As an accidental fire gutted Blandford’s historic Old Brewery in March this year, the townsfolk might well have contemplated the catastrophe that befell their forebears some 287 years ago. For if ever a town was shaped by fire it is Blandford Forum where, on 4 June 1731, almost 90 per cent of its buildings were razed to the ground in a single afternoon. That so few people were killed – it is thought between twelve and sixteen perished – was little short of a miracle, but some three thousand souls were left without shelter as homes, workshops, commercial premises and places of worship were consumed by the indiscriminate flames.
As a result there may well be something in the town’s collective psyche that it knows all too well the appalling potential of a fire running out of control, but it was modern fire-fighting techniques and technology that saw fifteen fire crews, two aerial ladder platforms and other support appliances called to the Old Brewery warehouse fire in Bournemouth Road, Blandford St Mary on 6 March. The first call was recorded at 2.28 pm and crews remained on site all night as damping down operations continued the next day.
In marked contrast, just three engines were brought out to fight the 1731 fire – which by coincidence also started around two in the afternoon – and within half an hour all were rendered useless. By morning the fire had largely burnt itself out, taking with it some three hundred homes and shops as well as all bar three houses in Blandford St Mary and Bryanston, sparks from the fire having reached the neighbouring villages on the strong winds.
In the Dorset volume of his classic guide series, Buildings of England, architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner notes: ‘The centre of Blandford forms one of the most satisfying Georgian ensembles anywhere in England…’, a reminder that modern Blandford, though much expanded, owes its status as one of England’s finest Georgian towns to the destruction of what Daniel Defoe had described just a decade or so before the fire as ‘a handsome well-built town’.
Such urban conflagrations were nothing new, of course – the medieval street systems with houses packed closely together, many under thatched roofs, that had fuelled the Great Fire of London in 1666 were echoed in towns across the land. In Dorset, not only had Blandford previously suffered a major fire in 1713, but so too had Sturminster Newton in 1730, and great fires in Affpuddle and Beaminster (both 1741), Puddletown (1753) and Wareham (1762) were to come.
The ‘great fire’ of Blandford began in a tallow chandler’s shop on the corner of Whitecliff Mill Street and Bryanston Street where the Kings Arms now stands. A letter written on 12 June 1731 contained in the Pitt-Rivers Family Estate Archive and held in the Dorset History Centre says: ‘[the fire] was occasioned by the soap boyler’s apprentice making too great a fire under a furnace of boyling soap and as he endeavoured to rake part of the fewel at the furnace mouth, set fire to other furzes in the same room and in the space of an hour spread into different parts of the town with such fury that several of the poor workers, who were labouring to putt this fire out where it first began, had their own houses consumed before they gott home.’
The most complete contemporary account of the Blandford fire is that of the Reverend Malachai Blake, who had been the town’s Presbyterian minister since 1716. He lost both his home and his chapel, subsequently valued at £160, perhaps explaining his detection of ‘God’s rebuking hand’ in the fire. ‘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 to 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.’
Rev. Blake notes that one old woman was seen with her clothes on fire from a distance too far away for her to be saved. Another elderly woman was taken up by a man fleeing the fire and told to hang on to his coat-tails. He ran on but, overcome by the heat, soon fell. Another runner stopped to save the man, but the woman was burnt in the street.
By seven in the evening, only a few brick-built houses roofed with tiles survived, including the Old House, the Ryves almshouses, Park House and Dale House. Some cellars beneath burnt houses survived, as did much of East Street, which had been rebuilt in brick and tile after the 1713 fire. But the fire hadn’t quite finished with Blandford. As many of those who had lost their homes and possessions prepared to bed down in barns and outhouses or under bridges and hedges, others sought shelter in the church, where an initial blaze in the steeple had been extinguished that afternoon. However, before midnight the cry went up that the church was now on fire and by two in the morning the roof was fully aflame. Seeking refuge in the graveyard, many cowered behind headstones to shield themselves from the heat of the burning church as ‘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.’
The horror of the fire was compounded by the latest smallpox epidemic to engulf Blandford. Some 150 people in sixty families were affected and, according to Rev. Blake, many of the sick were laid in the open air in fields and under hedges with fellow townsfolk who only that morning would have run away from the infected. ‘And yet though they had for some time no shelter there, but what the hedges or trees afforded them, they recovered.’ Indeed, it is thought that of those smallpox victims who made it out of their domestic confinement, only one of them – a young woman – died in the open air. That observation may well have added to the medical profession’s growing understanding of the disease and years later, in 1766, Blandford physician Dr Richard Pultney cited the incident in a letter arguing the merits of inoculating populations against smallpox and not depriving the sick of fresh air.
News of the Blandford fire travelled fast and when added to that of similar blazes in Tiverton, Devon, where there was also an outbreak of smallpox, and Ramsey, Huntingdonshire, resulted in a national outcry.
Collections were organised through parish churches, King George II donated £1300 to the cost of rebuilding, and charity performances were held at Drury Lane Theatre.
Blandford builders, surveyors and furniture makers, Thomas, William and John Bastard, were among the many who lost everything – indeed, Thomas died on 11 July, possibly another victim of the fire or of the smallpox. In the list of ‘suffereds drawn up after the Fire’, the Bastards, who were insured by the Sun Life Insurance Office, gave their losses as £3709 10s 4d, the greatest single sum recorded.
Few can have been better placed to rebuild their home town than John and William, and the plan they produced to show the extent of the devastation tells the story with chilling clarity. It notes that the church was entirely destroyed, its ‘poor remains being scarcely fit for a foundation’. Work started almost immediately and seems to have been completed by about 1760. The town hall and corn exchange, the church of St Peter and St Paul, the Greyhound inn and the Bastards’ business premises, rebuilt at their own expense in return for a long lease, as well as probably the Red Lion and Lime Tree House, built for their five sisters, are all Bastard buildings.
Perhaps oddly, with the exception of widening the Market Place, the town was essentially rebuilt to its haphazard medieval street plan. The brothers’ legacy is one of Dorset’s most characterful market towns, but it is worth remembering that its distinctiveness endured an agonising birth, as Rev. Blake well describes in concluding his account of the fire: ‘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.’
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.