A short history of fires and fire-fighting in Lapford during the nineteenth and early twentieth century


Naked flames were once commonplace in every Lapford home—for warmth, cooking and providing light—and were essential for the work of several village trades including the baker, blacksmith, farrier and wheelwright. As much as fire could be a friend, it still conjured primeval fear and demanded respect. Rightly so; the destruction of buildings by fire was surprisingly commonplace. The examples provided in this article, represent just a few of the fires that brought menace and misery to Lapford villagers.

Up until the early 20th century, the means of extinguishing fires were very limited and, with insurance an unaffordable luxury, many villagers had to live with the daily worry that a moment of carelessness could bring complete financial ruin. Even the careful could be unlucky: the destruction of Lower Forches in 1925 was attributed to just a single spark from a stream engine travelling through the village.

Combustible material was everywhere. Many homes had wooden lofts, linhays and outbuildings filled with hay and straw. Out on the farms, ricks could self-combust in the heat of summer and, on several reported occasions, they became a target for arson attacks.

Thatch was once the only practical and affordable roofing material in the village, but it could harbour a roof fire for hours without detection. A ticking time bomb. Once established, thatch fires were capable of quickly spreading to multiple properties. Several local towns and villages had such a “Great Fire”. That of neighbouring Chawleigh consumed 21 homes, whilst Crediton’s destroyed an incredible 460. Lapford’s Great Fire of 1810 was far smaller in comparison but eight families lost their home.

Over time, various changes have successfully reduced the incidence and impact of property fires. The slating of roofs became more commonplace from the late 19th century; unsurprisingly, the smithy become one of the first to convert. The arrival of pressured mains water in the village provided a far more effective means of dousing flames than well or pond water being passed in leather buckets by a chain of villagers. Fire brigades not only became better equipped, but easier to summon. A telegraph message from Lapford to Crediton station was so much quicker than sending a messenger on horseback, and the advent of telephone reduced callout times still further. Technology transformed home energy supply, making many village chimneys redundant.

As fire risks diminished, so too did insurance premiums. Today, our age-old fear of fire may not be extinguished, but we rest a little easier than the villagers of the past. Even so, the danger of fire can not be forgotten. We may have developed better ways to prevent fires and to fight them, but the destruction of a home in the village in May 2022 was a sad reminder of the unfortunate loss and hardship that can be caused. Fire, itself, is unchanged by history.

Village smithies posed a particular fire risk. Challice’s Smithy (far right) was one of the first buildings in the village centre to be slated. The other six cottages in the row remained thatched.

before 1840

In the early 18th century, a number of Insurance Companies established fire engines and crews in Exeter. The engines were potentially available to tackle Lapford fires, but distance, cost, and lack of an easily accessible water supply, made the use of these early fire services impractical.

The condition of the road to Lapford was notorious and any attempt to call an engine the scene would have taken several hours. There is no record of an Insurance Company engine ever attending a Lapford fire.

From the early 1830s, there was the possibility of attendance by the Crediton Fire Engine. The engine responded to a few large outlying fires —including North Tawton’s Great Fire of 1832 which left forty families homeless— but it had been principally purchased to protect Crediton.

Crediton was a town seemingly cursed by large fires. After a the Great Fire of 1743 visiting preacher John Wesley asked:

“Are the people of this place now warned to seek God?”

Following a string of other disastrous fires in Crediton, there was a reluctance to take the engine out of the town. Attending fires at places as far away as Lapford risked leaving the town unprotected. Moreover, there was little guarantee of any recompense for attending outlying fires. (The matter of who should pay later became a heated debating point between Urban and District councils, lasting well into the twentieth century)

It is probable that most, perhaps all, Lapford fires prior to the 1840’s were tackled solely by villagers without outside assistance. If the village had any form of communal fire fighting tools, they were probably limited to leather buckets and fire hooks to remove thatch.

The peculiarly-shaped spire of North Tawton church is the result of it catching alight during a fire in 1834. Like Lapford, the mid-Devon town, had poor access to fire-engines. 70 properties were destroyed in the fire, adding to 30 destroyed just two years earlier.

On both occasions, fire-crews from neighbouring towns made their best efforts to attend, but it still took over four hours from the discovery of the fire to their arrival at the scene. Given the magnitude of the fire, an attempt was made to summon the Exeter engine — a music professor staying in the town ran the 22 miles to the city in 3½ hours!

Both fires left families homeless and resulted in appeals for financial support.

The Great Fire
05 May 1810

Many Devon towns and villages developed on mediaeval footprints, with tightly packed rows of thatched cottages. A sweeping fire could quickly rip through the heart of a community leaving victims homeless and, in some cases, without the tools needed to continue their livelihood. Communities remembered such devastating fires as their “Great Fire” (until such time as they suffered the misfortune of an even greater blaze).

The Great Fire of Chumleigh, in 1803, destroyed 95 properties. That of Chudleigh, in 1807, destroyed 180 homes and left two thirds of the town homeless—it was one of the first fires in the county to bring about a change in town planning. An act of parliament for the town’s rebuilding considered a new layout with breaks between buildings to reduce fire risk.

Lapford’s neighbouring parish, Chawleigh, had a Great Fire in 1867. It destroyed 21 of the 90 homes in the village centre. A London journal, The Architect, published an article titled “The Destroyed Village of Chawleigh” in which it was reported that the Chulmleigh fire engine was slow to the scene. Worse still, no water was available when it finally arrived. It was the practice of local water companies to turn on the mains water for just a few hours a day!

These tragic events were nothing compared to the 1743 Great Fire of Crediton, considered to be second only to The Great Fire of London. 460 homes were destroyed leaving around 2000 people homeless. Many of the rebuilt houses were destroyed during later large fires in the town. A fire in 1769 destroyed around half of the rebuilt properties and even the town’s two fire engines were consumed.

