An open letter to the parishioners of Holywell-cum-Needingworth
by the Rev. R.J. M’Ghee, A.M. (Rector 1846 – 1872)
From “Holywell and Needingworth” by Joe Newell (D01658ba) Chapter 10
On Wednesday, September 15, 1847, you were all, as usual, employed about your various occupations. It was a calm and lovely evening. I was in the village about 7 o’clock, and conversed with several of its inhabitants. One of the oldest of them Mrs H (oward), had been a long time very weak; and I recollect saying that it was too late: that evening, but that, please God, I should be with her on Friday, being obliged next morning to go to London for a day. Your plans of business, of farming or labour, or traffic in your little shops, or of visiting, as some of you did, your friends or neighbours at a distance from the village, were all no doubt, thought of and talked over by your fireside, as you were seated on your chairs at your tables with your evening meal spread before you, and afterwards lay down quietly to sleep, you thought little that it was the last night that so many of you were to have any use of those articles of furniture, or to dwell in those habitations with which many of you had been familiar from your childhood, but that in a few hours they were to present nothing to your view but a mass of shattered fragments or of smoking ruins.
Thursday, the 16th, arose with a very clouded sky, and seemed to threaten a storm; but you little thought how soon it was to burst on your heads, and carry with it unexpected ruin and desolation over your village, and that, from a quarter where it was impossible to imagine it could arise, and from which, when it came, it seemed a direct visitation from the hand of God. If lightning had struck every house and set it on fire, it would not have seemed to me more marked, as coming directly from His hand.
There were two small cottages in the pits belonging to the poor, separated by an orchard in full bearing, from any other habitation, distant, I suppose, from the nearest almost hundred yards. If any one had been asked whether any danger was to be apprehended from these cottages being set on fire, I suppose the most timid or the most cautious person in the village, could not have expressed the slightest fear a short time before. A poor half-witted girl who had been left in one of these cottages, threw out, as any one might have done, some ashes on the heap at the end of the cottage, where they were generally thrown. Some unextinguished embers among these were fanned into kindling by the south-west wind, which was then blowing a storm against the gable of this cottage.
Some gleaning straw was lying, at that moment, close to the ashes, and the kindling embers caught and set fire to the straw; instantly it blazed up to the roof, and communicated with the thatch of the cottage, which happened to be very dry, and in a few minutes the two cottages were in a flame. Still who could have apprehended danger from the distance of these cottages from other dwellings, and the intervening orchard? They lay directly to windward of the village, and when the thatch on the roof became separated from its binding by the flame, the storm carried it through the trees and over the orchard, still fanning it more strongly as it flew, and blew into the thatched roofs and corn-stacks of other houses and homesteads in the village. The nearest hayrick and the nearest thatched house escaped; the wind blew the burning thatch over them to others, but in a few moments some small cottages from fire, then Mr Sharpe’s house and all his offices caught the flames; then old Mrs Howard’s house and offices and all her corn-stacks were in a blaze; and when next, on the morning of Friday I saw the habitation which I had promised to visit in the evening it was all reduced to a shapeless mass of smoking ruins.
Each house, as it took fire, furnished the storm with but fresh materials for its fury, and fresh firebrands to carry further forward in its work of destruction. The flames raked the village from the south-west to the north-east, and the rapidity of the desolation they spread before them, was scarcely less formidable and unlooked for, than the havoc it carried along with it. One neighbour had not time to render a few moments assistance to his friend, before his own house was in flames, and he was constrained to cry for aid for himself. The villagers who dwelt in the middle of the village and those who dwelt at the north-east, the part most remote from the extremity where the fire broke out, hearing that there was a fire at the other end of it, naturally ran, some from curiosity to see the fire and some to give their aid to extinguish it. But while they were running in the direction of the fire, the storm was blowing the flames and burning thatch and brands, more swiftly to their own habitations then they ran from them; and before they could return to their dwellings they had left in such fancied security a few moments before, the roofs of their own houses had caught the devouring element. Then universal terror and consternation succeeded. Every house that caught fire added its burning embers but as fresh fuel to the storm, and spread dismay and despair amongst all the inhabitants of the village. Each expected or feared that his house and property must soon fall a sacrifice; and from the houses that were not on fire, as well as from those that were in flames, everyone was dragging out their furniture to save it. Bedsteads could not be unscrewed, so they were cut and broken to pieces to try and save them from being consumed. Some laid their property in the street,-some carried it into the yards or outhouses of their neighbours, where they hoped it might be safer than their own; and the very spot which some selected as a place of security, proved to be the very furnace where their property was consumed. Many carried their furniture and all that they could snatch from the flames into Mr Thorpe’s malthouse, which being tiled and detached, they considered perfectly safe, but this soon fell prey to the flames, and all that had been so confidently consigned to it was speedily consumed. Several, whose houses escaped the fire, lost their property in their efforts to preserve it, by carrying it out from terror to the street, or to a place where it was burned.
It is impossible adequately describe the scene, – the fury of the flame – raging of the storm, and the terror and dismay on every countenance. Fire engines were useless. The wind blew their jets of water spray before they could reach the spot to which they were directed. The poor men who had gone out to labour, instead of returning to their dinner, only came to behold their cottages in flames or in ruins, or in a state of peril from which it was impossible to rescue them; some who had gone out to see their friends at a little distance, as they came back, beheld a village on fire, and ran with trembling hearts, not knowing whether their house had fallen in the general ruin, and were long unable to pass through the dense impenetrable mass of strangers of all classes, who in the course of two hours, had collected in the village.
And here the most painful circumstances in all the afflicting narrative must be told to do justice to truth. Of the multitude who thronged the village from every quarter, while some of every rank, with indefatigable kindness and exertion, laboured to extinguish the flames or preserve the property of the sufferers, others made the confusion a pretext for the most unfeeling and unprincipled plunder. Some broke into the houses on the pretence of saving the property contained in them, and consumed all food and drink they could lay their hands on. Some in pretence of saving the furniture took away articles that never were recovered and etc;