Destructive Conflagrations
23rd & 24th March 1840

Transcription of an Article which appeared in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette - Thursday 02 April 1840

Watercolour by Henry Joseph Moule c 1877
[by kind permission of the Dorset County Museum]

This picture shows Fordington High Street running from left to right in front of a row of terraced thatched houses.
Although thought to have been painted later in 1877 it shows how closely packed the houses still were in Fordington
and how extensive an area was covered in thatch which could easily catch fire.

On Monday and Tuesday, the 23rd and 24th of March 1840, the village of Fordington, adjoining Dorchester, was the scene of two most devastating fires, which raged with astonishing rapidity, and were attended with very great destruction of property, particularly amongst the poor.

These occurrences fortunately took place in the daytime, in both instances, or the consequences must have been dreadful. About half-past two o'clock on Monday afternoon, a fire was discovered to have originated in the chimney of a brew-house attached the residence of Mr. ELLIOTT, near the south eastern extremity. The fire immediately ignited the thatch with which some adjoining buildings were covered, and instantaneously spread thence to the contiguous barns and cottages, whilst the burning flakes being carried by the wind, set fire to the houses opposite, so in a few minutes the houses on both sides of the road were blazing, the flames raging with uncontrollable speed.

The alarm having been given, a great number of the inhabitants of Dorchester and Fordington were promptly on the spot, manifesting the most praiseworthy activity in their indefatigable efforts to get the fire under, and to assist the inmates in saving a portion of their property. The engine Fordington, and those of the parishes of St. Peter, Trinity, and All Saints, Dorchester, were also speedily brought to the scene of the conflagration. The supply of water, however, was somewhat scanty, the fire happening at some distance from the river, and owing to the continued dry weather, the wells in the neighbourhood were soon exhausted. Every endeavour was, nevertheless, exerted to make the most of all available resources, and lines were formed, under the direction of and comprising many of the most respectable inhabitants of the town, reaching from the burning houses to the different wells, and every possible exertion was rendered those concerned; but so ignitable was the thatch from the dryness of the weather, that the progress of the flames could not be stayed, until the whole of the building, Etc.,to the leeward of the spot in which the fire originated, had been wholly consumed, comprising seven cottages, three barns, and three racks of hay; and so rapid was the extension of the flames that the unfortunate inmates of the cottages had little opportunity to rescue their furniture, Etc, nearly the whole which was consequently consumed.

The cottages were occupied by industrious labourers, who, with their families, are rendered homeless by the melancholy event, and though the value of the property in the houses was not, perhaps, to a considerable amount, yet to them the loss cannot be but of great moment. It was found wholly impossible to save the animals, and the moaning of the cattle added much to the melancholy character of the scene. The flames were generally subdued in about two hours after the alarm was given, but that brief space of time sufficed for effecting the damage we have recorded.


The fire, of which we have above given the details, was in itself, sufficiently lamentable, but the attention devoted to it was on the following (Tuesday) morning overwhelmed in the excitement caused in the extraordinary circumstances of another conflagration happening in the same village, so extensive in its character, and so calamitous in devastating consequences, as to absorb all the public interest of the neighbourhood. On that morning, shortly afler eight o'clock, the thatch on a roof of a house, occupied Mr. SHORT, a carpenter, near Mill-street, Fordington, was discoverd to be on fire. An alarm was immediately given; but so rapid was the progress made by the fire, and such was the mastery it had acquired before any effectual means to check it could be brought into operation, that it was attended with the most extensive and lamentable effects.

In a few minutes after the alarm was given, the wind blowing freshly from the north, the fire ran with astonishing rapidity along the roofs of the houses towards Mill-street, five or six of which were almost instantaneously enveloped in flames, which seemed literally to lick the thatch off the walls.

The inhabitants, taken altogether by surprise, appeared to be thunderstruck, and unable to comprehend the nature and extent of the mischief in which they were involved, and from the house first attacked by the fire, scarcely anything was consequently saved. As the magnitude of the danger increased, the shrieks of the women and cries of the children of those families who were deprived of their home, whose house was in danger, were highly distressing. The people of the neighbourhood, who had barely recovered from the excitement caused by the fire of the previous afternoon, rushed to the spot, & eagerly exerted themselves to check the flames and save the furniture, Etc, of the adjoining houses.

Attempts were made, by stripping off the thatch, from the roofs of some houses in the direction towards which the flames were making, to offer some check to their progress but so rapidly did the fire devour all in its way, that all attempts of this kind were unavailing. The first engine that arrived on the spot was that of the parish of Fordington, which, as the houses stand on the bank of the river, had plentiful supply of water, and was brought into immediate action. By it's aid, and the vigorous assitance of the inhabitants, a breach was made in the house adjoining the King's Head beer house, which was a slated house running to the south west from the range in which the fire broke out; by which judicious proceeding any further extension in this quarter was prevented. In the mean time, however, the ignited flakes had been blown by the wind to the thatched roofs of the more easterly range of buildings, which were in a few minutes involved in one mass of fire. By this time the powerful engine belonging to tbe barracks had been hurried to the scene of conflagration, accompanied by Lieut. Col. Vandeieur and other Officers and a party of the privates of the 10th Hussars, quartered in our barracks, and followed by so many of the remainder of the two troops at present here as could possibly be spared from the barracks. This engine was immediately drawn into the very bed of the river, opposite tbe burning buildings, the men not only acting under the judicious orders, but incited also by the stirring example of their gallant Colonel, and Lieutenant Williams, who unhesitatingly plunged into the water nearly up their waists, and aided in bringing the engine into powerful and effective play upon the glowing masses.

From the moment that the engines were brought into effective action, and a systematic plan of operation had been pursued, the further progress of the fire was stayed. About half-past nine o'clock, the flames were much under command, and in the course of another hour, they were wholly subdued.

The consequence of this melancholy occurrence is that nearly one hundred families, comprising more than 250 individuals, are left homeless. No fewer than 47 houses were entirely destroyed, making, with the seven on Monday, a total of fifty-four; and from the state of alarm which prevailed, and the astounding speed with which the devastation was carried on, very little of the property in the houses was saved, whilst much of the furniture of neighbouring houses, at one time menaced with destruction, but to which the fire did not reach, has been injured or lost through the hurry or carelessness of precipitate removal.

It is consolatory to add that no life has been lost, nor have we heard of any serious personal injury having been sustained.

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