In comparison, Lapford’s ‘Great Fire’ was small, but just as devastating for the individual families who lost their homes and belongings.

The fire broke out on the afternoon of 5th May, 1810, at Mr. Morris’ wheelwright business in the centre of the village. The precise location is not known.

Eight properties and a range of associated outbuildings were destroyed. The loss was estimated to be in excess of £1350 (around 30 times a labourer’s annual salary).

The damage could have been much greater had it not broken out during the daytime. Fortunately, the fire was quickly discovered.

An appeal was quickly launched to help affected families.

The poor sufferers therefore humbly solicit the charitable assistance of the public
Exeter Flying Post – 31 May 1810

Donations could be made to Rev Churchill (Eggesford), Rev May (Chawleigh), Rev Radford (Lapford) or William Tucker (Bradiford, Down St Mary). These men who were part of a committee formed to organise the distribution of donations. Residents of Exeter could give their donations via the city’s banks or the offices of the Exeter Flying Post.

By the end of August, £45 had been raised. The Exeter Flying Post carried the names of seven individual donors. Donations also came from the parishes of Sandford, Washfield, South Molton and Chawleigh. More than half of the money gifted came from Lapford residents.

The amount raised was only enough to provide temporary support for the families. Each received the equivalent of 6½ weeks salary.

The fire occurred at a time of national political unrest when arson attacks were not uncommon. In Lapford, differing religious views were a particular cause of community and family divisions at this time. It was during 1810, the year of the fire, that ‘dissenters’ first applied for a licence to meet in the village. It was also the year that the Rector of Lapford, Rev William Radford entered into political debate through the publication of his sermon “The Catholic Question Considered“. However, a wheelwright’s fire, during daylight hours, suggests that the cause of this particular fire was most probably accidental.

Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post – Thursday, August 30, 1810

1. F. Cross was probably Francis Cross (1771-1846) of Great Duryard, the estate that became the campus of the University of Exeter. Francis Cross and William Radford, the Rector of Lapford, were together at Blundells School.

2. J MacIntosh was probably John Macintosh, an Exeter attorney, whose sister, had married Peter Radford, a brother of the Rector of Lapford. John Mackintosh was the son of a Scottish laird (Mackintoshes of Dalmunzie), turned London merchant. He was well known for his charitable work with the poor and founded a number of charitable institutions in the city. He is particularly associated with the founding of St Thomas Exeter Lunatic Asylum in 1801. An obituary in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette reports that “he will long live in the grateful remembrance of the poor, to whom he was at all times a kind and generous benefactor”. John is buried in the Dissenters’ Graveyard in Exeter.

3. Mr Radford was Benjamin Radford, surgeon of Chulmleigh, and another brother of the Rector of Lapford, William Radford (1768-1824). He was son-in-law of fund-raising committee member William Tucker, whose £1000,000 fortune he later inherited.

4. Rev. Mr. Starr, was John Starr, the Rector of neighbouring Zeal Monochorum. The donation is probably from his parish, but could be personal.

5. Rev. Holbech, was Charles Holbech (1782-1837), the Rector of Morchard Bishop. The donation is probably from his parish, but could be personal.

Kelland Barton
31 Oct 1826 and 24 Feb 1834

The fire at Edmund Moon’s farm at Kelland Barton on the evening of 31 October, 1826, was so intense that it could be seen from Exeter. It destroyed most of the outbuildings. Fortunately, the farmhouse was spared and still stands today.

The flames so completely illuminated the horizon, that it was observed from this city, though at a distance of 20 miles
Exeter Flying Post – Thursday 09 November 1826

The fire was considered to be deliberate, and Edmund offered a £100 reward for information leading to the conviction of the arsonist. The reward, and the ‘King’s Pardon’, were even offered to any accomplice in the crime. Such generosity, suggests that Edmund already suspected an individual whom he particularly wanted to be brought to justice, at the expense of others involved. There is no record of any charge being made.

Just over eight years later, on 24 February 1834, there was another arson attack, destroying the farm stables. This time, an 18 year old servant at the farm, Sarah Dell*, was charged, but there was insufficient evidence to bring about a jury verdict. Remarkably, several newspapers erroneously published that she had been tried and found guilty! Not all corrected the error, but the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette apologised with this glowing reference:

a respectable young woman in her station … has always had a good character for honesty, industry, and general correctness of conduct.

We can only assume that the young servant had originally been accused on the basis that she had a motive. Sarah had married the month before the fire, and given birth the month after it, so perhaps there had been a disagreement with her employer relating to her circumstances.

Kelland Barton

Neither the reason behind the two Kelland Barton arson attacks, nor the identity of the arsonist(s), was ever solved.

The fires changed the fortune of the farm. Insurance money enabled modernisation and, in time, Kelland Barton became something of a model for new farming practice. Through the work of Edmund and his innovative son, John, Kelland Barton acquired such a reputation that a newspaper once described it as “the most famous farm in England”


*Sarah Dell (nee Davy), born Witheridge 1806. Her name was given as Dell in census returns, but marriage documents indicate her husband was William Delve. It was common for names to vary through illiteracy.

Fire fighting:

There was fierce competition between Exeter’s insurance companies for the best engines and crews with which to attract business. The West of England Insurance Co. boasted an engine that could deliver 200 gallons of water a minute with a 120ft jet … but it required a team of 20 men!

The insurance company engines regularly attended larger fires outside the city, but Lapford was still too remote to be practically supported. Even the engines’ attendance at fires a few miles from Exeter were of limited value. In 1840, an engine attended a large fire in Crediton but was too late to save the eight alighted properties. At 10pm, the crew stood down and went to a local inn having failed to notice that the fire was not fully out. By 1am, the fire was raging again. It destroyed a further 17 properties. Around 60 families were left homeless.

