Village Fires

Bere Regis has suffered badly from fires on several occasions, the worst ones being in 1633, 1717 and 1788. Until the beginning of this century almost all the cottages in the village were thatched, and as they were closely grouped, particularly in West Street, the fire risk was high in the summer when the most serious fires seem to have occurred. These fires, together with many more minor and unrecorded ones have had a lasting effect on the appearance of the village, and account for the lack of any really old buildings, apart from the church, and for the gaps which are still apparent between the cottages in West Street.

You can read about each fire from the drop down menu below, or scroll down the page...

1486

The wonderful and spectacular roof in Bere church was a replacement after a terrible fire in 1486. When the church was restored in 1874/5 the architects found "calcined" remains at the top of various walls where a severe fire had taken place. Cardinal Morton, originally from the parish, is reputed to have funded the new roof and other repairs.

 

29th August 1633

There is a report of a fire at Bere on 29th August 1633, when the village "burned to the ground" and it was said that "£20,000 of corn was lost". Both those statements seem to have been enormous exaggerations as when converted to today’s money the £20,000 would now be £14m. The Fire was recorded in the diary of William Whiteway of Dorchester. "1633, Aug 29. This day the town of Bere Regis was burnt, the most part of it to the ground, with great quantity of corn. The loss is valued at 20,000 pounds. The country sent them about £500 speedily to relieve their present want. Dorchester sent them in about £40."

 

Summer 1634

Another summer-time fire at Bere apparently began at the bakery and burned "both sides of the street", although the precise extent of the damage was not recorded for posterity. An order of sessions passed that the town of Bere Regis, "Lately consumed by fire," should receive £50 from the county stock, the loss due to the fire being assessed at £7,000. A contemporary report also stated that, "there was a fier in Bere Regis in 1634, that distressed the inhabitants so that they sent a petishen to the King."

 

18th January 1644

At the height of the Civil Wars locally, parliamentary forces set fire to John Turberville's Manor House at Court Green on 18 January 1644. It remained in a damaged state for some time, but the rebuilding was completed in 1648 with a carved stone, now lost, commemorating the effort.

 

Summer 1717

A record of a fire that destroyed "14 houses" exists for the year of 1717, probably in the summer months as was usual for these events.

 

1723

According to the Gould Family Note Book, kept by family members living on Woodbury Hill, there was a fire which "burned ten houses on Woodbury Hill" in that year.

 

21st June 1767

There is a brief record of a fire at Bere on 21st June, which was described as "serious".

 

4th June 1788

What became known as "the Great Fire of Bere" began at about 1230am on 4th June 1788 at a pub called The Crown situated between what is now No.88 and No.89 West Street. The prevailing westerly breeze carried the destruction to the vicarage and right into the "heart of the village". Forty houses plus barns and outbuildings were lost and huge efforts were made to prevent the church going up too. The parish registers were not so fortunate, being at the time in the Vicarage. You can see a Map of the area of destruction below -

In spite of the severity of the fire, only one death resulted from it, that of a blind man. His name was James Pitney. His story is an interesting one as his family seems to have been affected by fires on several occassions. Thanks to Denise Thain (he was her great, great, great, great, great, great Uncle) we can explain why...

He is in the Bere Regis Burial Register for 5th June 1788 and annotated beside his name it states that he was the ‘sole fatality of the fire’. He was a widower as his wife Elizabeth Pitney, nee Hurdell, had died in Bere Regis and was buried there on the 31st August 1777. James Pitney was born in Yeovil and was christened there on the 22nd June 1712 and Elizabeth was possibly born in Bere Regis.

James Pitney was apprenticed to his brother John Pitney of Poole at the age of 12 in about 1724, and trained as a Barber. James married Elizabeth Hurdell on 17th July 1738 at Canford Magna. The couple tried to settle in Bere Regis in 1740 but were removed back to St James, Poole. By 1752 they were living in Wareham. By 1776 they were living in Bere Regis, although the settlement certificate is no longer in existence. James Pitney was the witness on a marriage licence as a bondsman for the wedding of Leonard Martin age 22 of Bere Regis and Sussanah Martin age ? of Wimborne, on 6 April 1776, James’ occupation is stated as a Yeoman of Bere Regis. James and Elizabeth Pitney had no children.

Ironically, the Pitney family lost everything they had in the Great Fire of Blandford Forum in 1731. James’ father Thomas Pitney claimed £10 5s from the Fire fund. In another irony, Thomas Pitney’s father John Pitney moved to Blandford Forum after the Great Fire of Yeovil in 1640, although the family moved back and forth between Yeovil and Blandford thereafter. I am sure that linking all these fires to the Pitney family is a matter of bad luck though and is not suspect!

Most of the houses were not insured, and appeals were made on behalf of those whose property had been destroyed, including a newspaper appeal by the vicar and churchwardens. A contemporary periodical described the aftermath:

The scene of distress occasioned by this terrible conflagration is far beyond description. Many of the unhappy sufferers, who could not otherwise accommodate themselves, retired almost naked to the buildings erected for the fair on Woodbury Hill, where they found temporary shelter, and were very humanely and liberally supplied with every article necessary for their immediate relief, by the inhabitants of Blandford, Wareham, and other neighbouring places.

