Wheel of misfortune
Anna Frith tells the story of a defining day in Sixpenny Handley’s history, when a fire tore apart that community
Published in February ’12
There is a little-known village situated just four miles south of the Dorset-Wiltshire border, yet it is the largest village in Cranborne Chase. It has a long and rich history beginning in Saxon times when two Saxon ‘hundreds’ – settlements that provided for one hundred families – were established in the North Dorset countryside. One of these was named Saxpena, meaning ‘hilltop’ and the other Hanlega, translating as ‘high clearing in the wood’. Fast forward to 1575 and the communities have united and formed one larger settlement , then known as Sexpennyhanley, now known as Sixpenny Handley or, to locals,
Sixpenny Handley now boasts a population of approximately a thousand – a far cry from its humble beginnings – and is a thriving, bustling community. Its population has frequently fluctuated; at one point in the early 19th century it reached a high of 1829 people. Since this peak, though, it gradually declined and, by 1901, only 802 people remained in the village. Although there are a number of possible reasons as to why this may have been, one event in particular played a major role in causing the numbers to dwindle.
It was the morning of 20 May 1892 when the lives of many of the villagers were irrevocably devastated. It began as a normal day; the men had gone off to work, the children to the school at the top of the village and the women were attending to their daily tasks. The wheelwrights were occupied bonding wheels near the local school, a process that required high levels of concentration and often more than one man.
An iron wagon wheel rim had been fired to red heat beside a cartwheel, in preparation for clamping the rim and wheel together. When the rim had reached the required temperature, three men used tongs to lift it – to prevent the iron from deforming from its circular shape – and positioned it on the wheel before tapping it securely in place. It was then that a stray ‘vlanker’ (an old Dorset word meaning a burning fragment from the fire) caught in a sudden gust of a north-westerly wind, flew from the wheelwright’s yard over the nearest cottage and ignited a thatched roof 150 yards from its source. By the time the fire in the thatch was noticed, the wind, having picked up, had torn the thatch from the roof and carried it down the High Street, scattering it in every possible direction. A fire that was started to help to earn a living ended up engulfing most of
the village and costing more than it was ever going to make.
Sixpenny Handley had experienced a very dry spring that year, which resulted in the thatched roofs being extremely dry. They behaved like kindling and within five hours nearly a third of the buildings in the village had been left as charred remains. The fire was ferocious and, after spreading rapidly, lasted three days and left the face of the village virtually unrecognisable. In total, 52 buildings were destroyed and at a stroke nearly 200 people were made homeless and destitute.
Handley was largely a farming community at the time, which meant that most of the men were out working in the fields when the fire started, so it was left to the women, children and the few men that remained in the village (including the doctor, the parson and a few tradesmen) to try to quench the flames. Unusually for such an old settlement, the village has no direct access to water above ground. There is no river running nearby, nor a lake of any kind, which proved crucial in aiding the fire’s destructive journey through the village. The villagers had to rely on the near-empty wells to provide them with the water which was so desperately needed to save their homes and community. The already improbable struggle was made impossible when the wood-framed wells succumbed to the scorching temperatures, burning in turn in the face of blistering heat. Desperation caused some villagers to throw wooden ladders up against the burning buildings in order to tear the flaming thatch from the roofs; the ladders soon caught fire and were consequently rendered useless. Given the lack of equipment and water it is hardly surprising that the fire raged for as long as it did before it was ultimately brought under control.
Tales were told, long after the fire had died and homes had been rebuilt, of the commotion and confusion which surrounded the aftermath of the life-changing and dreadful event that May. One witness, who was a boy at the time, remembered in later life that the High Street was so hot – for approximately two weeks after the fire – that it was nearly impossible to walk through the village. Many of the cottages had been built of chalk, with walls around two feet thick, which held the heat and radiated it for hundreds of hours. The village emporium reputedly became engulfed in a ball of flames when the oil and tallow stores caught light, cloaking its immediate environment in an oil-tinged smoke.
People did all that they could to save their possessions; the devastating, burning wind descended on piles of household goods which people had dragged to apparent safety, to where they mistakenly thought was beyond the claws of the snatching wind. An old man was said to have come running out of his shed, desperately clutching a brood of burning hens to him. Another tale tells of how a little boy, when instructed to help save his family’s possessions, cautiously emerged from the house carrying his dinner of bread and cheese and proceeded to keep it safe by burying it in the garden. One of the buildings to survive the fire was the Roebuck Inn. It has since been rebuilt, but the landlord at the time, a Mr Dutch, is rumoured to have displayed quick thinking by offering free beer to all who helped him with his efforts to rescue his public house. Despite the extra manpower this undoubtedly lent Mr Dutch, it is likely that the Roebuck’s own supply of water and tiled – as opposed to thatched – roof ultimately saved the building from destruction.
Rebuilding almost an entire village was an expensive and daunting task. The tragedy captured the hearts of many people and donations of all kinds soon came flooding in. It was not just money that the villagers needed to help rebuild their homes and lives – many were left with only what they stood in, the fire having robbed them of all their worldly possessions. Clothing was sent in abundance; it was often said that one could always tell a Sixpenny Handley man because he would wear two, if not three, waistcoats. News of the tragedy spread far and wide and help came in different forms. The government provided Handley residents with bell tents in which to live and these were erected at what is now the Old Rectory. The army were on manoeuvres at the time, travelling between Salisbury Plain and Dorchester, and stopped off in Sixpenny Handley to help put up the tents. Local farmers, including some from the surrounding villages, offered their shepherd huts to the homeless victims of the fire.
Monetary donations were also sent in from far and wide, but it was not until 1894 – two years after the fire – that the authorities were ready to dispose of the claims. Despite it taking so long before the village received any money, so much had been donated that when all the claims were met at least £1000 still remained. A lot of bickering followed as to how this money should be spent, so much in fact that it ended up being put in Chancery (as with unclaimed inheritances) and may well still be there.
Most of the rebuilding of Sixpenny Handley was, out of necessity, done quickly and as a result was poorly planned. It had been the third fire in 35 years which the village had been unfortunate enough to experience, and this clearly had an effect on the look of the rebuilt village. Around a decade after the fire, Sir Frederick Treves wrote ‘The traveller may well be tempted by a sign-post…, to turn aside to the village of Sixpenny Handley. It is well, however, to resist such attraction, since this strangely named place is, I think, the ugliest village in Dorset.’
Maybe it took a while for the new Sixpenny Handley to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes, but more than one hundred years after that fateful day in May, it has now grown into its skin, blossoming into a flourishing and promising community. After nearly being wiped off the face of the map forever it is remarkable that Sixpenny Handley survived at all.