A History of Fires in Capel

by Don Foreman

Some have said that the topic of fires is not suitable for a local history study because it draws attention to misfortune, even personal tragedy. However, when research began it quickly became evident that this is a subject which 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.

Fires have long had a fascination for spectators, and in the days when fire appliances were less speedy than they are now it was not unusual to see youngsters, and adults, following them by bicycle or on foot to the scene, hoping to see something of the fire before the brigade extinguished it. They were extensively reported in the press, too, and it is clear that the local fire chiefs were well-known 'celebrities'.

First recorded fire in 1639

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. No only was it one of the parish's most important buildings architecturally, but it was also the place of worship and thus the centre of community life. The catastrophic event will have had a profound effect on the inhabitants. An appeal was made to "the right Honble Lord Littleton Lord Keeper of the great Seale of England" for financial assistance to carry out repairs.

As King Charles I's Justices of the Peace petitioned on behalf of the parishioners in May 1641:-

For the Fire in Capell Steeple & Church


Shewing unto your good Lopp' that upon the 15th day of Ianuary 1639 betweene the houres of Seaven and eight in the night of the same day there happened a sudden and terrible tempest of thunder and lightening in Caple in the Covnty of Kent which violently seised vpon the Pynacle of the Steeple there and in a very short tyme consumed two loftes and all the woodworke of and belonging to the said Steeple Melted 3 Bells therein and much wasted the mettle thereof and soe shaked and rent the Stoneworke of the sd Steeple that it is conceived the same will not be serviceable or safe for vse vnless it be pulled downe and newly built And also burned downe & wasted the one halfe parte of the parish church of Caple aforesd wch could not anywise be saved or Rescued although greate meanes was vsed for the quenching of the Fire occasioned by the lightening aforesd And it did now appeare to vs his Maties Iustices of Peace for the Covnty of Kent ..... that it will cost Five Hundred and tenn Powndes at least to Readify the said Steeple & Church and to cast the Bells and to putt all the said p'mises but into soe good estate and condicon' as they were before the charge whereof the sd Parishioners are in no wise able to vndergoe the most of them being Farmers and very poore men Wherefore we his sd Maties Iustices of Peace whose names are (edge of page broken) hereto subscribed well weighing the Miserable estate of the said Parishioners who for the pn'te have noe convenient (edge of page broken) place to Repayre vnto for the publike worshipp and Service of God Doe humbly recomend the Lamentable condicon' of the said Parishioners of Caple Capell aforesaid vnto yor Lopps' wonted goodness and pious Consideracon.

The money - equivalent to a sum in excess of £45,000 today -was found to carry out repairs, but while the tower was rebuilt in stone recovered from the ruins, the south wall was replaced in the cheaper alternative of brick, not being refaced in stone until 1915-1917.

It was perhaps shortage of funds which meant that only one bell, inscribed "John Hodson made me" rather than the original three, was hung in 1670, over thirty years after the fire. However, the delay in providing a means to summon the faithful to worship might have been caused by the intervention of the Civil War and Cromwell's Commonwealth.

The petition refers to the church steeple, suggesting a taller construction than the modestly stubby one which now crowns the tower, but as no pictorial representation of the early seventeenth-century building exists this has to be a matter of speculation.

Students 'set fire to church'

This event fired the imagination of students 330 years later, as the Kent & Sussex Courier of 4th July 1969 recorded in an article somewhat alarmingly headlined 'A CHURCH 'BURNS' AGAIN'.

Capel Church was burned down on Friday evening for the second time in 300 years. But the "blaze" was only a re-enactment of the 17th century fire. Arc lights, smoke canisters, and lighted straw were substituted for the smoke and flames that destroyed half the church in 1639. Friday's fire was staged by students of Ravensbourne College of Art as a 30-second sequence in their film on the history of the parish.

Enquiries about the survival of the film have met with no response, but the newspaper article goes on to say that it featured the famous wall paintings, uncovered a wealth of material about life in Capel dating from the Middle Ages and, no doubt to the disappointment of many, scotched the legend that Thomas a Becket preached in the church before he was martyred.

