Fires in Orwell

The dangers of thatched cottages

By David Miller


Fires in Orwell

Photo:The insurance plaque on No.11 Lotfield St.

The insurance plaque on No.11 Lotfield St.

There was an ever-present risk of fire in any village where nearly all of the houses were thatched. Inside each house there were open fires and candles, and reeds on the floor, and in the stables there would be dry straw and hay.  Every farm had straw and crops stored in barns, or in thatched stacks nearby.  Some houses had their cooking fires in a separate bakehouse away from the house to reduce the risk, but any stray spark could set the roof on fire, and the fire could spread from one house to the next all the way down the street.  There was a huge fire in Cottenham in 1676 which destroyed half the village, and another one there in 1850 which destroyed 35 houses, 26 farms and 7 shops.

Even today, a thatch fire is difficult to put out. Water just runs off! Before the advent of motor driven pumps, the usual way to tackle a thatch fire was to pull the burning thatch off the house, using a long hook which was kept somewhere central in the village for that purpose. This might save the house itself, and would enable the burning straw to be damped down while on the ground. It  would inevitably create even more sparks, but the adjoining houses could perhaps be damped down with buckets of water passed on by a chain of helpers. A fire hook can still be seen mounted on the side of an old house in Linton, and there were houses there with rings built into the thatch to enable it all to be pulled off easily. Other more dramatic methods to stop the spread might be employed, such as pulling down the adjoining houses, or even blowing them up with gunpowder. An order from the local magistrate would be needed for this drastic action.

Fire engines came into use in the mid 1700’s. A ‘Parish Pump Act’ was passed in 1708, requiring every parish to have a fire pump, and one Richard Newsham had his design patented in 1725. These pumps were hand powered, using six people to operate the pump, and a chain of people with buckets was still needed to keep the cistern in the pump full of water. The jet of water was able to reach the top of an average size house.  We have no record of any pump which was used in Orwell, but there was always the one at Melbourn, provided it could get to the village before the fire burned out. Later improvements were made using steam to power the pump and flexible hoses for sucking water up and for getting closer to the fire.

Various measures were taken to minimise the fire risk. William the Conqueror passed a law ordering that all embers were to be covered over at night (with a ‘couvre-feu’ or curfew, a large earthenware bowl shaped object) and everyone with a chimney had to ensure that it was kept free of soot. Since some chimneys were made of wood (plastered over, of course) the need for them to be kept clean must have been self evident. The traditional way of cleaning chimneys (apart from sending a small child up the flue with a brush) was to drop an unlucky chicken down the flue, and the flapping wings would do the job. Imagine the mess a sooty, terrified chicken would make once it emerged into the fireplace! A bundle of sticks on a string could do the same job, if you had a better use for your chicken. Firing a shotgun up the chimney was also supposed to be effective!

In some places, occupiers were ordered to place buckets of water on the front door step at night so that they were readily available.  After the Great Fire in the City of London, building regulations were introduced to try to make city buildings less liable to catch fire.

Fire insurance.

If the fire could not be controlled, then the owner was facing a total loss, apart from any belongings which could be salvaged in time.  Sometimes, an appeal for donations was made at the pulpit of the Church to help the victim.  A few years after the Great Fire of London, in 1666, the idea of fire insurance was launched, but not everyone took out insurance, and not everyone used the same insurance company, so plaques were fixed to the front of the houses which served to identify which houses were covered and with which company.  If a fire engine supplied by one insurance company turned up, and the house was insured by another company, it might well refuse to help!  Apart from fighting the blaze, the company might provide extra helpers to retrieve furniture from the house, and storage facilities for what was recovered.

There are four known fire insurance plaques in Orwell; one at No. 11 Lotfield Street, one on Toot Cottage opposite the Village Hall, one at 30 High Street and one on Orchard Cottage next to the pub.  However, in the National Archives, there are records of a number of other insurance policies in Orwell which give names and occupations – go to

There have been several major fires in Orwell, but thankfully no fires which spread all along the street.  At West Farm, in 1822, all the farm barns were destroyed in a fire started by an arsonist.  The Auctioneers, Cockett & Nash, made a full list of all the buildings destroyed, which gives us a good idea of what barns etc the farm had at the time.  The fire at the Town House is well known and has its own page on this website. Unfortunately, Page Jude was killed in the conflagration, which started when he fell asleep in front of the fire.  Another house was destroyed in Fisher’s Lane, in about 1960. 

Photo:Orwell Village Stores on the morning of the fire in March 2011

Orwell Village Stores on the morning of the fire in March 2011

And then there was the relatively recent fire in 2011 which destroyed the village shop, caused by some boys who set fire to a rubbish bin at the premises.  A hundred years before that fire, the ‘Top Shop’ at the top of Town Green Road had been destroyed, and was later replaced by the present brick building. The Village Post Office, when it was at 3 High Street, was also destroyed by fire. Every fire leaves a gap, and the village is changed for ever once that gap is re-filled.

For a graphic description of two fires in Linton, go to this website.

Photo:A wooden fire pump restored at Bicester by the local history society. The water jet is directed at the fire through the brass nozzle on the top of the pump. Water was brought by hand and tipped into the wooden tank at the bottom of the engine. Hoses were a later invention.
Photo:A modern couvre-feu.
Photo:Fire at the Duke of Wellington!
Photo:A fire hook, used for pulling burning thatch off a roof.
Photo:The fire at the Town House in the High Street, 1936
Photo:This fire hook is at Ivinghoe.
This gallery was added by David Miller on 01/05/2015.

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