When Blandford Burnt
The Great Fire of Blandford in 1731 destroyed most of the town. Michael Le Bas looks back at the disaster and describes how the town rose ‘like the Phoenix from its Ashes’.
Published in March ’09
|The Greyhound Inn, built by the Bastard brothers in 1734 as part of their re-building project|
Any mention of ‘The Great Fire’ immediately brings to mind the Great Fire of London in 1666 but for many in Dorset, it means the Great Fire of Blandford in 1731. That fire burnt out almost 90% of the town. At the time it was considered rather extreme divine retribution. The current smallpox epidemic was bad enough.
Town fires in Dorset were not unusual, with the abundance of thatch being blamed. In a period of only a few years, the Dorset towns of Sturminster Newton (1730), Beaminster (1741), Puddletown (1753) and Wareham (1762) all had major fires running to thousands of pounds damage, but rarely did the event hit the London newspapers.
|The story inscribed in stone at the foot of the memorial|
Blandford was fortunate in having wealthy landowners close by, e.g. Portman, Banks and Drax. With their connections, Londoners soon learnt of the Blandford fire, and the London papers described it as a national disaster. The King, Queen and Prince of Wales responded by giving £1300, and charity-in-aid performances were given in the Drury Lane Theatre.
An Act of Parliament followed in 1732 decreeing that Blandford should be re-built in brick and tile, and that signs of re-building must appear within four years of the Act, else Commissioners were empowered to allocate the property elsewhere as they saw fit. The Commissioners were all local men, including George Dodington, Sir William Nappier, Sir William Chapple, Sir James Thornhill, George Chaffin, Edmund Pleydell, William Portman, Henry Drax, Richard Bingham, John Banks and Walter Ridout, any five of whom could adjudicate where there were disputes of land ownership or on financial altercations.
|This model in Blandford Museum shows the town as it was at the time of the fire. The tallow chandler’s shop, where the fire began, is the roofless house on the left where the road forks. It is now the Kings Arms.|
The fire began at 2 pm on Friday 4 June 1731 in a soap boiler’s (tallow chandlers) workshop on the corner of White Cliff Mill Street and Bryanston Street. A letter written on 12 June 1731 and recently spotted in the Dorset History Centre (ref: D/PIT/L23) says ‘it was occasioned by the soap boyler’s apprentice making too great a fire under a furnace of boyling soap and as he endeavoured to rake part of the fewel at the furnace mouth, set fire to other furzes in the same room and in the space of an hour spread into different parts of the town with such fury that several of the poor workers, who were labouring to putt this fire out where it first began, had their own houses consumed before they gott home’. Over 400 families lost their homes. Sparks flew such that the villages of Blandford St Mary and Bryanston across the River Stour were also largely burnt out.
The Kings Arms now occupies the site where the fire began and it carries a blue plaque to commemorate that terrible event. The events of the fire are laid out in a book by the Rev. Malachi Blake, who had been the Dissenting Minister in Blandford since 1716 and who experienced the loss of his home and his church. He records that it was hot summer’s day and the fire spread rapidly, fanned by the wind. By seven o’clock in the evening the fire had burnt itself out, leaving only a few brick-built houses on the outskirts that were roofed with tiles, including the Old House, the Ryves Almshouses, Park House and Dale House. The cellars under many burnt houses also remained. Most of East Street also survived, as it had been recently re-built in brick and tile after a fire there in 1713.
|This monument in the market place was erected by John Bastard in 1760 ‘In grateful Acknowledgement of the DIVINE MERCY which has since raised this Town, like the Phoenix from its Ashes, to its present beautiful and flourishing State’|
The parish church in the middle of town still stood, and into it had been gathered all the church records and items of value for safe-keeping. Being stone-built and having a lead-sheeted roof, it was considered a safe haven, and normally churches did not burn down in the event of town fires. However, minor fires did break out around the roof and were soon extinguished. By two o’clock in the morning hope was lost when fire was seen in the roof above the nave. Without ladders to reach the outbreak, all the fire engines, ladders and fire buckets having been consumed by fire elsewhere in the town, the fire spread, melting the lead above, and people had to run for their lives as molten lead cascaded down together with the stonework.
In modern parlance, the fire was a fire-storm. It was not so much individual houses burning but whole streets burning. Malachi Blake described attempts by certain gentlemen to reach their houses to rescue the elderly and infirm, but being driven back by smoke and flame right across the street. One case is described of an old lady emerging from the smoke crying for help and a gentleman saying ‘Catch hold of my coat tails, for we have to run’. He ran but she could not hold on, fell and died. Blake’s descriptions over some pages make harrowing reading.
Despite the terror, only twelve people died that day, but this is a conservative estimate as all church registers were destroyed in the fire. However, ten burnt victims, all named, were buried following the fire with two further burnt or missing. There is the popular story that many orphans were created and were given the surname Blandford, but this is not true. Malachi Blake states quite clearly that all children ‘lost’ on the day were safely restored to their parents.
The brothers John and William, sons of Thomas Bastard, an accomplished builder in town, were appointed to cost the fire damage for insurance purposes. That totalled £86,882 13s 3½d, with their own claim coming to £3,709 10s 4d. Being established architects, they designed and re-built the church at a cost of £3092. It is one of the few Georgian churches in England outside London and worth a visit. Its lofty nave is flanked by twelve giant Portland stone columns with Ionic capitals that carry an entablature taking the eye from the entrance to the altar. By 1739 it was re-opened for worship but the churchwarden’s accounts tell us that minor works such as glazing continued for some time. The spire planned for the tower never materialised, owing to lack of funds. Instead an iconic cupola was added in 1758, much to their chagrin. The brothers also built the Town Hall by 1733 (for £197), seemingly in concert with Sir James Thornhill, the Greyhound Inn by 1734 (£785), and their own flamboyant house (opposite the church) for £704.
The medieval road pattern was retained. The 1732 Act of Parliament decreed that Salisbury Street and East Street be widened by taking in land from houses, also that the Market Place be cleared of buildings and the Town Hall re-sited to its north side, displacing northwards the vicarage and the former Grammar School, now Old Bank House, to create a larger churchyard. The result is a very fine Georgian town centre; Pevsner said ‘hardly any other town in England can be compared with it’. Tours of the town are organised by the Blandford and District Civic Society in the summer months, and can be booked via the Blandford Information Centre.
The story of the Great Fire is encapsulated by the inscription in the Purbeck paving stones in front of the Town Hall in the Market Place, which reads ‘Recipe for regeneration: take one careless tallow chandler and two ingenious Bastards’, words created by the Blandford poetry group for the Millennium project.
|The Rev. Malachi Blake’s account of the great fire, published in 1736, also includes rather a fiery sermon directed at the townsfolk|
The Fire was also commemorated by the Dorset composer William Knapp, famous for the hymn tune ‘Wareham’, which is still sung in churches today. In 1738 he included in his A New Sett of Psalm-tunes and Anthems a choral piece using the text of Psalm 18 (‘In my trouble I call’d upon the Lord and complained unto my God’). The title page explains that ‘this Anthem was composed for the Use of the People of Blandford on the 4th of June, being the Day that Town was destroyed by Fire’ and the words of the text go on to point out that ‘there went a Smoke out in his Presence, and a consuming Fire out of his Mouth, so that Coals were kindled.’ It has not been sung in Blandford in living memory and it is possible that it never has been – past rectors had very strong views on what music could be performed in the church. A copy of the music has been discovered recently, however, so perhaps the Blandford Fire Anthem will receive its world première soon.
[Michael Le Bas is Deputy Curator at the Blandford Town Museum]