On the evening of 12 October 1910, three labourers from Exeter –Thomas Thorpe, Robert Carr and William Lobb – arrived at Nymet House, Nymet Rowland. In the morning they were to start removing furniture from the house to Mark Rowe & Sons[1], a furnishing store on Exeter High Street who also had furniture storage warehouses. The furniture belonged to Miss Smith[2] who had vacated Nymet house to live with her sister Gertrude, wife of Colonel Rogers of nearby Nymet Barton.

The men hadn’t arranged any accommodation in the village but were allowed the stay the night in a narrow harness-room in The Gables, a stable block next to the house. Their foreman, Mr J. Aldridge, an employee of Mark Rowe & Sons, checked that the men were set up for the night, leaving them to eat their supper at about 7am. He had found a bed for the night at nearby Pitt Cottage Cottage home of William Gibbings.

The gardener to the house had instructed the men not to use the circular stove in the room – the zinc outlet pipe was known to leak and had been stuffed with paper. However it was a cold night and the men disobeyed the gardener’s instructions. A coal fire was lit before the men settled to bed at about 7.30pm.

The room had little ventilation and the men were soon affected by fumes from the fire. At about 2am Robert Carr awoke and in a dazed state tried to call out to his workmates. There was no reply. He tried to get to the door but collapsed, breaking a bone in his foot as he fell.

At 7.30 am Mr. Aldridge the foreman arrived back at the harness-room to meet his men. He had to use force to push the door open and was shocked to find that the cause was William Carr’s collapsed body. All three men lay on the floor “as if in death”. He quickly returned to Pitt Court Cottage and raised the alarm with Mrs Gibbings. The men were carried out of the harness-room into the stables whilst Dr Pratt[3] was fetched from Morchard Bishop, arriving at 8.45am. Brandy and other restoratives were freely applied with no affect.

Then men’s employer, Mr Hancock, motored from Exeter on receiving news and made arrangements for his men’s care. He organised a makeshift ambulance to transport the men 200 yards down the road to Pitt Court Cottage where Mrs Gibbings kindly offered her two bedrooms . He also sent for a nurse from Exeter. Nurse Holden[4] arrived and spent the next few days at the cottage.

It was many hours before the men showed any sign of arousal. Robert Carr was the first to come around. Lying close to the door, he had had the benefit of the little air that had got into the harness-room. He was well enough to be transferred to Exeter later in the afternoon. Having narrowly escaped death it is a tragic co-incidence that he returned home to witness the death of his 6 month old son, George, just two hours later from bronchitis and pneumonia.

The other two men took much longer to arouse and in the opinion of the doctor they would have died if they had been left in the room for a further half an hour.

William Lobb was unconscious for 15 hours and finally began to awake in the early hours of Friday.

Thomas Thorpe was the last to regain consciousness. He awoke on Friday afternoon and asked to go home but Dr Pratt instructed that he be sent to hospital. His employer, Mr Hancock, arranged for a taxi-cab to take him there and he left still in a dazed state. His condition worsened in hospital and gave rise to anxiety about his survival.

William Lobb was still too ill to travel on Friday and fell back into a deep sleep. His condition was the worst of the three men and at one point little hope was given of his recovery. He would almost certainly have died if a supply of oxygen had not arrived from Exeter. He stayed at Pit Court Cottage under the care of nurse Holden until Sunday afternoon when he was finally taken to hospital.

All three men survived the incident.

[1] Mark Rowe was a local entrepreneur whose name often appears throughout the commercial records of mid-to-late 19th century Exeter. During the last half of the 19th century he acquired Nos. 266 and 267 High Street and the premises were used to sell drapery, curtains, sheets, bed linen, mattresses, and bed frames. The company, later known as Mark Rowe & Sons, also owned warehouses where space could be hired to store furniture. Nos. 266 and 267 were still in the possession of the company when the entire building was obliterated on 04 May 1942. The facade of the shop, which had been built from the stones of the East Gate, was completely destroyed as was a recessed 431-year-old statue of Henry VII. Mark Rowe & Sons opened a new store on the site of the 18th century building in 1954. Today it is on the site of Boots the Chemist.
[2] Either Eleanor or Isabel Smith, born in Belfast.
[3] Charles Claridge Pratt was a physician and doctor who spent most of his working life in Morchard Bishop. He fund-raised for a hall as a memorial to the village men who died in WW1. A stone memorial on the hall remembers him as the hall’s “Founder”.
[4] Gwendoline Maude Mary Holden was born in Staithes, Yorkshire and was a 31 year old nurse living at Exeter hospital at the time of the incident at Nymet House.

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