge of all the children, and sent them to the rectory kitchen where they received the kindest attention; the Misses Strangways and Miss Kingsbury lent their assistance in fetching water to feed the engines, and in this work they soon found plenty of willing helpers. Mr. Passmore, of the firm of Passmore and Savery of Exeter, deserved mention as prominent among the visitors who rendered good service; while Mr. Webber, one of the leading laymen of Silverton, with Mr. Puddicombe, the village surgeon, likewise did all in their power to save goods, and in attending to the wants of the old and decrepit victims.

This is an approximate list of the families burnt out:

Davis, wife and four children

Vicary, wife and five children

Bolt, wife and three children

Thomas, wife and five children

Ann Courtney 87 years of age and four or five other old people over 70

King, wife and one child

John Andrews and Ann Andrews who occupied a cottage, their own property

Rew and two children

Gosling and two children

Excepting the cottage occupied by John and Ann Andrews, most of those destroyed belonged to Messrs Southcott and Berry who were insured in the West of England and Sun Offices. Only one or two of the cottages had indentured their furniture, and those who are not left quite destitute have suffered considerable loss.  Several of the burnt-out families were lodged for the night at the Parish Room where Dr. Puddicombe remained up to a late hour doing what he could for the old and infirm.

During the day, the scene of the fire was visited by hundred of persons from the neighbourhood and from Exeter and a subscription was started amongst them for the benefit of the sufferers.


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