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The combination of close-packed houses and highly inflammable material such as thatch and wood made village fires an almost inevitable nightmare. Witheridge was no exception. Until 1948 we had no fire service of our own and had to rely on the telephone or telegraph to Tiverton for help. Before these inventions it was a case of a man galloping to Tiverton, rousing the brigade which then galloped to Witheridge, often sadly too late. Before the Tiverton brigade, it was ladders and buckets. Water was always short. Some properties had their own wells, while others relied on the small reservoir in the corner of the Sports Field, fed by springs in the nearby Lakelands field (now houses). In the 20th century this was supplemented by a pumped supply in the field beyond Merryside. Even so, there were times when demand was heavy and there was nothing left in the pipes and taps for those at the bottom of the village. Witheridge was however lucky in having the Square, which acted as a firebreak, when for example in the 1880s the Old Bell Inn and houses along the north side of the Square caught fire and burnt out. The Fire Brigade at Tiverton had been telegraphed for and came galloping, but the fire had too strong a hold and as there was little water anyway, all the Brigade could do was go home again.

07/01/1775: On Sunday morning last a most sudden and dreadful Fire broke out in the House of Mr John Burgess of Witheridge, Inn holder, which in a few hours entirely consumed the same, together with a Stable adjoining in which was a large Quantity of Hay, the Fire having spread so far before it was discovered that the greatest part of his Goods were likewise destroyed, by which unhappy accident the poor Man, who has a Wife and six Children, is reduced to the greatest Distress.

In the 1830s, the Old Parsonage farmhouse went up in flames, 50 years later it was replaced by the present Hope House (then the Vicarage).

12/08/1847:  On Saturday morning at half past ten o'clock the inhabitants of this quiet little village were aroused by the clanging of bells, the sound of alarm. the house of Mr Brown, baker, was on fire. This bakehouse being thatched, the roof and upper parts were quickly destroyed and the fire next reached a place where was furze, wood etc, but was slated, and the flames at this period were making serious progress. They sent to Tiverton for the West of England engine which was very soon on the spot and in operation, but not before seven houses were entirely consumed. Had not the wind been favourable, much of the village might have been destroyed.

11/05/1848:  On Wednesday morning last between 11 and 12 o'clock an alarm of fire was given at the Commercial Inn, occupied by Mr Rippin. The house being old and of a rather fragile kind and the thatch dry, it was with great difficulty that the thatch could be kept from communicating to that of the adjoining house in the occupation of T J Coater Esq., and had it done, so much more of the village would have been burnt. There was a most ample supply of water and through the exertions of those who helped (and we must not forget the most praiseworthy conduct of the women, who are always most active on these occasions) the flames were got under. The Inn, we hear, is the property of the Feoffees of the Crediton Grammar School and is insured. Rippin is not insured.

21/08/1861: The inhabitants of Witheridge were alarmed on Sunday last about noon by the cries of fire, which was discovered in a house occupied by Mr Marley, the butcher, situated in the middle of the town. The fire broke out in the chimney and being a thatched roof it was quickly all in flames. It was feared that the house of T M Comins Esq. Solicitor, which was adjoining would quickly be laid hold of by the devouring element, but by the indefatigable exertions of the inhabitants the progress of the fire was arrested. The West of England Fire Brigade arrived from Tiverton, but too late to be of much service, the damage being over before its arrival. Providentially the wind, which was high at the time, was in the south west or the consequences might have been much more disastrous. One part of the property is insured in the West of England Fire Office.

June 25th 1872; About four o'clock on Wednesday morning the lightning set fire to the thatched house of Mr Selley, large cattle dealer and butcher. About £500 worthy of wool was burnt and damaged, and the house and the one adjoining in the occupation of Misses Comins (draper and grocers) were destroyed. Men belonging to Ginett's Circus, which had been performing in the surrounding neighbourhood, rendered assistance, removing a number of sheep carcases ready for market, furniture, etc. Getting upon one another's shoulders they rescued Mrs Selley from her bedroom, She secured her cash box, Mr Selley being absent at Challacombe. Eight sheep and four lambs in a field were killed by lightning. There is no fire engine within ten miles of the town.

