Fire Precautions in Yeovil in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries
In common with many other town Yeovil suffered severely from fires on many occasions. As early as 1450, a conflagration consumed 117 houses – a very large part of the town at that time – and this led the bishop of the diocese to grant a forty-day indulgence ‘to all contrite and confessed persons giving of their goods’ to relieve those who had suffered loss.
Another serious fire occurred on 23rd December 1622 which resulted in four of those whose homes and property had been destroyed, submitting a petition to Quarter Sessions, supported by ‘the Portreeve, Burgesses, Ministers, and other Inhabitants’, in which it was stated that the four named ‘sufferers’ houses ‘were burned to the ground with goods to the value of £200, whereby they are utterly undone’.
Yeovil again suffered severely in 1640. A ‘Protection’ for losses by fire ‘granted unto the inhabitants of Yeovill in the County of Somerset’ among ‘the Harbin papers in the Somerset Record Society, shows the extent of the damage. On 28th July 1640, about one o’clock in the afternoon, there happened ‘a sudden misfortune grevious misfortune of fire’. It began in the house of one Walter Whitcombe, and because of the dry season and a high-wind, eighty-three dwelling houses were destroyed, besides many other buildings. Two hundred families, accounting for ‘six hundred persons at the least of men, women, and children,’ were said to have been made homeless, while many ‘barns, stables, stalls, and other buildings in which. coal, wood, hay, and other things had been stored for the winter were all destroyed’. By October the losses had been assessed at £12,000 and some three hundred persons were living on relief.
Fire-fighting equipment in Yeovil, at these events was almost certainly of the most primitive kind, relying largely on buckets of water obtained from the town wells. The churchwardens of St.John’s, as far back as 1556, had paid a halfpenny ‘for reck hooks’, these being used on the end of very long poles to pull burning thatch from roofs. An example of the iron head of one of these ‘thatch’ or ‘fire-hooks’, which is very heavy, is among ‘bygones’ preserved in Yeovil Museum.
Surprise might be expressed at the provision of such an item by the churchwardens and paid for by the parish, but under Poor Law Acts, churchwardens were nominally joined with overseers for poor relief, who among many other things were responsible for the very simple fire-fighting equipment, stored in the church because there it was readily accessible for communal use.
The devastating fire of 1640 must have shown the inhabitants the need to maintain equipment, however simple, to combat that ever-present menace, especially as the majority of buildings in the town were timber-framed and thatched, and densely packed in the still-medieval confines of the ‘borough’.
The churchwardens gave Robert Hodges sixpence in 1715 ‘for mending two buckits’, while an item of 1725 reads: ‘Gave a poor Clergyman in a Loss by Fire, 2s.6d.’. The following year, they ‘pd for Two doz of Church Bucketts & Carriage, £5.15s’ From 1733 payments become virtually annual, either in providing or maintaining equipment.
Money laid out this year included:
|Paid Jno Coggan mending yo Church Bucketts||19s 0d|
|Bott 1 Dozn Church Do||£3 4s 0d|
|Paid Jno Churchouse for pins to hang ye Church Buckets and a Leather for the Great bell||1s 0d|
Various sums were spent in mending buckets, from two shillings in 1735 to £l.6s.2d in 1738. A vestry meeting of 1742 decided, not only to augment their own equipment, but to put the town’s fire engine in repair as well. The Portreeve’s 1733-1843 account book shows that the town already possessed a number of buckets and a fire appliance when that book opens.