The Crediton fire engine continued to support numerous town fires, but its effectiveness was largely dictated by water supply, which was often very limited. In 1842, when fire broke out in the oldest part of the town near the church, water had to be transported by horse and cart from a source a mile and a half away. The church gates were thrown open for the storage of possessions from a large section of the town. 32 homes were destroyed. Soon after, the town’s fire service split into two — one, to support the East Town and one, the West Town.

The Crediton engines’ support for outlying villages was still limited. There was always the sticky question of who should pay for the expensive of a rural call out. As we shall see, this this question later gave rise to an explosive debate.

In London, the first three engines arriving at the scene of a fire were paid 30 shillings, 20 shillings and 10 shillings respectively, with a bonus of 10 shilling for the first engine to apply water. Payment was actually reduced if a building was saved, making it beneficial for a fire crew to quickly get to a building in flames, then allow it to burn down! Whilst payments resulted in hundreds of fire engines in London, in rural Devon there was no such incentive. Consequently, Lapford had no fire service that could reliably be called upon.

A few villages, including nearby Sandford, funded their own fire engine, and a number of farms invested in small engines designed for private use. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, William Baddeley showed a manoeuvrable device designed to quickly put out small farm fires. It was capable of throwing a water jet to a distance of 60 feet. No records have been found of a private or village-funded engine in Lapford, but mobile devices, like Baddeley’s Farmer’s Fire Engine, may have existed on Lapford’s larger farms.

William Baddeley was also a pioneer of fire safety awareness. His work helped to bring about significant changes to working practices in rural communities.

William Baddeley (1806-1867)

William Baddeley was the grandson of the rector of Throwleigh, Devon (11 miles from Lapford). His father, William snr., left Throwleigh for London but lost money on poor investments in the theatre. William jnr. was born in London and spent most of his life in the city. However, he was based in Devon during the late 1840’s having inherited the family estate. It was during this time that the Farmer’s Fire Engine was developed. Hence, the claim that it was a Devonshire invention.

Baddeley’s inventive interests had started at a young age. His first success came at the age of 15 when he designed a device for damming up water in street gutters for use by engines.

His contribution to fire safety over the following five decades is, perhaps, unsung. From his London base, he invented numerous fire safety appliances including the first reel-hose for fire engines, the “cabinet fire-engine” (an early home extinguisher), stand-pipes, pumps, valves, fan-spreader, suction-cock, portable canvas water tank, fire escape, and a small engine designed for local use called Every Man His Own Fireman. His improvements to London’s floating fire engines on the Thames were adopted by the Russian Emperor.

Baddeley championed fire safety awareness through the publication of numerous articles including regular reports of fire incidents, detailed fire statistics, and analytical assessment of fire-fighting successes and failures. He also scripted fire safety rules which are the basis for the common rules still used today.

Baddeley’s Farmers Fire Engine was intended to be easily manoeuvrable over fields to get to rick fires. The drawing is taken from the catalogue of The Great Exhibition, 1851.

Baddeley wrote an account of the fire that destroyed The Houses of Parliament in 1834 (incidentally, the last man in the House of Lords before the fire was Lapford-born John Snell):

I was called to the scene of action about seven o’clock, from observing a deep crimson hue in the sky, which pretty well indicated both the situation and magnitude of the conflagration.

Mechanics Magazine,  Feb. 14, 1835

In the report, Baddeley proposed the formation of a city fire brigade to replace the poorly trained attendants of parish pumps and ensure overall superintendence of fires. It was a cause he continued to champion. It would take another 30 years before the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was formed, something that Baddeley just lived to see. 

Although most of his work was city based, Baddeley was very familiar with fire risks on rural farms. In addition to the Farmer’s Fire Engine he was involved in developing safety rules for agricultural workers including measures to prevent rick fires.

Maltster’s Arms Inn
15 Jul 1851*

For centuries, Lapford Revel has been an annual festive highlight in the village calendar. However, the celebrations of 1851 turned to tragedy when fire broke at the top of the village (then known locally as ‘hip the top o’ town’).

The cause of the fire was attributed to the careless use of a pipe in the skittle alley of The Maltster’s Arms Inn where people had been drinking and smoking. Flames were first noticed at about one o’clock in the afternoon coming from the thatched roof of the village malthouse adjoining the alley. The Revel Fair had been the previous day, so perhaps the fire had been smouldering in the thatch following late night revelry. By 3.30pm the inn, the malthouse and seven dwellings lay in ruins.

The North Devon Journal reported that the properties were not insured, except for two cottages. The fire was as destructive as the Great Fire of 1810 but it received little publicity.

On this occasion there no public appeal for financial support. This was probably because the owner of the destroyed properties was William Croote, the loyal and trusted steward of the Earl of Portsmouth’s Eggesford Estate, and a man with sufficient means to recover quicky from losses. The Earl and his steward owned more than a tenth of Lapford land and were probably in a position to easily rehouse tenant families affected by the fire, either in Lapford or in one of the neighbouring estate villages.

One of main sufferers of the fire was Richard Ellis, farmer, butcher and keeper of the Maltster’s Arm’s. His livelihood was restored a few years later when he became innkeeper of The Malt Scoop, from where he also continued his butchering business. He and his wife, Charlotte, ran The Malt Scoop until the late 1870s.

Probable site of the Maltster’s Arms Inn. The tithe map of 1840 shows a building 2.5 times the floor area of the pair of houses now on the site. It adjoined the property that stood on the site of Hill Land (the house beyond the van on the left side of the photograph). The front face of the inn ran well to the left side of the hedge in the picture, considerably narrowing the road.

