The best of Dorset in words and pictures

When Wimborne could have burnt

Keith Eldred has been looking at a contemporary account of a fire which was almost a major disaster for Wimborne

East Street in the 19th century. The house on the right, with creeper on the wall, was knocked down to make room for the shop where the fire started.

The Joyce family lived at White Mill by the bridge crossing the Stour to Sturminster Marshall. In fact, the family had been at the mill from the mid 1500s; they ran the mill and a bakery and farmed. Henry Stanley Joyce was born in 1883 at White Mill, but by 1891 the family were living at a house called Oaklands in Rowlands Hill in Wimborne.

The family were fairly well-to-do. They had three servants, a governess, a general servant and a nurse and one of the reasons for the move to Wimborne was so that young Henry could attend the Grammar School and thus further his education. It had been thought that Henry would follow his father into farming but his grandmother, who seems to have been a rather formidable lady, disagreed. Henry thus joined the National Provincial Bank in Poole. His interests did not lie in banking and he was first and foremost a countryman. He loved birds, animals and insects and was an expert angler. He wrote a number of books based on his experiences of country life and was highly regarded as a writer and naturalist. He also became a broadcaster with the BBC on these subjects and apparently was short-listed for one of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions to the Antarctic. He didn’t go, as the bank refused to grant him leave!

For all this, he remained a true son of Dorset and thankfully recorded his memories of growing up as a boy in Wimborne around the turn of the century. One such memory is of the fire that broke out in East Street in 1900. It occurred in a draper’s shop within a gabled building which was burnt to the ground. Flames jumped across the road and damaged a thatched building opposite, and there is little doubt that this event had the potential to destroy much of that part of the town if unchecked.

The morning after the fire, with the fire engine still in attendance at the left of the photograph

The blazing building stood where the Nail Studio, Bang & Olufsen and Age Concern shops are now. It is believed that the fire started when one of the shop assistants was moving a lace collar or some such and either knocked over a lighted gas jet or allowed the collar to come into contact with the flame. The girl took fright and dropped the burning collar and the whole window blazed up at once. The fire spread with frightening speed; one witness said that they had never seen a fire spread so quickly.

Suddenly there was a loud explosion and the window in the shop on the opposite side of the road shattered in the heat and fell in pieces out onto the pavement. This shop was a stationer’s and in a moment the contents of the window – papers, books etc – burst into flames. By now the street was impassable and nothing could be done until a fire engine made its appearance, pulled by half a dozen of Wimborne’s volunteer firemen while others pushed behind. In order to bring it into action, the engine had to be on the east side of the fire so that a hose could be lowered into the stream by the side of the building, that is the stream which flows by the side of the Angel Coffee Shop. The gang of helpers tried to rush the engine through but either the rope broke or was burned through by the fire, leaving the engine stranded between the two fires and half of the men on each side of the fire. Then someone with more courage possibly than sense braved the appalling heat, dashed in and attached a chain to the engine, which was then towed through. The exposure to the searing heat had caused the red paint on the body of the engine to blister and peel on both sides.

Another photograph in the aftermath of the fire. To judge from the variety of clothes, the devastation attracted sightseers from across the social classes.

Only then was it discovered that the organ-blower of the church, who was well know for preparing himself for his duties on Sunday morning by doing a tour of the pubs on Saturday night, had been pushing the engine from behind when the rope parted and he had been left with the engine. The intense heat had literally roasted his face, his cheeks covered with large blisters. Some said he was too drunk to know what was happening but by crouching beneath the engine until help arrived, he had survived. It is certain that had that help been delayed for only a few moments longer, he would have burned to death.

Meanwhile there was cheering and shouting as another fire engine arrived, heralded by the clanging of the bell and the sound of galloping horses. This had come from Poole and crossed over Eastbrook Bridge towards the fire. As it pulled up fifty yards from the fire, one of the horses fell dead; they had galloped the whole seven miles including the two long, steep hills.

By now the flames were leaping up through the roof of the building, enveloping the shop, showrooms, workrooms and living quarters of the store. Suddenly a cry of horror came from the crowd. Silhouetted against the flames and flying sparks on top of the high, blank wall on the stream side of the building were two figures. Both were women; one wearing a cap and apron appeared to be a servant, while the other, clad only in her night-dress, was a young lady who had been ill for some time. Men jumped into the stream and called to the women to jump and they would catch them. The servant did so and was caught safely, but the other lady appeared to faint and, putting out her hands, fell forward and plummeted into the arms of the waiting men. The maid survived her ordeal without hurt but her mistress had to be taken to hospital suffering from severe shock and was very ill for some time after. One of the men who had jumped into the river to help was also severely injured and could not walk for many months after; his wheelchair became a familiar sight in the streets of Wimborne.

The Wimborne fire brigade in 1908, eight years after the fire. It looks as though it is the same fire engine as in the photograph on page 00, but horse-drawn.

Tremendous amounts of burning paper were now falling from the sky, endangering other buildings. Volunteers were needed to remove carriages and carts from a factory close by which were run over Eastbrook Bridge onto the cricket field. Eventually the fire was brought under control with the assistance of yet another fire engine, this time from Blandford.

Most of the most dramatic events of the night were over, but one story was to amuse many local folk. Some of the local lads in their eagerness to help had obtained a ladder and a hose. They placed the ladder and climbed onto the roof of a shop two doors from the still-burning stationery shop. Their intention was to give the building a good soaking to prevent it catching fire, but for reasons best known only to themselves, they thrust the end of the hose down a chimney.
It so happened that this particular chimney led to a drawing room which was the pride of the lady owner’s heart, a magnificent room decorated entirely in silver. The wallpaper was pale grey with a shining silver motif, the curtains and upholstery were of the same colour and the woodwork was also painted in silver. People believed it to be the most ornately decorated room in the town, and it was into this room that the well-meaning lads on the roof poured a stream of water which mixed with the soot from the chimney. Perhaps the most distressing and annoying aspect of this for the unfortunate lady was that this was virtually the only damage the premises suffered apart from blistering of paintwork on the door and shop front!

However, Wimborne was saved from what could have been a major disaster and the destruction of much of the town. The building in which the fire started was destroyed and later replaced by a new one, Hawkers drapery shop. The new building still stands with the high blank end wall by the little stream, although it now houses three shops instead of one.

By the celebration of the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902, all evidence of the fire had been cleared away and Hawkers had built a smart new building on the site

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