Ottery St Mary - The Great Fire of 1866
Most historians are aware of the Great Fire that occurred in Ottery St Mary in Devon on May 25, 1866. But very few people are aware of the tragedy that happened several months later as a direct result of the fire.
The following is a summary of the article by J. Harris: Ottery St Mary 1866 Devon Family Historian, No. 69, Feb. 1994, pp. 36-39. This article is based on the newspaper report of the fire from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette dated Friday June 1, 1866.
The fire started about noon and the raged through the homes and shops of about a quarter of the town, reducing everything to ashes. The fire started on Jesu street where the charity schools formerly stood. At first some people believed that the fire had been started by children playing with matches, but subsequent investigation has now proved this to be incorrect. It now appears that the fire was started by a woman burning rubbish and papers in her cottage fireplace on Thursday. The fire smoldered and eventually burned through the wall to the school next door. It was eventually discovered at the top of the staircase in the schoolroom, near the cottage chimney around noon on Friday. It then spread very rapidly. Within hours one hundred houses had been destroyed, and 500 people rendered homeless - 10% of the population. A great part of the town extending westwards from the school to the silk factory in Mill Street was reduced to a heap of smouldering ruins. The newspaper report stated that the miracle was that "while several people had their faces scorched and their eyes injured, and it is a subject of surprise that no-one was [more] seriously hurt."
Surnames of Owners of Houses and Shops Destroyed
(Based on a listing in J. Harris's article which gives full names of the house and shop owners, and of any companies that were providing them with insurance cover.)
Names and Numbers of Poor Families who lost their Homes and Possessions
(Based on a listing in J. Harris's article which gave the names of the heads of, and the numbers in, each family.)
The Tragic Consequences of the Fire
From Roy Packer's Long Ago in Ottery (E.R.D. Publications Ltd., Exmouth) we learn that:
One of the places that was damaged in the Great Fire was a shop in Tiphill street. On the evening of Sunday 2nd September 1866 a crowd gathered in the ruins of this shop to listen to a Plymouth Brethren preacher named Eliza Harker. She was preaching about Judgement day, little knowing that it would occurr within an hour. Part of the ruins surrounding the shop consisted of a brick wall some 10 feet high and 6 feet long, and a chimney stack about 15 feet in height. Sometime after 7.30 pm that evening, the chimney collapsed, and fell down onto the crowd bringing the ten foot high brick wall down with it. The crowd standing against the wall did not have time to escape. The scene was of the most heart rendering description. The road was covered with the debris among which lay the mangled bodies of those on whom it had fallen...... Amongst those who perished was Emma Rowe age 16 daughter of a Thatcher.
8 people died and 12 were seriously injured.
Honiton Registration District Deaths
Here is a list of deaths from Honiton as published on the FreeBMD for the September Quarter of 1866. Obviously not all these people died in this tragedy, but most of them would have.
Brian Randell, 6 Feb 2006