* The North Devon Journal of 24 July 1851 states the fire was “Tuesday last”, which suggests that the fire could have been on 22 July. However, as the fire was reported as occurring during Lapford Revel, the fire is likely to have been on the previous Tuesday, 15 July (the day after the Revel fair)

Lower Eastington

In 1821, Philip Kelland of Lower Eastington had married Mary Ann Kelland of Court Barton, uniting two branches of the influential Kelland family. Court Barton and Lower Eastington together accounted for 300 acres of the parish. Philip’s father owned Pennycotts (200 acres), his uncle owned Kelland Barton (250 acres) and the Kelland family also farmed Higher Eastington, East Eastington and Prouse. The Kellands also owned substantial farms outside of the parish. It was a faming dynasty that looked secure, but it soon saw a rapid downturn through family ill-fortune and falling land prices.

Philip’s wife died, aged 27. Their only son, John, managed Court Barton but in his early thirties he became too ill to manage the farm, and Philip too elderly. Consequently, in the late 1850s, attempts were made to sell Court Barton and to rent out Lower Eastington. (This coincided with family losses at Pennycotts and Kelland Barton when the 35-year old heir to the estates, John Kelland, lost both his father and young wife).

Philip sold off livestock and produce in a sale in April 1857 with the intention of retiring, but no tenant could be found. On 22nd September, 1858, another auction of animals and food produce was held at Lower Eastington farm. Newspaper advertisements reveal that Philip Kelland had arranged the event “in consequence of his house and premises having been lately destroyed by fire“. The destruction of the ancient farmhouse had otherwise gone unreported.

The house was fully insured and, by June 1859, Philip was able to advertise for the letting of a “very desirable” farm with a “newly built and convenient farmhouse“. There is no evidence to suggest that the old property was deliberately razed, but the rebuilding would have been advantageous in attracting a tenant willing to pay a good rent. The new tenant farmer was James Lee.

The following year Philip’s son, John of Court Barton, died after a long illness, aged 35. Court Barton was taken over by the Bragg family, the start of a long association with Lapford farming that continues today.

Philip, now aged 76, finally retired to Hopbine, next to Lower Eastington farm. Having spent much of his life as a widower, records show that he decided to remarry! He died two years later.

The rebuilt Lower Eastington farmhouse still stands today at the centre of the busy working farm and on the same footprint as the original farmhouse. The cause of the 1858 fire remains unknown.

Exeter Flying Post, 16 September 1858

Fire fighting:

Little money was a available for the upkeep of fire engines. By 1867, most of the engines that once had potential to attended a Lapford fire, were now in too poor a state to be functionally useful. This included the North Tawton, Barnstaple and two Crediton Engines. Up to this time, there had still been no reported cases of fire engine journeying to Lapford.

The Crediton East Town engine was “almost rotten”, as it was kept outdoors with no covering. The West Town engine was in a “leaky and rotten state”. When it attended a fire at a nearby steam flour-mill fire, the leaks prevented any water being pumped, much to the utter frustration of the mill owner who had gone to the effort of building a special reservoir in case of fire.

In July 1867, the Crediton engines were called to the historic Court Barton, near Tedburn, but the Charles II building was totally destroyed as neither engine was serviceable.

The situation was summed up by the Western Times:

At one time we had a fire engine but nought but well water to use case of fire; now we have plenty of water but no fire engine.”

Later in the year, an advert appeared in the newspaper advertising the sale of goods of a recently deceased lady. At the end of a long list, which included the late Mrs King’s mattresses, floor clothes, saucepans and China, the auctioneer had added “Also the West Town Fire Engine“!

By the end of the year, North Tawton had a new engine. About the same time, Crediton East Town engine was repaired and a new engine had been stationed in the town operated by the West of England Insurance Company.

In cities, the incentive payments for the first engines to a fire had brought increasingly fierce rivalry and a better service. In rural Devon, there had been too few engines to drive competition. South Molton was amongst the first Devon towns to entertain incentive payments. In 1867, they offered 21 shillings for the first engine at a fire.

There is no record of a fire engine attending a Lapford fire during this period. However, not all fires attended were reported. Farm fires in particular were often regarded as private matters.

Crediton Fire Brigade, 1877

Higher Filleigh
03 Apr 1875

It was a Saturday night, at about half past eleven, when fire broke out at Higher Filleigh Farm, owned and occupied by Mr. John May. A servant man discovered the fire in the roof of the dairy. The dairy, dwelling house and part of the pound house were destroyed.

Village constable, PC Cockwell, was informed about the fire on Sunday morning and immediately went to the farm. He found the woodwork of the pound house still burning. He remained on site until Monday morning when the fire was fully extinguished. The estimated damage was £400; fortunately, the buildings were insured.

John May retired from farming soon afterward—maybe as a result of the fire—and moved to the village centre. However, by the time of the 1891 census he was again farming at Filleigh, now aged 75.

Higher Filleigh, built on the footprint of the farmhouse destroyed in 1875

Lower Town Place

Lower Town Place farmhouse was a large, thatched building situated to the NE of the church. The entrance to the house was across a yard off today’s Church Green.

A painting titled Lapford, South Devon-Cutting Wheat (probably painted by George Barrell Willcocks in the late 1840s) provides the only known image of the original Lower Town Place farmhouse.

Despite being a substantial, and probably ancient, building, it disappeared without a contemporaneous record of its demise. The story has been passed down that it was destroyed by fire. There are no newspaper reports of the event — an indication, perhaps, that no fire service attended.

The farmhouse had been the family home of Richard and Anne Challice since their marriage in 1840. It was leased from village land agent William Croote. Richard and Anne were still residing at the farm in April 1871 according to census records. Richard died just six weeks later but church burial records state that his abode was now Churchgate, Lapford rather than Lower Town Place. Was Churchgate an alternative name for the Lower Town Place farmhouse , or was it one of the two cottages that stood on today’s green (perhaps one the two unoccupied cottages, “2U”, noted below Lower Town Place in the 1871 census entry.