Among the Phelips papers in the Somerset Record Office, there is an undated document, which shows the lord of the manor’s criticisms of the management of the towns finances by the Portreeve and Burgesses. Certain improvements which could be carried out were suggested, such as the provision of buckets and engines to prevent fires, etc., ‘By this means you will take off the scandell of pocketting public moneys and giving away estates, instead of selling them, and favouring each. other’
The Portreeve and Burgesses must have responded quickly to these criticisms and in the first year’s accounts in their new book, they record:-
|1733||Pd for a New Buckett & Sucker to the Town Pump||4s 0d|
|Pd for Work about the Engine||2s 6d|
|Pd Mr.Helyar for Mending the Engine||10s 2d|
|Pd for Mending the Town Bucketts – 6 Bottoms,
12 Handles and Bound
In 1740 the Portreeve paid 10s.2d for ‘repairing the upper Pump’ and 7s,6d. ‘For a new Wheel to the Engine and painting’ Four shillings more went to Wm.Compton for playing the Engine’, and sixpence was ‘Paid Thos.Trent for crying that Water Sho’d be put out at the Door’, this latter showing that in case of a fire occurring, at night a ready supply of filled buckets was available for instant use.
The report of the 1742 vestry meeting reads:-
29th Aprill 1742
We whose names are hereunder written, being met at a Vestry held for the Town of Yeovill, do impower, order, and direct the present Churchwardens Mr.John Dier and Mr.Thomas Sheave to buy (as soon as convenient may be} one of Newsam’s Engines and appropriate the same to the Use of the Town and also to repair the new Engine belonging to the said Town in such a manner as they shall think necessary and convenient And we do-order that such expence, as they shall be put unto in buying the New Engine and repairing the old one be repaid them on the Settling their. Accounts in such manner as their other Disbursments are usually paid….’
and this is signed by twenty-four parishioners.
But one wonders if this was then put into effect, for there is no subsequent record of the purchase authorized, and the churchwardens’ accounts for 1742 only show:
|Paid John Coggin for two New Buckets||10s 0d.|
|Pd Geo: Beard mending the Engion||15s 0d.|
This latter entry obviously refers to the ‘town’ appliance. The Portreeve’s accounts for the same year show:
|To old Coggin for mending Bucketts||2s.2d.|
|Pd for 4. times playing the Engine||4s 0d.|
|To old Coggin for mending 2 Bucketts||1s.0d.|
In comparing both churchwardens’ and portreeves’ accounts over the ensuing years, there is reason to suppose, that while each maintained a quantity of buckets, the portreeve kept the town pumps in working order, and also paid for some of the maintenance work on Nuns Well, and it seems that an agreement must have been reached to share the maintenance costs of the engine, but eventually it is the churchwardens alone who maintain the appliance.
A new engine must have been acquired some time about 1748 or 1749, because the portreeve’s accounts in the latter year refer to the appliances in the plural for the first time – ‘Pd for playing the old and new Engines, 6s.’ Perhaps this fire appliance had been obtained from one of the fire insurance companies, since neither sets of accounts show its purchase.
On 24th April 1753, the church vestry resolved ‘that no expense for the future relating to the Fire Engines shall be brought into this Account’ – a resolution which was completely ignored! The churchwardens’ accounts that year showing ten shillings paid ‘To Standing of the engine’ and for the next three years more payments were made for ‘Standing the 2 Engines’, the first two years at ten shillings, but increased to fifteen shillings in 1756. ‘During this period the Sexton, Frank Butts, received five shillings in 1754 ‘for mending 21 Church Buckets’, in 1755 ‘2 stems for ye Fire Crooks’ cost two shillings, and Thomas Hart charged the churchwardens £l.2s. in 1756 for mending ye Engine pipe’. The Portreeve’s accounts in the latter year. show payment to Mr.Gerrard for a New Pump Trow’ at a cost of £1.2s.4d. and a further’ shilling for ‘Setting’ it.
Like entries occur during the rest of the eighteenth century, some of the items appearing somewhat peculiar to us today, such as ‘To Oyl and Suet to the Engine Pipes, ls.6d. in the churchwardens’ accounts for 1758, until it is remembered that the ‘hosepipes were made of leather, and were in constant need of being kept supple.
