^ Home
< Back
? Search
Print this page




Devon County

Devonshire Rgt.

Directory Listings





Parish Records




War Memorials



The following text  has  been assembled using contemporary  newspaper accounts of this event.  The account rendered at the inquest on the first victim of the fire has proved the most reliable.  What emerged is a picture of the bravery of the police constable who tried to rescue an elderly woman in utterly hopeless conditions. He was eventually rewarded with the presentation of a certificate from the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire plus a £5 reward. The mayor collected £14 in the town from which was purchased a marble clock and a silver watch for him in addition. One of the inmates, John Wise, who had also helped at the fire, received a certificate and £1.


The inquest on the death of a woman called Mary Fuke took place a year later on November 22nd 1892. Everyone who was everyone in the governance of the Workhouse, the Police and the Fire Brigade in South Molton was present. The proceedings began with a visit to the scene of the fire seeing the room where it started and the room where Mary Fuke died plus a complete inspection of the  Workhouse building.


The first witness called was the Workhouse Nurse, Jane Rowe who was 62 at the time of the fire. This was her evidence:

"I am the nurse of the South Molton Union Workhouse. On Saturday morning  (November 19th) about 7.35 while I was removing a lamp in my room from a table to put it in its usual place on the cupboard, the lamp separated."


  Victorian oil lamp  
It is believed that a lamp of this type caused the fire. Of fimsy construction it may have been incorrectly assembled after its last filling.


The nurse continued:

"It was lighted and I cannot say what caused it to part. The china part of the lamp fell on the floor and was smashed in pieces. The corner of the table cloth caught fire first and I put the hearthrug and a mat on it to try and put it out. I had never known the lamp to part before. I gave an alarm and the Master (John Bines) came almost immediately. He could not do anything and I remained in the room until my apron, dress and cap were burnt. My shoes caught fire and I pulled them off.  My hands were slightly burnt as well as my eyebrows and hair.


The Master and myself both went for assistance to get the inmates out. We got up some of the able-bodied men to remove the sick and infirm. I had been into the Infirm Women's Ward that morning before the fire. I got there by way of my private stairs. The door at the top of my stairs leading into the ward was unlocked.  I believe the door leading to the ordinary staircase from the Infirm Ward was bolted on the inside. The bolt had been previously pointed out to the occupants of the ward. I twice tried to get to the Infirm Ward but was driven back by the flames. There were two women in that ward - Mary Hosegood and Mary Fuke - and there was a woman and a baby and another woman in the lying-in ward. I knew that Mary Hosegood was got out, and I tried to get to Mary Fuke but was unable to get through the flames."


At this point a juror asked  if it was usual to have an Infirm Ward at the top of the Workhouse. The Coroner (who was also a member of the Board of Guardians of the Workhouse) replied that in more modern workhouses it was usual to keep infirm people as near the groundfloor exit as possible and stated that changes would be made as a result of the accident, .to which the Juror replied "Not before time"


South Molton's old fire engine
And here - squashed up in a corner of its tiny museum - is the South Molton fire engine of the day. The function of this little horse-drawn  machine was to pump water for the hoses. The men got themselves to the blaze instead of riding on the engine.


Captain Baker of South Molton Fire Brigade had questions for Nurse Rowe about the locked doors to which she replied


"There were two doors locked - the door to the men's Sick Ward which led from her room and the door at the top of the stairs. The same key unlocked both doors. These were spring locks which shut of themselves but opened only with a key.


The next person called was Susan Turner, an inmate of the Workhouse who also was employed as a kitchen woman. She stated that she rang the rising bell at quarter to seven and afterwards unlocked the doors downstairs. She heard Mary Tolley knock at the door at the bottom of the Sick Ward stairs. The door had been unlocked but she had bolted it again. When she opened the door and ran upstairs, she saw the Nurse's room  was all ablaze and the Nurse's clothes were on fire. She ran out and shouted for help and the Master came immediately. She had slept in the Sick Ward that night.


Next to testify was the Master, John Bines, who said

"The deceased, Mary Fuke, was an infirm inmate of the Union who was 77 years of age. She was able to get about without assistance*. About a quarter after seven on Saturday morning Susan Turner came running to my bedroom crying "Fire! Fire!" I asked where and she answered "The Sick Ward", I was dressed all but my shoes but I came out without waiting to put them on. I then saw that the fire was in the Nurse's room. I could see through the door opening, there was no way of putting the fire out and said to the Nurse "Do all you can to get these people out". I ran back to my room and gave the alarm to the porter and the gardener. The porter came at once and I sent him off for the town to get help and the fire engine. I ran down and unlocked the kitchen door leading to the able-bodied men's room and the yard. I sent them to the women's Sick Ward to assist in getting out the sick. I then went to the bottom of the men's Sick Ward Stairs at the north end of the building, where I found John Wise and James Brailey, two of the inmates, engaged in getting out the sick men. There were eight of them and they were all got out safely.

 *Dementia - the most likely explanation of Mary Fluke's behavious, at all was not recognised at this time.

Seeing that the men would be all right, I returned to the Women's Sick ward and helped out one of the inmates. We took the sick patients into the Boy's Ward, which was the nearest available room. Charity Williams was injured by a blow on the forehead, caused as she was taken out. She was not burnt but was suffering from shock and suffocation. I believe one of the policemen got her out. I saw that the women were properly cared for and I then went up to the Infirm Ward which I found locked. PC Wotton was smashing it open with a hatchet and rescued Elizabeth Holland who had recently been confined, as well as her child. he also rescued Ann Blake and Mary Hosegood. I asked Ann Blake where Mary Fuke was and she replied she was gone back into the Infirm bedroom and would not come out with the others. I could not get to her on account of the flames and ran round to the other door to try to rescue her that way but I found the flames and smoke coming through so fiercely that I then saw there was no means of saving Mary Fuke's life. Someone tried to get through the window by means of a ladder but they could not do so. This was within ten minutes  of my first hearing of the fire. I used every endeavour to rescue her but did not see or hear anything of her during the whole time, 




^ Home
< Back
? Search
Print this page