It is possible that the fire occurred sometime in the six weeks before Richard’s death, forcing him to rapidly move to unoccupied Churchgate. It is also possible that the fire contributed to his death so soon afterwards.

However, Richard had made anew Will in March 1871, suggesting he was already gravely ill whilst living in Lower Town Place .

Richard and Anne’s two eldest sons, William and Richard, did not have any interest in running the farm. William became a congregational minister in Scotland, whilst son Richard moved away from Devon and had an unsettled career as a porter, butcher and publican.

The Challice’s were a strong non-conformist family and there was probably some family displeasure that Richard jnr should choose to run a public house. Richard ran into financial difficulties. In 1891, he was living with mainly migrant workers in a crowded London house. In the 1901 and 1911 census he was an inmate in a London workhouse.

It was Richard and Anne’s third son, Samuel Challice, who took on the running of the 60 acre farm. He was 21 at the time of his father’s death. In 1881, he was running the farm, plus an additional 10 acres, from Lee’s Cottage (now Barris House) which had become available for rent. So, it is almost certain that the farmhouse was destroyed before 1881.

When Joseph Goodenough established a Temperance Hotel in the village he also took on Lower Town Place farm, and the hotel effectively became the new farmhouse.

In his Memoirs of Old Lapford, Eric Challice recollects that about this time the ruins of the old farmhouse were still visible. He also remembers the path that originally led to the farmhouse from the village street.

1904 map of Lapford, overlayed with the footprint of the original Lower Place buildings and footpath in red. The upper red block is the original farmhouse.

The Railway Inn (blue) was soon to become the Temperance Hotel run by Joseph Goodenough and later Albert Arscott. Both men farmed the Lower Place farmlands using the barns opposite the hotel. After Albert’s death in 1919 the hotel and farmland was sold as one concern. Thereafter, the hotel became a farmhouse and dairy, known to this day as Lower Town Place.

Fire fighting:
1880-early 20th Century

Credition Fire Brigade

In his book “Memories of Old Lapford”, Eric Challice wrote:

Lapford was dependant on the Crediton fire brigade and the brigade was manned by part time volunteers who had to leave their regular employment, drop the work in hand and man the fire engine at short notice. Contacting the brigade at Crediton was difficult and time consuming.”

He adds a fascinating incite into what happened when an engine arrived in the village. Far from leaving the fire crew to do their work, it was necessary that local men were found to man the engine. Pumping was strenuous work and was often required continuously over several hours. Finding local men able to perform the task was the job of the village Constable.

The Police Constable had to find and in effect conscript enough men to man the pumping handles of the manual type fire engine. A certain ritual procedure was followed by the Constable when conscripting the menfolk. He would place his hand on the man’s shoulder and, in the name of the law, call upon the individual concerned to work on the fire engine pump as long as required by the Brigade Captain. A payment of one shilling was made to each man pumping, irrespective of the hours worked.”

Eric Challice was a schoolboy at the time. His memories relate, in particular, to a fire at Hole Farm in 1908 which he had skipped school to see! This particular fire is the first reported case of the Crediton Brigade attending a fire at Lapford, although Eric’s account suggests that the village was accustomed to visits by this time.

Before telephones, the Crediton Brigade had to be summoned by telegraphing a morse message from Lapford Railway Station to Crediton Station where a porter, or other employee, would be charged with finding the Captain of the Brigade, Ernest Parry Jones, to inform him of the location of the fire. Captain Parry Jones would then send out a bugler to summon his crew and then make arrangements to borrow horses to haul the engine. The engine might be expected in Lapford 75-90 minutes after the telegraph had been sent.

The advent of telephones and the first motorised fire engine reduced arrival times to about 45 mins. Even so, few burning buildings were ever saved — thatch fires were difficult to put out and a fireman’s job usually focussed on preventing a fire from further spreading.

Ernest Parry Jones had joined the voluntary Crediton Fire Brigade in May 1877 and became its Captain ten years later. It was a post which he held until the age of 77! He finally retired from the brigade after 55 years of service, but remained an active supporter for a further twenty years. During WW2, now in his eighties, he served as an air-raid warden in the town,

He saw many changes in the fire fighting service, including the transition from horse drawn hand-pumps fed from ponds and wells, to motorised engines fed from pressurised water mains. Even as technology improved, the bugler remained the most effective way of summoning the brigade together. This practice continued until well into the twentieth century. The bugler travelled by horse and later, by bicycle, to the homes and workplaces of the volunteer crew. The bugle became a familiar sound of the town and was, perhaps, a reason why Ernest was honoured to be gifted the silver hunting horn of the renowned Otter Hound Master, the late William Cheriton, in 1910.

Captain Parry-Jones was, for a number of years, the chairman of Crediton Carnival. There is a record of the Crediton Fire Brigade attending a Lapford Fire on Crediton Carnival Day in October 1931. The townspeople of Crediton were relieved that the captain and his men were able to return by mid-afternoon just in time to decorate the engine and join the carnival parade.

Village fire fighting tools had developed developed little over the centuries. In early twentieth century fire buckets, fire hooks and pond/well water remaining the only common tools. Small appliances continued to be developed for farms but there are no records of their use in Lapford.

WW2 brought widespread use of stirrup pumps. These were commonly used in towns and cities to cool unexploded incendiaries but they found use in rural communities too. In April 1947, the Western Times reported that a large kitchen fire had been successfully put out by Lapford villagers using stirrup pumps prior to the arrival from Crediton of the now ‘National Fire Service’.

Ernest Frank Parry Jones (1856-1951) was, by reputation Welsh, although both he and his father were born in Crediton! He spent all his working life as a bank clerk, but he was best known to townspeople as Captain Parry Jones, captain of the Fire Brigade.