Candle causes fire

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. We don't know exactly where in Capel the family lived, or the name of the child, but it appears that the little one, who was under two years of age, was taken upstairs to his cot and, for want of any other form of lighting, a candle was placed close by. Fifteen minutes later loud screams were heard in the bedroom, and when the mother went upstairs she saw her son's night clothes on fire. Attempts to save him proved futile. Once the sad circumstances were explained to the coroner he decided an inquest was unnecessary.

Cottage destroyed

Less tragic, but nonetheless worthy of reporting in the Maidstone Journal & Kentish Advertiser of 11th December 1865, was the fire in an unoccupied cottage, valued at about £25, belonging to Mr. Stephen Southon, of Moat Farm, Capel, which resulted in its total destruction. Police Constable Smith was standing near the spot when the fire broke out, but it had evidently been smouldering for some time and despite all efforts it could not be subdued until it had nothing more to burn. The door appears to have been left open, and as the fire began in the corner near the fire-place it was supposed to be the work of tramps. Why P.C. Smith was there at the time is unexplained. No doubt he did his best to organise the local people trying to save the building but there were no firemen to call on as the Tunbridge Wells Volunteer Fire Brigade wasn't formed until 1866.

Too close to the road

Not all fires caused damage, but had the potential to do so, and the authorities took such risks seriously. William Skinner, who did not appear, was summoned at the Tonbridge Petty Sessions on Tuesday 21st November 1867 for making a fire within fifty feet of the public highway, at Capel, on the 8th October. The case was proved by P.C. Betts, who stated that he saw the fire burning very near some furniture, under a tent on Five Oak Green. When he spoke to the defendant about it, Mr. Skinner claimed that his wife had lit the fire. This excuse failed to impress the magistrates and he was fined 12s.6d., including costs, or seven days' imprisonment. The defendant later appeared and appealed against the sentence, which was reduced to 5s.

Hoppers' huts burn

The earliest reference to fires in what we would now call a hoppers' hut was in September 1869, when there were two in quick succession. In those days before farmers built brick huts for their seasonal workers hoppers' accommodation was almost invariably constructed of wood or canvas, and cooking was done over open fires, so the risk was ever-present. The first fire was in a lodge at Potter's Farm (now Capel Court Farm in Alders Road), and the occupying pickers were blamed for causing it, though it was probably more a matter of carelessness. Mr. Lawrence Mercer owned the lodge, which was totally destroyed. On the previous day a lodge valued at £26 was burnt down at Mr. William Waite's Postern Farm. The Maidstone Journal's report speculated that it was a spark flying from the fire while the hop-pickers were cooking which was the cause of the conflagration. Fires in hoppers' huts continued to be a frequent occurrence for as long as pickers occupied them. For example a brick built hut on Moat Farm suffered limited damage in 1946, but the personal property of some of the pickers was lost.

One group of hop-pickers was particularly unfortunate, for as they were saying goodbye to each other at Church Farm, Capel, on the last day of 1961's hopping, fires broke out in two of the 22 huts. The huts themselves suffered little damage, but as pickers sorted through the debris after the fires had been put out one elderly woman wept "There will be nothing left from my hopping money after I have replaced all this."

The contents of those two huts were seriously damaged and clothes in a third were scorched. Farmer Maurice Buggs discovered the fire, and had it not been for his prompt action in calling the fire brigade, which sent appliances from Tonbridge and Paddock Wood, it might have been much worse.

Members of the Women's Voluntary Service provided clothing for five teenage girls and three women. The cause of the fire was not known.

How were fires fought?

The attentive reader will have noticed no reference to a fire brigade, which indicates that fires were 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 firefighters coming from Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells or Maidstone, which formed a borough brigade in 1901. Before town councils took over responsibility for them these brigades were manned by volunteers, and there was great rivalry between them with regard to their smartness, efficiency and speed in reaching the fire.

In the days before telephones the brigade, whichever had been engaged to protect the area, had to be summoned by someone saddling a horse and galloping to the nearest alarm point (there was one at the top of Pembury Road, Tonbridge) or all the way to the fire station.

