The ‘Great Fire’ of Kenton

It seems that no community is complete without its own Great Fire! So numerous were fires in nineteenth century Devon that Frank Gentry was able to craft an entire book around descriptions of disastrous examples in small Devonshire towns.[i] Perhaps the number of thatched buildings throughout the county explains why there were so many. Kenton, of course, also had its own Great Fire.

Cottages which survived the fire of 1856

Cottages which survived the fire of 1856

The 1840 tithe map of Kenton shows a village of densely packed cottages typical of Devon. Cottages were arranged around the parish church and alongside a number of lanes radiating from the village towards neighbouring hamlets and farms. Opposite the church there was a line of mostly thatched cottages divided by the road to Mamhead, with the Dolphin Inn forming part of this line. Behind the Dolphin Inn was another thatched cottage. At around midday on 16 April 1856, a fire broke out in this cottage. It was suggested at the time that the fire may have been caused by ashes which had been thrown out, and which had been caught up in the wind and then landed on the thatch. A high wind quickly spread the fire to the many thatched properties in the area, but it missed other buildings with slate roofs including the fifteenth century church house. Eventually, though, twenty-four houses and cottages were alight.

A telegraph was sent to Exeter which resulted in the arrival at about 1.30pm of the West of England fire engine, followed shortly by the Sun fire engine. Other engines from Powderham Castle and the Exminster Lunatic Asylum as well as the Kenton parish engine joined them. Efforts were mainly directed to preventing any further spread of the fire, rather than extinguishing the fires that had already taken hold. It was not until nightfall that the fires were finally controlled, by which time all twenty-four houses and cottages had been destroyed and ninety-nine people had been left homeless. All but two of the houses destroyed belonged to the Trustees of the Earl of Devon.

The following day Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post carried a report about the fire which it described as a conflagration, adding that ‘many poor families [were deprived] of the homes that were dear to them and of the household furniture which has taken them many years of arduous toil to accumulate.[ii]

A day later a subscription fund was launched in order to alleviate the distress occasioned by so great a calamity. It was later stressed that those who received relief from the funds were of the ‘of the most worthy and industrious of their class’, and that they ‘bore their losses uncomplainingly, and received the relief afforded them with gratitude.’[iii] It was, of course, necessary to emphasis that these were ‘deserving poor’ rather than the feckless type in order to maximise the amount of the donations being received.

By the morning after the fire, news had reached Lord Courtenay (William Reginald Courtenay, later eleventh Earl of Devon (1807-1888)) in his office in Whitehall, where he was secretary to the poor law board. He immediately wrote to the steward of the Devon Estates at Powderham, suggesting possible accommodation for poor villagers who had been left homeless. He instructed that the upper rooms at the Belvedere might be made available as well as one or two of the rooms at the stables, and possibly, an unoccupied room in the north gateway for an individual.[iv]

He also added that he was of the opinion that the Estate should never again build thatched properties. This view was endorsed by the Flying Post which, in a report a week later stated ‘for the safety of property and the protection of human life we hope that steps will be taken, where practicable, to remove thatch from dwelling houses, and not to build any more houses with thatched roofs.’[v]

In my next post I will be discussing the Victorian houses which replaced those lost to the fire.



[i] F.D.Gentry Take care of your fire and candle (Exeter, Devon Books, 1985)

[ii] Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 17 April 1856

[iii] Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 8 May 1856

[iv] Devon Record Office, Courtenay of Powderham, D1508M/Estate Correspondence/Box 2 , 17 April 1856

[v] Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 24 April 1856



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