Over more than half a century, he saved numerous properties in and around Crediton. He was also Chairman of the Crediton Carnival Committee; a churchwarden; a pioneer of rugby in the town; a keen supporter of the local Scouts, horticultural society, cricket club and various other societies; and was an active fund raiser for local and national charities. He was a particularly keen supporter of the first benevolent fund to support the widows of firemen, having seen the family suffering caused after the brigade’s engineer, Stephen Wollacott, died in preparing to attend a bakery fire in the town.

Despite his long service to the town, Ernest’s death, aged 96, passed with little recognition. The days of horse drawn fire-engines were then long gone.

Lapford Mill
16 Sep 1887

The fire that destroyed Lapford Mill came a few days after Britain’s worst ever building fire which had had wreaked havoc just 15 miles away. These two events may not have been entirely coincidental.

On 15 September 1887, the morning newspapers brought harrowing news to Lapford villagers. The casualty count from a fire at Exeter theatre ten days previously had risen considerably. A final mass of charred remains had been removed from the theatrea task so grim that undertakers worked during the dark of the night and covered the two resulting heaps of remains with a thick layer of straw to hide them from view. The undertakers’ work had brought the number of reported deaths to 188. It was, and still is, the country’s worst loss of life from a building fire.

Villagers also learnt of new shocking revelations from the fire inquest. It was reported that the city’s year-old theatre had been designed with numerous safety flaws. Many of those seated in the gallery had stood little chance: the only exit was along a dark, contortious passage that been restricted by the unauthoried addition of a post to purposely slow the inward flow of people past the ticket collector. Calls for a second exit had been ignored by the architect.

The newspaper reports of the fire that arrived in Lapford on 15 September, must have been the talk of the village, but nobody could have anticipated that fire was about to strike even closer to home.

That night, miller’s son, Richard Stoneman, locked up the mill as usual and retired to bed. At about 3.15am he was awoken by a noise that he assumed was a heavy storm of rain. Noticing an unusual light, he got out of bed and looked out of his bedroom window. To his horror he realised he was mistaken — the noise was the crackling of burning timber. Across the yard, the centuries-old mill building was burning fiercely.

Richard immediately woke up his father, William, and other members of the family. They quickly realised that there was little that could be done to save the mill and so focussed all their efforts on saving the mill house, the family home.

PC William Knapman was the first to provide the family with assistance and other villagers soon arrived at the scene. A number of men got on the roof of the mill house with buckets of water. They attempted to extinguish pieces of glowing debris before they could ignite the thatch. Luckily, there was little wind at the time, and the C14 mill house still stands today. Sadly, the mill, which had supported the sustenance of village for centuries, was completely destroyed, along with the grain store.


Newspapers reported that the fire was probably started by the friction of the mill stones. It is an indication that the runner millstone had been left turning overnight. This was common practice for water-driven mills. Unlike windmills, water-driven mills had no brake wheel. There were various methods for disengagement of the runner stone but these were cumbersome and risked damaging milling apparatus. Allowing the mill mechanism to operate unmanned was considered to be quite safe as the stones would not, ordinarily, produce sparks as the millstones were separated by a fraction of a millimetre. So what went wrong?

The answer may lie in historical weather reports. The preceding months had seen the worst drought of the century with little rain since the winter of 1887 and a summer of heatwaves. Accounts of the river in the late C19 suggest that it was bigger and faster flowing than today, but even in moderately wet summers the mill struggled for power. This was due to the shallow drop along the length of the leat which made the leat slow moving and prone to silting up. Further evidence that the mill struggled for power in dry months comes in the design of the new mill; an external capstan was included, directly connected to the gear, with the aim that a steam engine could be attached to input additional power steam when flows were poor. With the mill struggling for power under ordinary conditions, it is likely that in the drought of 1887, the mill had literally “ground to a halt”.

The three weeks leading up to the fire had seen the first heavy rains of the year and river levels began, at last, to rise. At some unpredictable point in time, the mill would have sprung to life. The sudden starting up of the mill’s mechanism still happens today during wet seasons.

So, was it the case that the mill mechanism awoke on the night of 15 September and the heavy runner stone once again began to turn? The long dry spell would probably have resulted in wooden assemblies contracting and, on starting up, the stone may well have needed adjustment to prevent the generation of sparks. But in the middle of the night the awakening of the sleeping giant went unnoticed. The long dry season had left the mill like a tinderbox. Just a single spark from friction of stone-on-stone might have been enough to bring about the destruction of the whole building.

And so it was with the Exeter Theatre fire. Here, the long drought had resulted in dangerously dry timbers. A backstage door had been left open, probably due to poorly designed ventilation, and it was probably just a momentary breeze that blew a scenery cloth close to a gas light. As at Lapford Mill, the dryness of timbers ensured the fire spread rapidly and, once the fire had taken hold, little could be done to stop it.

The mill fire had no immediate casualties but resulting financial hardship may have been a factor in William Stoneman’s untimely death.

The mill belonged to the Croote family. Several of their Lapford properties had previously been destroyed by fire, including Lower Town Place and the buildings razed in the large village fire of 1851. These had not been rebuilt, either though lack of insurance, or a preference to take the insurance money. However, following the 1887 fire the Crootes decided to use the insurance money for the construction of a modern working mill. The ‘new’ mill and much of its machinery survive today in good condition.

Unfortunately, William Stoneman did not have insurance. He lost several hundred bushels of grain when the mill store was destroyed, and whilst the mill was being rebuilt he had no income.

Nobody was blamed for the mill fire. Nature played its part. As for the Exeter Theatre fire, the inquest severely criticised the architect, Charles Phipps. Nevertheless, in the months following the fire, he completed London’s Savoy, Lyceum and Garrick theatres and became regarded as one of England’s greatest Victorian theatre designers.

Two maps of the mill: pre and post the fire. The footprint of the new mill is similar to that of the old one. However, the surrounding landscape has changed considerably with the rerouting of both the road and the river!