February 27th 1886 - Destructive Fire at Witheridge; On Monday night a disastrous fire occurred at Witheridge. The scene of the conflagration was a block of four houses adjoining the churchyard, three of which are owned and occupied respectively by Mr Joseph Churchill, saddler, Mr J Denner, wheelwright, and Mr W Way, carpenter. The fourth belongs to Mr Trawin, who vacated it some weeks since. The whole property had thatched roofs. Fire was discovered shortly after seven in the chimney of the unoccupied house, and before steps could be taken to extinguish it, it had gained a firm hold and seriously threatened to envelope the whole block. A telegram was despatched to Tiverton, the nearest town with a fire engine, and the West of England Fire Bridge, in charge of Mr John Grater, proceeded to the spot, arriving there shortly before ten. By this time the fire had played great havoc with the buildings, the roof of which had fallen in, and there being very little left on which the firemen could direct their efforts. Moreover, there was a scanty supply of water - only sufficient, it was estimated, to enable the engine to play on the flames for ten minutes. Consequently the firemen, after assuring themselves that there was no danger to the fire spreading to other property, deemed their services of no avail and returned home. It should be stated that the destroyed houses were isolated ones. Fortunately Messrs Churchill, Denner and Way were able to remove the bulk of their furniture and movables before the fire had made substantial headway. All the houses are insured - two in the Royal Farmers Office and one in the Caledonian Office and one in the West of England Office. The loss is therefore limited to a few things that could not be removed before the buildings were enveloped.

WITHERIDGE COTTAGE BURNT: A CHILD PERISHED IN THE FLAMES - On Sunday afternoon, a fire was discovered in a cottage at Gunhole. There are two thatched cottages adjoining, one occupied by John Cruwys, and as his wife has been ill, his landlady kindly let him use the other cottage to sleep in. There had been put in the cottage some old thatching reed. It appears that the little lad, son of Cruwys, five years old, got some matches and set the reed on fire, and being afraid to tell of it, ran upstairs, and it was not known he was there until it was impossible to get inside the house. The body was got out as soon as possible, but not until it was past recognition, merely the trunk being left. Great sympathy is felt for the parents. Luckily, the wind was in the north. Had it been in the east, the fire must have destroyed all Ebrington Row. There were many willing hands to help, but it was of little use, except to keep the flames off the other cottages. There have been several fires in Witheridge, and there is no apparatus in the place to extinguish one.

This article was originally published in the North Devon Journal on 4th April 1891

03/06/1935:A serious fire broke out at about 7am on Monday at Dart Raffe Farm, Witheridge. It was believed to have started in a chimney in the west Wing, and quickly spread to the thatched roof. The South Molton Fire Brigade attended but were unable to prevent the fire on the roof from spreading, and both the dairy and granary were soon alight. Dart Raffe dated back to the 13th Century, and was once a monastery.


EMILY BEER, a girl, was charged with setting fire to a dwelling house in the possession of George Cruwys, at Witheridge, on the 15th July 1892. - The prisoner was undefended. The girl, not of the highest intelligence, pleaded not guilty. She sobbed during the hearing of the case [?].Mr. Pridham Whippell appeared to prosecute. It appeared that at the time of the fire prisoner was a domestic servant in the employ of the prosecutor, and the result of the fire was that the buildings were entirely destroyed, £300 damage being done. Suspicion fell on the prisoner, and when P. S. Parker arrested her she said, "I took a box of matches from the chimney-piece, went to the back door, struck one, and lighted it over the door." After hearing the evidence, a portion of which was suppressed by his lordship, the jury returned a verdict of "Not guilty."

The prisoner was then charged with setting fire to a pigs sty on a farm in the possession of Henry Bosley, at Witheridge, on the 3rd of August 1892. The Prisoner pleaded not guilty. It appeared that the prisoner had to pass the building during her work, and when questioned denied that she had set the place on fire. When P.C. Gist visited the farm she said "I only lighted a little bit of stuff on the wall to see if it would light." She further said she lit it with matches obtained at the house. The prisoner also made a confession to P.S. Tucker. The prisoner made an accusation against the police that they pressed her unduly for information, but this was denied. The Judge said in this case, as in the previous one, there was no direct evidence at all except the child's confession. That was merely in itself a childish freak. The jury returned a verdict of "Not guilty," and the prisoner was discharged with a caution.

Trewman's Exeter Flying Post - 3rd December 1892
Transcribed by Debbie Kennett

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