Today Moretonhampstead is a bustling town popular with tourists and locals alike. Over the centuries it has had its fair share of excitement but nothing can rival the events which took place in 1838 and 1845. At that time many of the dwellings and business establishments had what today would be described as ‘quaint’ thatched roofs lending a truly rustic appearance to the town. Very few owners could afford the more practical but expensive slate tiles and so opted for the cheaper option of thatch. The biggest drawn-back with thatch was the ever present risk of fire and one which must have always been on the minds of the inhabitants. Imagine being woken at one o’clock in the morning by the sound of an alarm bell and seeing the centre of the town glowing with a bright orange/red light. That is exactly what happened on Tuesday 11th of September 1838. The Western Times published an amazing account of the fire on the 15th of September…
“About one o’clock on Tuesday morning, the inhabitants were aroused by the cry of fire, which was succeeded by the violent ringing of the alarm bell, and so great a light thrown over the whole town, as gave but too convincing evidence of the rapid progress of the awful conflagration. It is supposed to have originated in the house of a person named Langbride, adjoining the White Horse Inn, kept by Mr. S. Gray, the flames having been first seen on the roof between the two houses. The flames spread both right and left with fearful rapidity. In the out premises of the Inn, there was lodged a small barrel of gunpowder, to get at which, in the then state of the building, would have been a work of the greatest hazard; and for a time it rendered persons very cautious how they approached this part. The explosion however, at length gave notice that no further danger was to be apprehended from this source, and the exertions of the inhabitants were redoubled.
To the eastwards, the fire communicated to the house and premises of Mrs. Stevens, which immediately adjoins the White Hart Inn (Mr. S. Cann). To save the former, was evidently impossible, the town engine therefore, the only one they had, was brought to play with great effect on the latter, and by these means, and the extraordinary exertions of the inhabitants, this inn was saved from destruction, although not without injury to some part of the premises, but not so as to interrupt the business of the house.
Westwards, the flames made terrible havoc, clearing the houses between and extending from the White Horse Inn into Pound Street, until checked in that street by a house covered with slate, the intervening buildings having been covered with thatch. Nearly all the back premises also shared the same fate, nine houses in front, and these forming one mass of burning ruins.
An express was dispatched to Exeter for assistance, and to whom every aid was given by our night police. The officers and men of the different Insurance Offices also, were in a short time on alert, and the West of England engine, fully manned, and with all apparatus, and drawn by four horses; the Norwich Union, also fully appointed; and the Sun Fire engine were soon on the road to Moreton. Great fears were entertained for the houses on the opposite side of the way from Mrs. Steven’s, and the White Hart, and also for the houses between Pound Street and Court Street, being all covered with thatch, but by men being stationed on these, and supplied with water, they were preserved. We are happy to say that no lives were lost, but the destruction of property is very great, have having lost nearly their all. We are informed that Mr. Samuel Gray is removing to a house at a short distance westwards in the same street, where he intends to accommodate his numerous customers pro tem; and which from Mrs. Gray’s and his well known civility and attention many respectable and influential individuals are endeavouring to secure for them their favours now that his inn has been so severe in this calamitous conflagration.
The loss of Mr. Gray is very great, and among other property of his, eleven fine pigs were burnt to death. The barrel of gunpowder that was on the premises was 56lbs. weight of rock powder, which was lodged there but a day or two before, for a farmer in the country. Mr. Gray had a great objection to its being left at his house, and when he at length consented, ordered it to be taken to the back part of his premises, and lodged in his slaughter house; and but for this precaution, the consequences might have been much worse. As it is, to this it was most probably owing that the pigs were burnt, for immediately on the alarm, Mr. Gary made it known that gunpowder was there, and in the place in which it was lodged, but the fire spread with a rapidity in that direction that forbade anyone going near it. When the explosion took place, the concussion was sensibly felt, and the glass in many windows at a distance from the fire was shattered. There are fourteen families burnt out, who are all great sufferers. A meeting of the principal inhabitants was immediately commenced, and subscriptions liberally entered into to supply the wants of the sufferers, and houses provided for those who were destitute.