Villagers who helped fight the fire (as named in newspaper reports)

  • PC William Knapman, duty police constable
  • Mr Crocker x3
  • Mr Edworthy
  • Mr Airey, Lowerfield
  • Mr Spreadbury x2, Yeo Vale Hotel
  • Mr Woolway, carpenter
  • Mr Georgeham, station master
  • The Stoneman family, Lapford Mill

Parsonage Farm
06 Mar 1891

The Rector of Lapford had historically owned extensive land (‘glebe’) which came as part of his acquired living, along with a Rectory, farmhouse and various other property. The Rectory was ¾ mile from the village centre, what is now The Grange.

The farmhouse, next door, is now known as Parsonage Farm but was originally regarded as part of the rectory and was colloquially referred to simply as the rectory farm, or the glebe farm.

The last rector to live in the Rectory was Cornelius Wilson. In about 1890 he had employed John Skinner Holwell (the spelling Holwill was preferred in later life) to manage the glebe estate and to take up residence in the farmhouse. John was only 21 and recently married.

On 06 March the following year, at about 8am, John discovered flames coming out the thatched roof of the farmhouse near to the chimney. His wife and baby son were quickly brought out to safety and the Rector and his wife alerted.

There were few people to assist as most of the farm’s workers didn’t reside on the farm and had yet to arrive for work. A messenger was sent to the village to summon help.

At first the help was a few women but the rector, Rev C W Wilson and one or two others, and Mrs Wilson, did good fireman’s service in helping to supply four men with water from the well.
The Western Times

The farmhouse and most of the neighbouring farm buildings were thatched and, with a strong wind, the fire quickly spread. At one stage it looked probable that the rectory might catch alight. It only survived because of rapid action to pull down a linking building and a very slight change in wind direction.

It soon became apparent that the farmhouse and outbuildings were going to be impossible to save and efforts focused on removing household goods, farm equipment and livestock.

From the 1891 census, taken a month after the fire, we can see that John and his wife had taken temporary accommodation in the village centre. Their baby son was with his grandparents in Chawleigh.

Once the farmhouse had been rebuilt as a slated house, the family moved back. Although the farm buildings were fully insured, John’s equipment was only partly insured, and he suffered financial loss.

John Holwell farmed the glebe land until 1912 when Rev Wilson died and the rectory and lands were sold by the church.

1840 Parsonage Farm and the Rectory before the fire
1903 The post-fire plan shows that the farm was rebuilt on the same footprint and extended with farm buildings into a quadrant.

For a few years John farmed 3 acres of land nearby at Hole rented for £9 a year. It was a huge reduction in size from the glebe lands and he struggled to make ends meet. In September 1919 he quit farming and became innkeeper of the Yeo Vale Inn. Additionally, he established a coal business. Post-war trade was slow. His weekly income from the inn was £6 a week and his annual sales of coal amounted to just 35 tons a year. Bankruptcy proceedings started in 1921 and dragged on for two years. He returned to Morchard and is reported to have died there “suddenly” in 1924. It is not clear if his death was related to financial difficulties which started with the fire of 1891.

Hole Farm
17 Aug 1908 and May 1909

In August 1908, the Crediton fire brigade were proud to have reached Mr Tucker’s farm in a journey time of 50 minutes and within 75 minutes of being alerted by telegraph. Mr Trott’s horse was procured within 5 minutes.

On arriving, the brigade found that three new corn ricks and a hay rick from the the previous year were all alight. Mr Tucker’s thatched farmhouse was close by and half of the brigade focused on ensuring that the house was protected, whilst the other half put out the rick fires. A nearby pond was exhausted of water, but not before flames had been doused and the burning parts of the ricks scattered to bring the fire under control. £200 of damage was caused.

Although ricks could spontaneously combust in the heat of summer, a newspaper reported that it was unlikely this was the cause in this case. Arson seemed likely.

The new Great Hole, built shortly before the razing of the original farmhouse.

There is no evidence that the rick fire was a deliberate family attempt to destroy the farmhouse, but it is interesting to note that construction of a new farmhouse was underway at the time.

Just nine months later, in May 1909, another fire fire broke out at the farm. The Crediton Brigade arrived about an hour after receiving news and spent two hours dousing the flames. This time the fire completely destroyed the imminently redundant farmhouse, and an insurance claim was successfully made.

Shortly afterwards, the family moved into the new farmhouse, 30 yards away.

Lower Forches
23 Jun 1925

Lower Forches farmhouse was completely destroyed after a spark, thought to have come from a passing steam lorry, ignited the thatched roof.

The quiet road running past the house had once been the main route from Exeter to Barnstaple. The house was previously The Barnstaple Inn. It had also—a well known coaching stop. It had also been a smithy and for a number of years was the home of Victorian landscape artist George Shaw.

The fire was discovered just before 9am by its occupants, married cousins Samuel and Susan Butt. Samuel had the distinction of coming from a family of nine brothers.

The couple, both in their late seventies, were upstairs as the fire took hold. They were apparently quite nonchalant to the immediate danger. Mrs Butt had to be dressed by a neighbour, Mrs Andrews, before leaving the house. Only later did the shock of the ordeal set in.

The Crediton Fire Brigade were on the scene within 45 minutes of the fire being discovered. They were unable to save the house but most furniture was rescued.

The house belonged to Gertrude Beer of Saxons, Lapford, formerly the wife of Samuel’s late cousin Daniel Butt (b.1857 West Worlington). Two months after the fire Mrs Beer sold off the land and outbuildings, presumably claiming the insurance for the house as a separate concern.

The slated-house now known as Lower Forches was later built on the footprint of the original thatched house.

A member of the Crediton Fire Brigade tackling the Lower Forches fire
Today’s Lower Forches stands on the site of The Barnstable Inn, a coaching stop on the main route from Exeter to Barnstaple.

