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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Shipwreck in Bigbury Bay!

For the first time in three hundred years, first hand accounts of a shipwreck in Bigbury Bay, Devon, have emerged into the light of day.

On Tuesday 21 March 1738 the Dutch hoy ‘Anna and Helena,’ captained by Adrian Wagnaer of Amsterdam, bound from Bordeaux to Flensburg in Denmark with a cargo of around 140 tons of wine, brandy, prunes, coffee and indigo, was blown off course by a violent storm, into Bigbury Bay, a renowned death trap for ships, about three miles from Kingsbridge, Devon, becoming stranded on Thurlestone Sands. Having received offers of assistance from several of the local neighbouring gentleman, among them William Ilbert esquire and John Roose [Rooxe], several local men were employed to begin preserving the cargo, ships anchors, sails and cables.

However, as is common with incidents of shipwreck in this period, a very large mob formed, stated by the captain to have been in the region of two or three thousand strong, several hundred of whom began breaking through the sides of the vessel with hatchets, axes and other edge tools, smashing holes in the deck, and destroying the stern post, to ensure that the vessel would be unable to be refloated. They then began to plunder the cargo, and when, amongst others, John Roose intervened, one John Vivian, a servant to a Robert Lakeman of Churstow, yeoman, struck his horse on the nose with the haft of his axe, nearly dismounting him, and threatened to murder him if he stepped further forward. In the meantime the mob got hold of the captain and several of them including John Lishions of South Milton, shoemaker and Thomas Lishions the younger of the same, labourer, his brother, with James Jarvis of the same, beat him so severely that even when he gave evidence a month later he was still suffering from his injuries and still carried the marks of his ordeal.

The mob, greatly emboldened by the success of John Vivian and an accomplice, Arthur Lachcraft [Luckcraft], a servant of one Andrew Lidstone of South Huish, gentleman, began plundering the vessel wholesale, such that the men of the customs for the port of Dartmouth and all others who had been employed to save the cargo could do nothing but preserve around 14 hogsheads of wine, and two of indigo. The plunderers even took one of the sails of the ship, allegedly dividing it up between themselves. Over the rest of the day and night and into the following afternoon the mob continued to plunder the vessel; on the afternoon of March 22nd a customs officer named Daniel Shath, attempting to apprehend a looter carrying a hogshead of brandy, was struck a severe blow on the forehead and received a grievous head wound as a result.

To some extent, there’s nothing particularly unusual in these events. Similar reactions to stranded or wrecked vessels on behalf of local inhabitants in coastal areas occurred throughout the country in this period, and for many there were a number of grey areas concerning what exactly constituted salvage, plunder, the taking of wrecked cargo from a wrecked vessel, or intervening directly, as is the case here, to directly prevent a stranded vessel which was hitherto intact from being re-floated and its cargo saved. It should be borne in mind that the vessel was loaded with what were in the eighteenth century very high value luxury goods, and, as was the case throughout the country, for a population frequently living in endemic poverty, in a society where theft of food for survival was commonplace, the arrival of what was effectively an eighteenth-century mobile warehouse full of luxury items was simply too much of a temptation to resist. Here, however, the similarities with most wrecking end, because this event turns out to have caused nothing short of a full-blown diplomatic incident with the States General (what we now call Netherlands).

On 26 March 1738 Philip Pentire [Pentyre] wrote a letter to a Mr Van Hop, then Envoy Extraordinary of the States General, giving an account of the wrecking of the vessel and the plundering of the cargo by the local inhabitants. Mr Van Hop, in an extraordinary move, apparently took the letter straight to the King, and wrote a strongly-worded letter to Lord Harrington demanding an explanation for the barbarous treatment of the ship’s crew, and demanding to know what steps had been taken to bring the culprits to justice and to ensure that future incidents of the kind did not happen again.

As you can imagine, the King was not, as far as can be discerned, at all pleased with this state of affairs, and there follows a flurry of administrative delegation as everyone from the King down to the justices of the peace pressed their subordinates to ensure justice was served. Lord Harrington enclosed a copy of Van Hop’s and Pentyre’s letters to Mr Cruwys, a justice of the peace in Devon, with instructions that the local justices of the peace were to make enquiries and bring the culprits to justice, and in the meantime to keep him appraised of the situation so that he could inform the King as to what progress was being made. Cruwys sent these instructions to Mr Fortescue, deputy clerk of the peace at Exeter.

Interestingly, my own research indicates that Harrington had also been in touch with the Treasury and customs regarding this wreck, as calendars of their letters from April 1738 demonstrate, but until now these seem to have been the only records available regarding the wreck. Now, for the first time in three hundred years, the full story of this ill-fated vessel and its wreck and plunder on the eighteenth-century Devon coast from first hand eyewitness accounts, has been brought together thanks to the records that survive from the Devon Quarter Sessions.