Entries in the church accounts for 1761 include:-
|Octo:7||Contributed towards loss by Fire.||2s.6d.|
|For drawing home ye Engines at the Fire||1s. 0d.|
|For playing the Engine||5s. 0d.|
In 1768, the church vestry meeting of 8th March ordered the churchwardens to obtain ‘three Douzin of Leather Bucketts for the use of this Town in case of fire and to repair the Engines and Leather pipes for the like Use’. The cost of these buckets appear in the accounts as at 6s.6d. each, a total of £11.14s. The repairs to the engine are shown in the 1768 accounts as follows:-
|To Work done about the Engine Carpenter & Smith||£3 0s.0d.(x)|
|Deduct part of Taylor and Slocombe their Bills for
repairing the Engine the same being an unreasonable Charge
|(x)The £3 has been overwritten on £2 15s.|
The Churchwardens’ accounts for 1779 detail work done in overhauling the two engines
|– – Chas.Edmunds Bill – –|
|Augt. To Righting the Iron of Ye two Engines||6s.0d.|
|– – Thos.Churchouse’s Bill – –|
|Augt.20 18 Feet Oak Board for the Engine at 5d||7s.6d.|
|2 Pieces of Elm Board||9d.|
|3 Days Work about the same||5s.3d.|
|Oil paint &c & Painting the Engine||5s.0d.|
|a Sucker Oak Nails & Work abt ye Old Do.||4s.6d.|
|– – John Selwood’s Bill – –|
|Labour in Cleaning, mending and Leathering the Little Engine||£3.4s.0d.|
|Soder 31b at 10d||2s.6d|
|Labour in Cleaning, mending and Leathering the Old Engine||£1.4s.0d.|
|– – Churchwardens’ Bill – –|
|for taking out the Engines||3s.0d.|
|for Do omitted last||4s.0d.|
|for playing the Engines several times about the time of being put in thorough repair||5s.6d.|
|Mrs Masters for looking after the Engine Pipes||2s.0d.|
|– A grand total that year of £8.1s.10d. being spent on the Engines.|
In 1783 an entry records ‘Cleaning the Engine after the Fire at Revd.Mr. Parsons’s, 4s.’, Preb.F.C.Parson was vicar of St.John’s, from, 1766 to 1780.
Repair work to engines and buckets appear in the churchwardens’ accounts, almost every year, and in 1790 a shilling was given to ‘Man for collecting the Church Buckets of after Mr.Garland’s Fire’ and later that same year six shillings was spent ‘Mending 12 Buckets after the Fire at Stafford’ (Stoford), a further eight guineas being expended on new buckets. ‘At Easter 1794 there was a Hundred and thirty two Buckets in good repair’ as compared with the entry eight years earlier, when ‘This Year there were in the Church 61 Leather Bucketts all firm and Sound’.
The reference above to the fire at Mr.Garland’s in 1790, relates to a case of arson, a newspaper report of that year stating:-
Saturday se’nnight a man, servant to Mr.Thomas Garland, who keeps the Greyhound Inn, in Yeovil, was committed to Ivelchester gaol, on suspicion of having; set fire to his said master’s house, whereby the stables, cellar, and a smith’s shop adjoining, were entirely destroyed, and the whole town endangered. There have been three fires in the same place in the course of five days, attended with such circumstances as leave little room to doubt its being a premeditated act of some person acquainted with the premises.
The ‘Western Flying Post‘, in August that year, reported that the culprit had been convicted and sentenced to be hung. The report added ‘the inhabitants of Yeovil think, themselves much obliged to the town of Sherborne for the readiness with which they sent their engine when the second alarm was given’.
‘Proving the Engines’ were regular payments from 1801 onwards. In 1803 an entry in the churchwardens’ accounts records the ‘Guift’ of three dozen buckets from the Royal Exchange Fire Insurance Company, and a like number from the Sun Fire Office. Sums were also spent that year on engine repairs.
In 1807 the church vestry of 4th August ordered the churchwardens and overseers to produce an estimate of the expense of purchasing a new fire engine and the erection of a house to keep it in. They were also to enquire of the Fire Insurance, Agents what support might be expected from them in such a provision. That year’s accounts show two payments of five shillings each for ‘Keeping the Engine in a House by the Horse Pon’. This was a small building at the junction of North Lane and Court Ash with Silver Street.
