FIRES

By Don Foreman


Tunbridge Wells and District Steam Fire Brigade - Merry Weather Pump
Tunbridge Wells and District Steam Fire Brigade - Merry Weather Pump


Fire has been a constant danger throughout history, and the Parish of Capel has not been spared. Research into the subject tells us about much more than just the fires themselves.

It gives valuable insights into how people lived and worked, their farming practices, how civil society was organised, and how the community responded to events and crises.

The first fire for which we have a record occurred at Capel Church. In the year 1639 a serious fire destroyed the upper portion of the tower, melted the three bells and considerably damaged about three quarters of the south wall.

The catastrophic event will have had a profound effect on the inhabitants. Money was found to carry out repairs, but while the tower was rebuilt in materials recovered from the ruins, the south wall was replaced in the cheaper alternative of brick, not being refaced in stone until 1915-1917.

There will have been many more fires in the intervening years since 1639, but the next for which a report has been found, in November 1860, was truly tragic, for that is when the infant son of Mr. Henry Bowles, carpenter, received such severe burn injuries that he expired on the following morning. A candle had set fire to the child's clothes.

Hoppers' huts often fell victim to fire because they were lit by paraffin lamps or candles, and cooking was on open fires. Even if the huts were not destroyed the hoppers' few possessions were sometimes lost.

It was not unusual for fires to be fought by local people or simply allowed to burn themselves out. Capel was far too sparsely populated to support a brigade of its own and had to rely on volunteer firefighters coming from Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells or Maidstone.

In the days before telephones the brigade engaged to protect the area had to be summoned by someone saddling a horse and galloping to the nearest alarm point or all the way to the fire station. Early engines were horse-drawn, either with the pump powered by steam created by a coal-fired engine, or operated by hand.

Tunbridge Wells and District Steam Fire Brigade  - Outside the fire station in Monson Road on first outing with motor transport
Tunbridge Wells and District Steam Fire Brigade - Outside the fire station in Monson Road on first outing with motor transport

Until fire hydrants were installed around 100 years ago the only water supply was from farm ponds and it was not unusual for the brigade to drain a pond dry. For decades the Parish Council displayed relentless reluctance to fund fire protection, and it was only the threat of a second world war which brought about the establishment of a nationally organised fire service.

The cause of fires was generally carelessness. Most men smoked, even when working, and farms had a plentiful supply of combustible material: haystacks were particularly vulnerable, and livestock was bedded down on straw. A dropped 'lucifer' was blamed for several major fires.

Stubble was burned on harvested fields, sparks flew from passing railway engines, tar tanks overflowed, and boys playing with matches were responsible for at least one fire. There were also incidents of suspected arson by aggrieved employees or rejected itinerants. Chimney fires were so common they were seldom reported in the local press.

Perhaps Capel's largest fire was the one which destroyed eight wooden oasts - yes, oast houses in which fires were lit were constructed in wood - at Tatlingbury Farm in 1884. It lit up the sky for miles around, and seen from afar it looked as if the whole of Five Oak Green was ablaze.

No part of the parish has been untouched by fire - Crockhurst Farm, Tudeley Grange, Bank Farm, Colts Hill Farm, Ploggs Hall, Moat Farm, Sherenden Farm, Badsell and the Alders are among those places which have suffered.

Dramatic escapes were made from Reeds Farm Cottage and the house which was totally destroyed in Knight's Lane, but 89 year-old Mrs. Maria Grange lost her life in 1971 when the Hoppers' Hospital caretaker's cottage caught fire.

Let us hope we never see another fatality in a Capel fire.

Pictures courtesy of Kent Firefighting Museum https://www.kentfirefightingmuseum.org.uk


Tunbridge Wells and District Steam Fire Brigade  -  Annual Report 1928
Tunbridge Wells and District Steam Fire Brigade - Annual Report 1928