Honiton's Fiery Past

PUBLISHED: 07:00 27 January 2018 | UPDATED: 09:32 30 January 2018

Damping down after a blaze. Picture courtesy of Allhallows Museum

Damping down after a blaze. Picture courtesy of Allhallows Museum

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Honiton is a town that has been ravaged by fire throughout its history. Its famous High Street particularly affected but not exclusively. Steve Jennings looks at the fires that changed Honiton.

Members of the fire brigade in 1910. Picture courtesy of Allhallows MuseumMembers of the fire brigade in 1910. Picture courtesy of Allhallows Museum

Almost a mile long, Honiton High Street is one of the South West’s longest avenues, and one of its most historical, dating back to medieval times.

In times long gone, the street played host to trades of every shape and colour; butchers and bakers, doctors and dentists, grocers and wine merchants, saddlers and horse outfitters, pubs and coaching inns, ironmongers and drapers, chemists and clockmakers and many more.

Today it remains a market town known for antique and art shops, boutiques and banks, cake shops and coffee shops.

But it is a street that has been subjected to a number of major destructive fires through history, about 30 in fact. And these incidents, along with other high profile conflagrations in the town’s borders, have inadvertently shaped Honiton into the town that stands today.

Firefighters with one of Honiton's fire engines from days gone by. Picture courtesy of Allhallows MuseumFirefighters with one of Honiton's fire engines from days gone by. Picture courtesy of Allhallows Museum

Honiton enjoys many visitors. One of the more famous was in the early 18th century when Daniel Defoe, most famous as the author of Robinson Crusoe, visited Honiton and marvelled at the High Street full of Georgian houses, calling it ‘large and beautiful’. And he would be one of many to marvel at the grandeur.

But just a few years after his visit, in 1747, a fire which started in a house opposite Allhallows Chapel (now the Honiton Museum) raged violently and uncontrollably for more than 13 hours, destroying the south of the High Street as far as the present day Holt restaurant.

Honiton, like most towns of the day, was ill-equipped to combat such fires, relying on willing volunteers to turn out and fight the flames with buckets of water and a large amount of enthusiasm.

But the largest and most damaging of all fires in the town started less than 20 years later, in 1765, near what is today an ice cream parlour. It started at noon on August 21, in a blacksmith’s shop near where the Kings Arms stood, and burned for over 24 hours until after lunchtime on August 22. It was said to be so violent and powerful it melted the bells of Allhallows, now St Paul’s Church.

The fire engine from Exeter could be taken to Honiton by rail. Picture courtesy of Allhallows MuseumThe fire engine from Exeter could be taken to Honiton by rail. Picture courtesy of Allhallows Museum

It is reported that 180 properties burned down in that fire with 140 houses destroyed, highlighting the sheer number of people that lived in the High Street then. Certainly many more than the present day.

But, rather perversely, this fire did have some kind of positive effect on the town. Whilst fire should never be celebrated, this did mean a large number of hovels were destroyed to be replaced with much more salubrious dwellings; the grand Georgian buildings of today.

Some buildings survived the fire, including the 17th century Marwood House for one, originally built by John Marwood, who was the son of the physician to Elizabeth I. The Angel and the Dolphin also.

By the early 19th century, there were a number of fire brigades in most towns. But these firefighting teams were owned by insurance companies who only attended fires at the premises of their policy holders. Based in Honiton was the West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company, which had brigades based in the town that offered little to no protection to the vast majority of Honiton households.

Honiton's fire brigade in 1946. Picture courtesy of Allhallows MuseumHoniton's fire brigade in 1946. Picture courtesy of Allhallows Museum

It would take another high profile fire to prompt change. In 1887 a fire in New Street destroyed an entire row of thatched Tudor cottages bar one, which still stands opposite the library. This, and a fire in Exmouth that saw many fatalities, prompted Honiton Town Council to express concerns at the lack of a fire brigade in 1889. There had been widespread criticism that the brigades owned by insurance companies seemed more interested in protecting buildings than saving lives.

Eventually, the formation of the fire service commenced in 1891. A fire engine was acquired, most likely a gift from the aforementioned West of England Fire and Life Insurance Company, with the fire brigade’s superintendent, Mr E White, and the captain, Mr F B Clarke, both holding keys with others held at the police station and Dolphin Hotel.

The town’s fire engine had no official home and was housed in various yards throughout Honiton. The Angel Hotel and the Assembly Rooms next to the Dolphin Hotel just two of the locations.

And the engine itself was heavily criticised, particularly after it was employed to tackle a fire in Awliscombe and broke down on route!

Firefighters tackle a blaze in 1887. Picture courtesy of Allhallows MuseumFirefighters tackle a blaze in 1887. Picture courtesy of Allhallows Museum

In 1896, Honiton’s main church, St Michael’s, was renovated for the princely sum of £800. This investment appeared a subsequent waste of money when the building was gutted by fire on March 26, 1911. The Sexton arrived at the church at about 10.30am to prepare for that morning’s service, only to discover the roof was ablaze. He called to his wife who called the fire brigade and they rushed to the scene. But at that time they only had a manual pump and there was no water source near enough for them to use.

They called for help from Exeter fire brigade which transported their steam engine to the town by train and were able to transport water from a nearby stream to the church. But their efforts were all in vain. The church was completely gutted with only the outer walls and tower remaining after the blaze.

The church was restored in 1912 at the cost of £2,900. And this high profile incident no doubt prompted the town to purchase its first steam fire engine in 1911.

From 1930, the new engine was kept at the Dolphin Hotel before being moved to the new purpose-built station in Dowell Street in or around 1950.

The ruins of St Michael's Church in 1911. Picture courtesy of Allhallows MuseumThe ruins of St Michael's Church in 1911. Picture courtesy of Allhallows Museum

In March 1962, there was another high profile fire in the town centre when the Devonia cinema, located at the junction of the High Street and Silver Street, was gutted in an early morning blaze on a Saturday, which also threatened nearby thatch cottages.

In 1994 a fire in the old ventilation shaft of the railway bridge just outside the town handed Honiton Fire Service a unique challenge. The shaft became a ‘giant kiln of toxic smoke’ that lasted eight hours to bring under control.

Fires have claimed several high profile buildings – including The Green Dragon, The Greyhound, The Bird In Hand, The Hare and Hounds and The Blacksmiths Arms public houses. All in the town centre.

Fire can be a blessing and a curse. It offers us warmth and light, and its use can help us prepare meals. But when it is out of control it becomes a dark force.

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