In 1810, in ordering the churchwardens to repair the engines, the vestry requested that ‘Mr.Cha: Hutchings do go to Martock and see their Engine and report the same’ to a subsequent meeting. Unfortunately this report is not given in the succeeding minutes.
In the Tite Collection in Yeovil Reference Library there is correspondence giving details of an appeal for subscriptions towards the cost of the proposed new engine and the building to contain it, complaints having been made of damage caused to the existing one which, being housed in the tower of St.Johns, had suffered through the actions of bell-ringers! This had been the reason for moving it to the building by the Horse Pond. Inhabitants of Yeovil had subscribed £70 towards the cost by 1811 and an appeal was made by John Goodford and John Daniell, both local magistrates, to six fire insurance offices with Yeovil agents. The Royal Exchange, the Sun Office, and the Salamander, each contributed, but the British and the West of England Offices declined on principle. Eventually, though, a total of £119 15s. was raised.
On 28th April 1812 ‘A Vestry was Call’d and held this Day to fix on a Plan for an Engin House to be built in front of the Tower. And a New Engin to be bought. Which was done by Subscription’. Later that year it was decided to ‘sell the larger Tub Engine, the Parish not having any occasion for it’, and the accounts show the erection of ‘the Engine House in the Church Yard’. This was a building at the foot of the tower between the south porch and the Chantry Schoolhouse, which then joined the tower on its south-west corner.
‘At a Vestry held on 20th November 1813…We do hereby authorize and empower the Churchwardens to pay out of the Church Rates (the expenses respecting the Fire Engines appearing to have always been paid from that Fund, and the Superintendence of the Engines having always been left to the Churchwardens) the arrears due to William Thomas for building the Engine House, amounting to £2.16s.lld., and to George Perry for Carriage, Freight, &c. of the New Engine the sum of £6.0s.6d. We do also authorize them to get the Engine Buckets properly repaired and oiled, and to keep them and the Engines in good repair’.
There was a serious fire in 1815 which broke out in a blacksmith’s shop and spreading to adjoining premises, reduced seventeen houses to ashes in four hours rendering twenty families homeless.
A vestry meeting on 7th April 1825, gave authority for the ‘old Engine’ to be sold and a Bucket Carrier be made for the use of the Parish in case of Fire’. Receipts in the churchwardens’ accounts for 1831 show five shillings from Wyndham Goodden of Compton for repairing the Engines used on his premises’.
A memorandum of 18th April 1835, records, ‘There are now 169 Buckets belonging to the Church. Engines (at the present time in good repair) John Perratt.’ On 16th February 1836, 2s.6d was paid for ‘Collecting Buckets after Castle fire’. Fire crooks were made and paid for in 1839, six men receiving a shilling each in the same year for ‘collecting buckets after fire in Vicarage Street &c.&c.’, and in 1844 twentysix men were paid a total of 10s.6d. for attending another fire and the engines, in Vicarage Street, ‘Sutton & two Men’ receiving a further six shillings for ‘collecting & cleaning buckets &c.’ ‘Sutton and others’ were paid ten shillings in 1848 for ‘collecting the Bucketts after 2 Fires in South Street’.
Annual sums had been paid during the whop of this period for ‘proving’, repairing, oiling, etc.,etc. the engines. Finally, in 1853, it was unanimously resolved by the vestry ‘That the proposal of the Town
Commissioners to take charge of the Parish Engines be accepted, and that the Churchwardens be Authorized to resign them to the charge of the Commissioners and permit them to take to their use the materials of the present Engine house’.
Thereafter the story of fire precautions is from sources other than the churchwardens and portreeve’s accounts and may perhaps, be the subject of further articles in the future.
Phelips Papers, S.R.O.
Harbin Papers, S.R.O.
Churchwardens’ Account Books (now S.R.0)
Portreeves’ Account Book 1733-1643, Yeovil Museum.