The Great Fire of Harwell April 28th 1852
Dear Sir, _ _I am sorry I cannot attend to your tythe business now for some time as we are burnt completely out by an extensive fire which has occurred and burnt nearly the whole parish down. I have (lost) both your lists of the defaulters you sent me if you wish to have the business settled by me you must send me another list when I will attend to it as soon as I can; hoping you are well I am Yours &c
This letter from a somewhat breathless Mr Shemas refers to a fire in the village in 1852 so serious that the Illustrated London News reported it, and sent an artist to draw a picture of the ruins.
The report in the Chronicle (Berkshire) contains more details:
"We regret that it falls to our duty to record the occurrence of one of the most fearful fires that have happened in our rural district within the memory or the hearsay of the oldest inhabitant, which broke out at Harwell, on Saturday evening last about 9p.m., on the farm in the occupation of Mr Isaac Robey, known as 'Adnam's Farm', and caused the destruction of a great portion of that populous village. Harwell is situated two and a half miles from Didcot junction in a southerly direction; the village is principally formed of a street of upwards of half a mile in length, which is partly composed of a number of farm homesteads some of which were unfortunately immediately contiguous to each other, and the calamity which has now taken place has, we were informed by several farmers, been long anticipated when a fire should break out at either end of the street with the wind blowing in an unfavourable direction. On the evening in question there was a north-east wind blowing, and on the fire breaking out at the east end of the village it was quickly perceived that with the disadvantageous wind and a great facility with which everything would ignite, owing to the extreme dryness prevailing, a serious conflagration must ensue. These anticipations were quickly realised. In less than an hour it had communicated from Mr Robey's Farm with the thatched buildings and ricks of several adjoining farms, and a flake of fire was conveyed over by the wind to Mr Allen's Farm, at the other end of the village, which set that on fire. Here there were no less than five straw ricks, which quickly caught and blazed with great fierceness, and the fire might now have been seen for many miles around. At Abingdon, a distance of only six miles, the reflection was observable to any part of the town, and it was apparent that a great fire was somewhere raging. On repairing to the part, and when within a mile of the village, a scene presented itself which cannot be effaced from the minds of those who have the painful satisfaction of witnessing it. Until then, we were kept from a view of the village, when all at once it presented itself literally wrapped in flames, forming apparently one unbroken light of fire, extending the length of half a mile. On arriving at the village we found the fire still extending itself, and as the rapidity with which it spread occasioned the belief that the whole place would be burned down, the greatest consternation prevailed.
The cottagers and occupiers of the houses which were not within the line of the fire were rapidly removing their goods to a place of apparent safety, and the adjoining orchards and by-places were crowded with families and their rescued goods. We found several engines on the spot, but all attempts to save premises once on fire were found quite useless, and they were only brought into requisition to stop the progress of the fire, and to endeavour to prevent it reaching premises which would endanger the farms running parallel and on the south side of the village street; in which they were successful, otherwise a further loss of property to a great extent must have ensued. Great exertions were used to prevent the Crown public house from catching fire, which, as it was a thatched building, and a large tiled barn and outhouse were inflames within five yards of it, were for a long time hopelessly continued. An engine was brought to bear on it, which kept the thatch well saturated with water, but its ultimate preservation, and the further destruction of property which must have happened, was affected mainly by the highly praiseworthy efforts of a man named Walter, who in the face of a burning heat and intense smoke, remained on the top of the house for some hours, and extinguished the flames of fire as they fell on the thatch, which must otherwise have become ignited. Except for the probability that these premises would catch fire, the fire had by about twelve o'clock reached its full extent. Already nine farms had been burnt down, and so complete was the destruction of three of them, that where a few hours before stood commodious farmhouses, ample barns and premises, a few chimneys and low walls remained to mark the spot. As the fire was burning in places on both sides of the street, there was no hope at one time that any portion of it would be safe, but fortunately, gardens intervened between the houses, and stopped the progress of the flames. Here and there, however, the thatched buildings and cottages, of which the street was partly built, caught fire, not through direct communication with other burning premises, but owing to particles of floating fire alighting on the roof; the thatched walls, too, were means of adding greatly to the list of calamities, and in many cases, had they not been battered down, they would have caused immense destruction by conveying the flames to other properties.
The almshouses were saved by the merest chance. They were quite isolated from many of the burning premises, and being built of brick and tile they were not considered a peril; the only precautions taken respecting them were the removing of aged and helpless inmates. We happened to be passing at the time when they were discovered to be on fire between the ceiling and the roof, and by prompt exertions of a few individuals, it was extinguished before doing any damage; had they been unsuccessful, a range of houses etc. would have been in imminent peril. It is supposed that a spark fell on a roof and was blown between the interstices of the tiles into the tallet, where it ignited the rafters.
Fortunately, the livestock was, with the exception of a quantity of poultry, all saved, but had the night been more advanced the loss in this respect must have been great. The farmers, however, had time and assistance ready at hand to remove their cattle and implements etc. Hundreds of people in the neighbourhood were on the spot, and we very much regret to hear that advantage was taken of the general consternation and bewilderment which prevailed, by some unfeeling rogues to plunder to a considerable extent, and many of the poor cottagers will thereby be sufferers. We understand that the distress of the homeless cottagers has been in part alleviated by the kindness of a few ladies and gentlemen in the immediate neighbourhood, and when the amount of the damage has been ascertained, an organised step will be taken towards their benefit.
There can be little doubt that the fire originated in the act of an incendiary. The total damage and loss can only be a matter of conjecture, but we think it will be under £1,000.”
21 dwellings houses,
9 farm homesteads were destroyed.
Engines attended from: Harwell (Parish engine), Steventon, Hendred and Aston.
Mrs Talbot, of Jenning's Lane, says her grandmother remembered the distress of farm animals as an outstanding feature of that distressing event.