The following account shows how the appeal fund monies were apportioned:

Collected by voluntary subscription of the county ... £1,279 19s. 4d

Paid to 39 sufferers by fire in the said town of BereRegis, in three classes, viz. to the first class, who were most distressed, and had lost their whole property, 14s. (70p) in the pound; to the second class, lls. 6d. (571p); and to the third class, 7s. 6d. (37 1/2P). ............................................................ £1,193 13s. 8d.

By advertisements, fire engines, firemen, assistantsin removing goods and quenching the fire, and otherincidental expenses ............................... £ 62 5s. 8d.

Left in the treasurer's hands, to be applied towardsbuying a new fire-engine for the said town, theold one having been burnt in the fire ..................... £ 24 Os. Od.

Total .............................................................................................£1,279 19s. 4d.

The `Crown' is referred to in the churchwarden's accounts, and was situated between numbers 88 and 89 on the north side of West Street. Before 1788 this central part of the village was very densely built up, and the area destroyed by the fire extended from just north of the church to the old vicarage (now `Summerods') in a north-south direction, and from the Royal Oak to no. 30 West Street in an east-west direction. Most of the buildings were totally destroyed and no traces of them now remain, but in those cases where destruction was not so complete rebuilding was carried out on the old foundation walling, and evidence of this may still be seen in several buildings in this area.

 

23rd June 1816

On 23 June there was a fire at Bere Regis, and there is some evidence to suggest that it burned down the Mill at Elders Mead, below the church and the associated miller's house next to the Mill near Southbrook.

 

6th April 1887

Hyde House burned down on 6th April 1887 and most of the house was destroyed although some parts remained standing but damaged. Charles James Radclyffe was the resident at the house, but by the time a messenger was dispatched by horse to the village for help, the fire was completely out of control. Many villagers went to Hyde later that day to view the smouldering ruins.

 

1890

There was a fire at West Mill in West Street at the Dorchester road end of the village at some time in 1890. A parish magazine published in 1891 referred to "the Burnt Mill".

 

1902

What became known as "the Old Post Office" was burnt down in 1902. It was situated between No.88 and No.89 West Street, ironically on the same site where the 1788 fire began, and now where Cyril Wood Court is located. You can see a Photograph of the Old Post Office below -

 

1904

The 18th Century Philliols Farm House burned down in 1904. It was rebuilt in 1906 into the splendid building now on the site using bricks from Doddings Brick Hill works by Mr Bedford for the Drax Estate.

 

10th April 1907

On 10th April 1907 Jenkins Farm House burned down. Shortly after this it was rebuilt to be higher and with an extension on the south west end.

 

1908

West Street saw the destruction by fire of two cottages, No.79 and No.80, a semi-detached pair. The site remained vacant for almost one hundred years. The two replacement houses built in 2001-02 were sympathetically designed echoing some features of the original building. You can see a Photograph of the two original cottages below -

 

16th April 1911

On 16 April 1911 Mr Marsh's Manor Farm at No.35 West Street had a severe fire in the cattle shed about where the clinic is now situated. Many cows were burned alive, being secured in their sheds. The fire was so severe that helpers were unable to approach the building to free the unfortunate animals. This loss of [animal] life resulted in the village getting organised to establish a rudimentary fire engine to replace the system of winching buckets from wells for fire-fighting.

 

1932

In about this year No.39 West Street was struck by lightning and burned down. It was part of the coal yard premises and a new house was rebuilt which acted as part of the entrance area to the coal yard for many years.

 

1960

A couple of joined cottages at Tower Hill burned down in 1960. They had been derelict for some years, and despite a planning scheme to build new housing on the site in 1961, which never materialised, the site remained vacant. It was a popular playing site for local children with parts of the cob walls still standing becoming quickly overgrown. It was finally cleared away in the 1970s.

 

Fire fighting equipment

Two early pieces of fire-fighting equipment, thought to date from about 1600 are preserved over the south door of the church in the porch. They are large iron hooks with chains attached, originally fixed to long wooden handles, and were used for stripping thatch from the roofs of cottages to form fire breaks, in an attempt to reduce the spread of the fire.

The village fire engine, consisting of no more than a pump mounted on a hand cart, would also have been used on these occasions, and seems normally to have been kept in the church under the gallery at the back.

It seems that a basically similar appliance was still in use in 1911, when "Mr. Marsh's premises" were burnt to the ground, causing the Vicar to remark in the parish magazine - "let us hope that some arrangement will be made by which a fire engine can be secured more quickly than is at present possible. In these days it is almost beyond belief that any place should exist so far behind the times, that it relies for the extinction of fire upon water pumped, or even wound up, from a well."

Fortunately, this type of fire involving a number of buildings is now an almost unheard of occurrence, due not only to a reduction in the number of thatched roofs, but to the existence of the telephone and a well equipped, efficient fire brigade. During the 1939-45 war a brigade of the auxiliary fire service was established in the village with its headquarters at Messrs. Griffins premises in North Street. After the war it became a national fire service brigade and continued to operate from the same premises until the erection of a new fire station in 1951.

 

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