The Western Times, 04 September 1925

A crowd of onlookers gathered in the summer sunshine to watch the brigade at work. This is the only known picture of the former Barnstaple Inn.

02 Feb 1927

The fire at a large threshing barn at Broomsmead in February 1927 caused hundreds of pounds of damage including the loss of most of the annual corn crop and threshing equipment.

Broomsmead was managed by Frederick and Ada Ley (nee Stoneman). Up to the turn of the decade, Ada had run the post office at Lapford Mill and Frederick, his brother (John jnr) and father (John snr) had farmed Court Barton. The family briefly moved to Edgerley. On the death of their father in 1922, Frederick moved to Broomsmead and John jnr moved to Tawton Woods Farm, N. Tawton.

The fire was discovered by Frederick’s son, Ronald, who saw flames issuing from a large barn which contained all of the corn threshed the previous day.

Up to this point in time, the history of firefighting in Lapford had few success stories, but at Broomsmead the fire service almost certainly prevent a much worse fire. The brigade were fighting the fire 90minutes after it was first discovered thanks to a speedy telegram (possibly helped by Ada’s post office connections) and a rapid response from the Crediton Fire Bridage.

There was considerable danger of the stables, cattle houses and other buildings and the dwelling house becoming involved, as all the roofs consisted of thatch, and a strong wind was blowing.

—Western Times, 04 February 1927

The cause of the fire was never determined. Having claimed for the loss of his annual crop of corn and valuable farm equipment, Frederick left Broomsmead and took over his brother’s North Tawton farm. It is interesting to note that his brother had already planned to leave his farm before the fire. Although this could have aroused suspicion, there is no evidence of any fraudulence and the upcoming availability of the North Tawton farm may have been lucky coincidence.

A month after the fire, Ronald Ley, who was reported to have discovered the barn burning, joined the RAF as a storeman. It is impossible to tell whether he had coincidentally planned this departure from his family home before the fire, or whether it was a result of circumstances related to the fire.

The farm, as drawn in the field book of the 1910 tax assessor, and overlayed to show thatched properties in yellow. We know that the large threshing barn was thatched. It may have been the barn shown above as T. Newspapers reported that the corner of the thatched animal housing (the thatched quadrangle, K-P, above) caught alight from the threshing barn. If the fire that reached the thatched animal housing had taken hold, then the farmhouse (A) would have been in danger due to strong winds.

Christmas Day 1934

The burning of a shed on Christmas Day 1934 required a call out of the Crediton Fire Service due to its proximity to the Labour-In-Vain Cottages (also known as Kelland Cottages) which were thatched at the time. It was the first fire to be attended by Crediton’s new fire chief, George Burrows, following the retirement of Captain Parry after more than half a century of service.

The new era did not get off to a good start. At a fire in cider-making rooms at the White Hart in Crediton, the brigade were without water for 90 minutes due to the turning off of a value at the reservoir. A water source 300 yards away from the fire could not be used due to a lack of hoses.

On another occasion attended by the Crediton brigade, a fireman complained that the hose nozzles were so loose that more water went on him than the fire!

Thatch was still the nemesis of the fire brigade. At one fire George Burrows was said to remark:

“The thatch is so thick that water just runs off it.”

The Christmas Day shed fire was the last recorded occasion of the use of fire maroons to summon the Crediton brigade. This system, in place in many towns, had replaced the use of the bugler. The maroons were very loud and there were reports nationally of them causing shock to the elderly and injury, even death, to the police officers responsible for launching them. In March 1936, following three recent incidents of injury to his officers, the Chief Constable of Devon banned the use of fire maroons as a means of summoning the fire brigade. He argued that most police offices were now on the telephone and that many could connect directly to their fire stations.

Fire-fighting was much improved, particularly in rural communities like Lapford, by the introduction of telephones into homes, the availability of mains water, and advances in the design of fire engines.

Lapford in the early 1930s. Telephone lines had arrived across the top of the parish in 1924 and through the main village in 1927. It significantly improved fire response times. Lapford-In-Vain Cottages are the thatched row to the left of the picture.

That Lapford Fire
March 1936

Shortly after the retirement of Captain Parry Jones from the Crediton Fire Brigade, funding of the fire service became a major local topic. With local affairs now split between the Urban and the Rural District Councils there was heated debate over who should pay for the high cost of attending fires in rural villages like Lapford.

After the Brigade attended a fire a Lapford in March 1936, the Rural District Council refused to settle the Urban Council’s fee of £1 13s 10d. Months of argument followed and by May 1936 the matter was such a talking point that the The Western Times was calling it “That Lapford Fire”.

The Chairman of the Rural Council said:
“If we go on like this we should cease to be on speaking terms with members of the Urban Council. It is so silly for two councils who are bound to have close relations with one another to be at loggerheads.”

The matter escalated further when the Urban Council issued the Rural Council with an ultimatum — to pay the bill in full or to consider whether they preferred that the service to rural areas should be withdrawn altogether. The Urban Council began to explore the possibility of the Exeter City Fire Brigade attending rural fires whilst disagreement continued.

The matter of the unpaid bill for the Lapford fire, and the handling of future payments, was raised with the Ministry of Health. The resolution was not published in local papers

Higher Forches
July 1940

From Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Friday 26 July 1940

Crediton Fire Brigade had no opportunity to extinguish a disastrous fire at Mr. Case’s residence, Higher Forches. On their arrival they found the house to be a furnace. Only a small portion of furniture in a downstair room was saved. The origin of the fire was in an outhouse, but the cause remains a mystery. A dog, which had awakened the household just in time, was burnt to death.

The house was lived in by widower Frederick Case (60) and his daughters Kathleen (19) and Elsie (14). Frederick was a general labourer, and Kathleen worked as a packer at the Ambrosia Factory in Lapford.

The property was rebuilt. No known photographs of the house before the fire are known to exist.