In an age when open fires where the only means of cooking and for heating water and the house, and when many roofs were thatched and the buildings made of wood or contained many wooden structural elements, the threat of fire destroying the household and contents was ever present. The incident described below illustrates how rapidly fire could spread and how much destruction it could cause under these circumstances at this time. It could also be said to be a testament to the skill of Mr Chalk, Surgeon of Eythorne. In 1805 the value of goods insured against fire outside London was £21m, by 1850 that had risen to £230.9m with a further £24.3m agricultural goods insured (which by then it was exempt from duty) illustrating the increasing desire to mitigate the financial damage caused by fire.
In July 1849 , Mr Chalk, Surgeon of Eythorne, was called out to attend a young boy seriously burnt in a fire. The events are as follows: –
Two cottages, adjoining Pineham Farm in Whitfield, were occupied by two men, Marsh (a labourer) and his family and George Hellen (a shepherd) and his wife. Mr Hellen and his wife had just returned from market at about 3.00pm on the Saturday, and were engaged in cooking when Mrs Marsh ran in to know where so much smoke and heat was coming from. Hellen immediately went into the yard and discovered that the chimneys were on fire (not an uncommon occurrence if chimneys are not kept clean. Materials like creosote can condense from repeated fires in the hearth below and eventually catch fire in the chimney) and in a moment the thatched roofs caught and spread rapidly towards the barn belonging to Mr Phipps which stood but a few feet from the cottages. In an instant the whole building was in flames. Mr Jones, steward of Mr Phipps’ farm, immediately proceeded to take care of the cattle and succeeded in getting out the horses, cows and ordered the pigs to be driven from the yard.
By this time the fire had jumped to another barn in the occupation of Mr Taylor. In the case of Mr Phipps’ premises, the stables, cow house and sheds and also the farmhouse caught fire, the roof and sashes of which were much damaged but the house itself was preserved. The stacks of harvested crops were next “seised on by the devouring element” and in a short time four were on fire. Great fears were entertained for a fifth which was, at great expense of much labour, eventually saved. Two engines (these would have been horse-drawn hand pumps as shown in the picture) were on the spot but could not be brought into effectual working for, in the first place, all were anxious to apply the water rather for the preservation of the fifth stack whose top and side next the fire were covered, as well as they possibly could be with a snit (piece of material?), upon which the water was thrown, than to extinguishing the fire elsewhere and in the second place, the pipes were out of repair and almost chocked with the thick mud stirred up from the pond (from which the engines were drawing water). The fire was completely put out between 7 and 8 o’clock on Sunday morning.
The damage was estimated at about £2,000. Three wheat stacks containing about 150 quarters, one bean stack, about 20 quarters of barley, two barns, two cottages, stabling, cow house, piggery, sheds, carts, waggons, farming implements and about 39 pigs were all consumed in a few hours. The property was insured by the Norwich Union.
A lad, the son of Marsh, in attempting to save some of his father’s furniture, was very badly burnt. It appears that the little fellow, in spite of being cautioned against, made one more attempt to rescue something from his burning home. He had got within the cottage when the flaming roof shot down before the door and shut him in. A man by the name of Regis who was also assisting to get out the furniture, commenced instantly clearing away the debris but the boy, in his great fright, rushed through the fire into the arms of Regis who quickly extinguished the boys burning clothes tearing them in the process and, in doing so, causing a great portion of flesh came off too. Mr Wither of Dover and Mr Chalk of Eythorne, Surgeons, were soon in attendance and the boys wounds dressed. The boy was said to be doing well after his ordeal.