Guilden Morden Great Fire – Nearly Sixty Persons Homeless
report from May 27 1881 – Herts & Cambs Reporter

Fifty years hence the old people of this and neighbouring villages will probably have one day in their local calendar by w which they will fix the date of minor events, and that day will be Sunday last, May 22nd, 1881. For rarely in the history of a village is the quietude of rural life thrown into such a sudden and overwhelming consternation and confusion as that caused by the terrible fire which formed such a sad close to a charming early summer’s day on Sunday last.

The Fire starts at about 6.00pm

Within  a short distance of the Parish Church and in the immediate vicinity of the Independent Chapel is part of the village known as Pound Green, where at six o’clock on Sunday evening some thirteen cottages – of the claybat, wood and whitewash type, common in the villages in this district – were safely inhabited. Before the bright sunlight had faded from the sky only one of these remained.  About six o’clock a lean-to shed against the cottage occupied by William Thompson, his wife and grandchild, was found to be on fire, the fire being seen coming through the roof.  Of the two cottages here under the same roof the other was occupied by George Clark, his wife and three children.

Thirteen cottages on fire

These two cottages (Thompson’s and George Clark’s) stood back 20 yards from the road, and on each side of a passage up to them and facing the road was another group of cottages, three on one side and two on the other.  The wind very soon carried the fire to these groups of cottages, which, as they  were thatched, were soon on fire also, and thus the whole seven cottages on this side of the road …were enveloped in flames. The fire next crossed the road and caught the property of the late Mr E Beldam’s executor’s – three cottages occupied by Messrs Harradine, James Clark, and Gentle, with two large barns occupied by the first two named, and a small stack of bean straw. Another cottage standing a few yards from Messrs Clark and Harradine’s barns, and occupied by Thomas Chapman (property of Miss Long), next caught fire; and, finally two more cottages occupied by Simeon Dellar and  William Webb (property of Mr R Allen, of Dunton Lodge) standing on the other side of the Green and some fifty yards from the nearest of the burning buildings, and with trees intervening, were reached by the destructive element which spread with such alarming rapidity.  The scene which ensued while the fire was running its brief but terrible course was one that baffles description.

The Chapel service abandoned

At the parish church evening service being held on alternative Sundays, there did not happen to be a service on Sunday evening, but at the  Independent Chapel, a brick building standing within a few yards of some of the burning  cottages there was to have been an evening service. It goes without saying, however, that no such a thing took place, and that the whole population, regardless of Sunday clothes, threw themselves with highly commendable zeal and energy into the work of saving the worldly goods of their neighbours in distress.

The Fire Brigade arrives from  Baldock at 8.28pm

Mr Rule rode off on horseback to Baldock, a distance of nearly nine miles, for the fire engine. Arriving there at 7.10 pm he raised the alarm by vigorously pulling the bell at the Fire Brigade Station.  In a few minutes Mr Bloom, the foreman and engineer, was at the engine-house, and others were called out of church. In 20 minutes, or at half-past seven, five members of the Brigade, in uniform, were on the road with their engine, and they commenced pumping at the fire at 8.28 pm; others members of  the Brigade arriving after the service at church, half-an-hour later. There was a plentiful supply of water from an old moat close by and in a short time the Brigade, seconded as they  were so  well by men in the village, were successful in saving the cottage occupied by David  Gentle and  also some portion of James Clark’s cottage adjoining. Nor did their work end here, for although it was too late to save the other cottages there was other property to be considered.  One other cottage standing at some distance  was at one time on fire, but the fire was extinguished in time. The Chapel and Mr Sale’s stacks were also endangered. Thus in the space of two or three hours twelve cottages were burned to the ground and about sixty people found themselves suddenly  without a home, their furniture and effects either destroyed by the fire  or scattered over the village green, in gardens and every space available.

How did it start?

There seems little doubt that the fire was accidentally caused, but in what way the small spark which soon led to such a calamity, originated, is not clear. Thompson, at whose shed the fire started, says he went to his shed to fee his rabbits at half-past five, and his grandson, aged six, was with him. He (Thompson) then left the shed and went to the stile, a short distance from his cottage, and returning at six o’clock he saw the fire coming through the roof of the shed, and his statement is that he did not smoke when he went into the shed half-an-hour previous to this. It appears that while he was away the child was playing in the vicinity of the shed; beyond this there is no evidence to show whether or not the child could have caused the fire by playing with matches, a supposition entertained by some.

Help from the Vicarage

The Fire Brigade ceased pumping at one o’clock am and left at two am., having been previously supplied with supper by the Rev JR Wilson (vicar of the parish) at the vicarage. The members of the Brigade were Messrs Broom, (who took direction of the work in the absence of Captain Stocken) Raven, Christian, Jackson and Careless; those following half and later after church, were Messrs Burry, Peck, Dean and Theobalds… It should be added that not only did the working classes render all the assistance in their power but that the principal inhabitants, including W Charters Esq, of the Vicarage, laboured most energetically to help their neighbours.

Help from all round

A subscription is being raised  to relieve in some measure the distress and loss incurred by those whose goods were uninsured. It is not wished to put to these persons on a level with those who had the good sense to provide against the contingency of fire, but it is felt that an effort should be made to replace losses which will otherwise be irreparable. Contributions however small, will be gladly received by  the Rev J R Wilson, Guilden Morden Vicarage, or by J M Pierpoint, Esq, Riversdale, Steeple Morden. The sum of £13 has been already raised, mainly by the exertions of the latter gentlemen.

 1881 Census, listing and differences

Mr Harradine’s cottage was not noted in the Census. The following is the Census order (my numbering, but following the route the Census enumerator took as he walked round). Other cottages which must have  been nearby but not noted in the newspaper report are: 3. White

9. Warboys

16 Thos Cole

17 Walt.  Janeway

These last two must have surely been in the immediate vicinity of 15 (Joseph Cole) for the Census enumerator to have noted them in this order. Perhaps they were there but escaped damage; not having thatched roofs. (A family named as Janeways lived at Odsey in 1851.) Looking at the plan, which is of necessity a guess, the fire seemed to have swept from east to west.



James Clark in 1910, whose father George was the "loser of a £5 note" in the fire of 1881



 The 1851 Census

George Webb lived in the  High St and was 1 yr old Simeon Deller was living in the High St and was 26 yrs old James Clark was living in the High St and  was 18. Wm Randelle  was living in Great Green and was 3 James Baulk was living at Church End and  was 20. He is to name one son Caleb, who in 1881 is 9 yrs old, after an uncle  living at Great Green and had just been born in 1851. James Clarke lived in the High St and was 18 and unmarried George Clark was living in the High St and was 26 Wm Thomptson (sic) was living at Church End, was 45 and had six children. Wm jnr who was the grandson of the last named and, who "some" thought might have played with matches, was 5 yrs in 1881.

by Colin Price