The West of England engine, with four horses started rather before three o’clock. The Norwich Union, with four horses, started about half an hour afterwards. The Sun with four horses at a quarter to four. The West of England arrived first, having had the start by half an hour, but before the horses were taken from it, the Norwich arrived- but perhaps the journey was performed by the engine of the Sun Fire Office with a speed (when the weight is considered) unparalleled in this part of the kingdom. The distance is twelve miles in a hilly district, but no match for the fleet, yet strong and powerful horses. Including in their time was the four or five minutes that they waited on Exe Bridge for a fireman and despite this went over this ground, with the engines, men &c. in one hour and ten minutes!!! The West of England engine met with accidents in two instances by the breaking of the traces, and thus was delayed on the journey.” – The Western Times, September 15th, 1838.
Having just recovered from this disaster only seven years later an even bigger and more destructive fire broke out at Moretonhampstead and became known as the “Great Fire”. Again at one o’clock in the morning on the 12th of September 1845 a fire began in the bakehouse of Mr. John Dayment in Cross Street. The Western Times on the 13th of September reported that; “A most destructive fire occurred in Moretonhampstead, this morning. It broke out soon after one o’clock in a baker’s house in Cross Street, and as most of the houses in the neighbourhood were thatched, the flames spread with fearful rapidity, and were not subdued until forty houses had been destroyed. The Golden Lion Inn, and Mr. S. N. Neck’s drapery establishment are amongst the buildings destroyed. The whole of Cross Street from the Bell Inn to the house of M. w. Harvey Esq., solicitor, is in ruins on one side. Part of Fore Street is also in the same state; no one was injured, and a good deal of the furniture was saved, but that which was burnt belongs to many poor people who were not insured. An express was sent in for one of the Exeter engines, and in the mean time an attempt was made to check the progress of the fire, by pulling down some houses between it and Mr. Harvey’s residence. This proceeding, together with the operations of the engine checked the conflagration, and it was ultimately extinguished.” Despite desperate measures in controlling the fire they were hampered by a strong wind and sparks were blown into the thatch. This combined with the dryness of the thatch lead to it spreading throughout the building and into houses on each side of the road. A small local fire engine was quickly fetched but the hose was found to be damaged and virtually useless. By two O’clock all of the buildings on one side of Cross Street were ablaze. In desperation many householders were frantically taking their furniture to the nearby fields as a precaution should their houses catch fire. By three o’clock the blaze had reached Fore Street which is where men began pulling down the houses in Cross Street and Fore Street. This action along with the arrival of the Exeter fire engine finally brought the “Great Fire” under control- Friend, G. 1994, Memories of Moretonhampstead, p.49. On the 20th of September the Western times published the following; “The public are earnestly solicited to contribute towards alleviating the distress, occasioned by the late fire in this parish by which upwards of 40 houses were destroyed, and 38 families consisting of 144 individuals left almost destitute. Subscriptions will be received by the Treasurer, John Ponsford, Esq., or the Secretary W. N. Bragg, Esq., Moretonhampstead, Devon.”
At this time many insurance companies maintained their own fire brigades as is seen above. Should a fire start in a building that the company insured then their brigade would attend in order to fight it. Should the building concerned not be insured by the company they would still attend and a fee would be charged afterwards. There was always a great rivalry between these brigades who would take great pride in their speed of attendance which would often be commented on in any following newspaper report as this one.
Imagine poor Mr. Gray’s thoughts when he remembered there was a 56lb. barrel of gunpowder sitting next to his pigs, probably akin to today having a propane gas cannister with flames all around it. But in true Dartmoor style life went on at Moretonhampstead as can be testified today by enjoying a pint or two in either the White Horse Inn or the White Hart Inn.