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Blandford, Dorset 1731

"Now that a sense of God's rebuking hand may remain fresh in our own minds, and that others also may learn the lesson he expects from it, I have upon the best information I could get, thrown together in a short compass, a true but very melancholy account of that general conflagration which happened amongst us on Friday June 4th 1731 ....."

These words open an account of the great fire in Blandford as seen by the author, Malachi Blake, who included it in a book published four years later. He goes on:

"About two of the clock in the afternoon a dismal cry of fire was heard in our streets. The inhabitants of the place were all soon alarmed; some were called from their business; some, possibly, from their pleasures; some, perhaps, from their cups; however, every one was terribly surprised ....."

One can imagine the town of Blandford on this June afternoon; the sleepy streets, not, perhaps, very busy, with most of the people either in their houses or working in the fields; then the curl of smoke and the crackle of flame as a thatched roof starts to blaze - and the "dismal cry of fire ....."

Cause of the Fire

Blake says that the fire started by sparks falling upon the thatched roof of a soap boiler's house. "Some think differently", he adds, "but all agree that as to Main it was entirely accidental". Probably his explanation is correct; there is no reason to presume incendiarism.

What is less acceptable to the 20th century mind is the fatalism, implicit in Blake's phraseology, that ascribes an accidental fire to God's will, but, or course, this was the spirit of that time. What we do know, however, is that thatched roofs, then as now, were perilous coverings for any building.

Spread of Fire

Fortune was certainly not with the citizens on Blandford that afternoon, for the fire began in the very heart of the town. The soap boiler's building "stood on rising ground where four streets met, not far from the middle of the town". Moreover the wind was strong and favourable to the fire and quickly carried it through Blandford. "The fire spread itself with such speed and fury", say Blake, "that everything was soon devoured before it. Not a piece of timber but what was burnt to a coal. The pewter in many houses was not only melted but reduced to ashes by the fervent heat. If any made fine gold their confidence, what a sad proof had they before their eyes of their extreme folly and its utter insufficiency to make them happy."

Fire fighting in those days does not seen to have been very effective. Three engines were brought out and started but in less than half an hour they were all either burnt or useless. But the speed of the fire was so great, due, no doubt, to the profusion of thatched roofs and timbered dwellings, that little could have been done in any case. As Blake says:

"In the day of our great calamity, so sudden was the fire, so furious, that many families had scarce time to save any of their effects; tis true, much household goods, as well as all sorts of merchandise, were in the beginning carried to distant houses, where it was then apprehended they were safe from danger; and much was brought out into the streets, in the hope of timely assistance to convey it away. But alas! they were soon sadly disappointed and forced to leave the devouring flames what they had with so much pains and difficulty brought hither. Many were now thankful they could escape with their own lives! However their hearts might be disposed, they scarce had time to look back on what they had left behind them."

By seven o'clock in the evening, there was scarcely a house left standing, except those which were so much in flames as to be useless to approach. At the eastern part of the town the fire ceased, and a number of houses here were unaffected together with some on the outskirts of the town, among a total of about thirty. "The dismal night comes on", Blake continues, "when many who were never inured to hardship were obliged to lie, some in barns and outhouses, others under the arches of a large bridge and more under hedges and in the open air."

The Church

But there was more in store for these unfortunate people, for around midnight, the cry went up that fire had broken out in the church, which had been spared up to that time by some seeming miracle. The steeple was the first part to burn and it was only with great difficulty that the fire was put out. Later, about two o'clock in the morning the middle of the roof caught when "the fire roared dreadfully, the lead melted, the stones split and flew; nay so fervent and irresistible was the heat, that the bells themselves dissolved and ran down in streams."

It was fortunate that the church was one of the last buildings to go since for several hours people had been flocking into it from neighbouring blazing houses, carrying their belongings with them. Several hundreds narrowly escaped death when the church caught fire, and were forced to take refuge in the graveyard, since the house round about were still burning and the fierce heat prevented the people from getting away to open country. In fact they were "glad to lie down behind the tombstones, which were a shadow to them from the fervent heat on one side, as the Church itself was on the other, until the fire about it was so abated as to give them an opportunity to save themselves and to carry off the effects they had with them."

