The Great Fire of Ashwell

Saturday 2nd February 1850

by Josephine and Olivia Lohoar-Self

It was a mild day but in the evening things were more than usually rowdy because the navvies who were building the railway were in the town drinking.

At 11.00 p.m. (when many people were still in the pubs) the alarm was raised.  The fire started towards the west end of Back Street, where water could only be gathered from a few wells.  It then raged for five hours, engulfing much of the village, in particular Back Street and Silver Street (then part of Back Street).

All the villagers came out on to the streets, attempting to put out the flames, and riders were sent to Royston, Baldock and Hitchin to get help.  the Baldock fire engine did arrive after about an hour, but by then it was already too late - Ashwell was ablaze, with flames shooting into the air and the wind carrying lumps of burning thatch which spread the flames to other properties.  The railway navvies did a good job, forming a human chain to pass buckets of water from the Springs, though legend has it that one of them threw a bucket of water over the vicar, Revd. Henry Morice - one hopes by accident!

The damage was huge.  The buildings lost included 7 of the largest farms, 6 craftsmen's houses and buildings, one school, some large public buildings, a pub, 2 independent chapels and 30 workmen's cottages - all burnt to a cinder!

After blazing for five hours the fire eventually stopped at about 4.00 a.m. towards Jessamine House (near the current Post Office and at the other end of the village from where it had begun).  It then began to rain.

Over 200 people were left homeless and had to sleep in a barn.

Everyone in the village believed it had been started deliberately.  The Times reported: "This calamity was, there can be no doubt, the work of an incendiary."

Later on the people of Ashwell started blaming each other for it.  Perhaps the reward of £150 to find the arsonist encouraged this.  But no one was ever charged with starting this, the worst fire in Ashwell's history.

 

The research for this article was done by Olivia and Josephine Lohoar-Self, when aged 10, with thanks to:

 - B J Davey's book: Ashwell 1830-1914: the decline of a village community and

- Albert Sheldrick's book: A Different World: Ashwell before 1939.

 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'The Great Fire of Ashwell' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'The Great Fire of Ashwell' page
This page was added on 18/04/2011.

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