The Great Fire of Sheepwash, April 1742

Harrowing details have emerged from the Quarter Sessions records about a devastating fire in the parish of Sheepwash  (also sometimes known in the eighteenth century as Shipwash). Although the causes of the fire are far from certain we do know specifics about the effect it had on the town’s inhabitants, thanks to a petition which has emerged from the bundle for Epiphany 1743.

The extent of devastation of the fire can perhaps be best gleaned from the fact that the petitioners state that it occurred on April 29 1742, yet their petition only came before the justices of the peace towards January of the following year. Even assessing the extent of the damage had clearly been a considerable task.

Attempting to adequately describe the conditions of the blaze the petitioners wrote that the fire ‘raged with such uncommon fury that the whole town excepting a few houses was in less than four hours entirely consumed with a great part of household furniture and merchandise of the inhabitants and a large quantity of malt and corn and some bullocks and other cattle, and to complete this most melancholy scene, two poor souls by endeavouring to save their goods lost their lives.” The petitioners state that having completed a survey of the damages on the orders of Lord Walpole and Mr Justice Yeo, in their estimation the town could not be repaired for anything less than the princely sum of 3453 15s 2d, with the goods lost amounting to 912 17s 4d, giving a grand total of 4366 12s 6d (around £376,800 in 2005 money).

So diminished in circumstances had the majority of the town’s inhabitants become that they “were reduced to the utmost want and misery having been forced to lodge in fields destitute of the common necessaries of life.” The inhabitants therefore requested a certificate from the justices of the peace in order to obtain a brief in the above amount from the Treasury to repair the damage to the town.

Fire, of course, was one of the hazards of eighteenth century life, and while it is still a hazard today of course, as with everything else we have developed systems of civil response to major blazes like the one documented here. Back in the eighteenth century, at a time when the majority of construction particularly for houses of poorer inhabitants would likely have been wooden, and when the majority of buildings had thatched roofs, fire could spread incredibly quickly. Just the other day I catalogued a petition from the maltsters of Credition asking that they might reclaim the duty already paid to the receivers of revenues on their malt due to a thousand bushels of it being destroyed by a fire on 14 August 1743, leaving many of them facing financial ruin.

Nevertheless it’s easy these days when, should the worst happen we have insurance to fall back on, to forget that a fire like the one in Sheepwash in 1742 was devastating in totality, an event that affected every single aspect of the lives of the survivors from that point forward. Happily, Sheepwash is still standing, to all intents and purposes a peaceful Devonshire town once again, but if you’re ever passing through, spare a thought for its eighteenth century inhabitants following their terrible fire.

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