All night, people were keeping watch over those few houses which were spared, while others wandered about the streets searching for lost relations and children. One old woman, her clothes on fire, was seen from a distance trying to make her escape, but the person who saw her was unable to save her, and she perished. "Another", says Blake, "who had but little hopes of saving himself encountered, as he was hurrying along, an aged woman who earnestly craved his help. He desired her to hold fast by the skirt of his coat, which she did, till he had helped her on so far that he presumed she had been safe. But being in so much danger himself, he had neither time nor power to be any longer thoughtful about her, for he had gone little further e'er the heat was so strong that it took away his breath. He dropped down, and was unable to rise again, but was taken up by one that opportunely came by, and his life was saved; while the poor woman, to whom he had afforded all the good offices he was able in his then dangerous circumstances, was burnt in the street."

Smallpox Epidemic

Things were by no means improved by the fact that at this time a smallpox epidemic was raging in the town, about sixty families being affected. "In this diseased and exposed condition some persons were laid in the open fields, some under hedges, intermixed with those that but a little before fled from the infection. Some little ones, in this hurrying time, were snatched up out of their beds and carried away without anything almost about them. Some, who were down of the distemper and left in their beds, in this time of general confusion by those that attended them were soon roused with the dreadful cry of fire and its roaring flames; who in the fright tore open their eyes to see their danger, and make their escape wrapping up themselves in part of their bedclothes, made the best speed their weak state would admit of, into the gardens for security; and yet though they had for some time no shelter there, but what the hedges or trees afforded them, they recovered."

By Saturday morning, the 5th June 1731, the fire was over and the people of Blandford arose to find everything in ruins about them. The church, the Guildhall, nearly three hundred houses and shops were all gone. Those killed by the fire numbered thirteen, ten women and three men, all old people. Nearly three thousand persons had lain out in the fields all night, many without covering and some with the smallpox and, according to a contemporary newspaper account, many of these sufferers died on being exposed to the air. The little hamlet of St Mary Blandford, at some considerable distance from the town, was almost totally destroyed, fire having started there by some sparks being blown from Blandford and falling on the thatched roofs. Only three houses were left in this little place.

Public Concern

On the very same day, Saturday 5th June 1731, that the citizens on Blandford were making shift among the ruins of their own town, the people of Tiverton in the neighbouring shire of Devon were themselves most "terribly surprised" by a fire of similar magnitude. There too the smallpox raged and added its quota to the horror of the occasion. These two conflagrations, in conjunction with yet another at Ramsey, Huntingdonshire, caused great public concern throughout the country.

Samuel Smith, master of the Free Grammar School of Tiverton published, in 1732, an account of the fire in his town. This account was later used by Martin Dunsford (1790) and we quote:

"The King (George II), after His Majesty was informed of the terrible affliction this unhappy town (Tiverton) has been visited with, was graciously pleased to order his royal bounty of £1000 (an example truly worthy of a Christian king, and a compassionate father of his people) which was presently augmented with the magnificent charities of the Queen (Caroline of Anspach) and the Prince of Wales (Frederick Louis) and other persons of high distinction in the court. Collection were now making in the cities of London, Westminster and Bristol, and other great places, with such uncommon flow of generosity towards the three suffering towns of Blandford, Tiverton and Ramsey, as I believe was hardly ever equaled, much less exceeded, in any age or nation whatsoever ....."

Government Action

In 1732 Acts were passed to facilitate rebuilding. That for Blandford is described as "An Act for the better and more easy rebuilding of the Town of Blandford Forum and the County of Dorset and for determining Differences touching Houses and Buildings burnt down or demolished by reason of the late dreadful Fire there". This Act laid down specific regulations as to the building materials to be used. Buildings were to be roofed with lead, slate or tiles and builders contravening these orders were to be "proceeded against". There was also set up a body of trustees to distribute the money which had been raised for the relief of the victims.

To conclude with something from the eye witness, Blake: "In other calamities the description commonly exceeds the truth; but ours was such that it surpassed all the representations that have ever been made of it ....."

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