Merry Weather pump at Tunbridge Wells
Merry Weather pump at Tunbridge Wells

Early engines were horse-drawn, or even pulled by man-power, either with the pump powered by steam created by a coal-fired engine, called not surprisingly a 'steamer', or operated by hand, called a 'manual'. Both carried hoses, but there was also a wagon built to carry extra hoses and, as we shall see, in the 1920s the parish council arranged local storage for lengths of hose which could then be brought into use in emergency.

Until fire hydrants were installed around 100 years ago the only water supply was from farm ponds. Before piped water was widely available there were plenty of ponds providing water for livestock, but it was not unusual for the brigade to drain a pond dry. As the engines carried only short lengths of hose when that happened it meant firemen could do no more.

Motorised fire engines did not become commonplace until the early 20th century, and it was only in 1910 that Bromley became the first town in Kent to acquire one.

Until 1938 the provision of a fire brigade was a discretionary power and naturally there were a few local authorities who stubbornly regarded it as an unnecessary expense. However, encouraged by the threat of war Parliament made it a duty and created over 160 individual fire authorities across the nation. It was these local brigades, and the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), also formed in 1938, which valiantly coped with the consequences of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. In August 1941 local brigades and the AFS, whose fire station stood approximately where the flats facing the Green are now, were absorbed into an organisation called the National Fire Service. The fire service was returned to local authority control in 1948, which is when the Kent Fire Brigade was formed. In 2003 it was renamed Kent Fire and Rescue Service.

Tonbridge brigades

During the 1870s Tonbridge had two fire brigades, which were combined in 1880 and operated out of Crown Yard, behind the Rose & Crown in the High Street. It was not until 1900, when there was a serious fire in Tonbridge High Street resulting in the tragic deaths of 3 young girls and their father, that the Urban District Council accepted that it had to take control of the fire brigade. A year later a new fire station was built in Castle Street, and a Shand, Mason & Co. steam pump was bought for £425. Christened 'Salamander - the Fire King' it was perhaps inevitably affectionately known as 'Sally'. The town was very proud of its brigade, which often took part in parades and suchlike events. Today's fire station in Vale Road came into service in 1983.

Voluntary brigades were supported by subscriptions, and their engines were often drawn by requisitioned cab horses. One can imagine the horses relished the excitement of galloping to a fire instead of just plodding along taking yet another fare from the station to one of the town's better-off districts. Tonbridge District Volunteer Brigade bought their first steamer in 1876.

A report in the Maidstone Journal & Kentish Advertiser of Monday 26th September 1870 is especially interesting for several reasons as it reveals an awakening appreciation of the desirability of a locally based means of fighting fires, draws attention to the advantages of building kilns of brick instead of wood, and reminds readers by implication of the benefits of insurance. The report deserves to be reprinted in full:-

FIRE AT BADSELL FARM - At this season of hop drying every precaution should be taken against fire. It is a matter for the immediate consideration of the landowners and tenants of hop farms, and particularly during a dry season like the present, when the supply of water is not at command. A hop kiln of one of the most perfect oast houses in the district, belonging to Viscount Falmouth, was rendered useless for a few days on Wednesday last by fire, and the entire building very narrowly escaped destruction. At the time the fire broke out there was upwards of 1,400 bushels of hops nearly ready to come off the four kilns. The fire is supposed to have originated from a lucifer match, which had accidentally got mixed with the hops. In a short time the fire was most intense, destroying entirely the woodwork, and for a few minutes the destruction of the building and 90 pockets of hops ready for sale seemed inevitable. The nearest point to secure a fire engine was Tonbridge, a distance of upwards of five miles, and the brigade did not arrive until after the fire had been got under. Surely this will suggest to landlords and tenants how desirable it would be to have a fire engine stationed in the parish or immediate district. When it is considered that hop drying is carried out to the extent it is in the parishes of Tudeley and Capel this must be a matter of importance. The attention of those interested in hop-drying and erecting oast houses should be drawn to the arrangement of this building, and the perfect manner in which the kilns are carried out by the use of bricks. The body and roof of the kilns are carried up entirely with brickwork, and the door entering to the fire is so arranged as to regulate the circulation of air, or almost entirely stop it, and while the doors into the hair of the kiln are kept closed, the fire is confined to one kiln. The manner the kilns are attached to the main building in a great measure prevented further damage. We understand the building is insured.

Complete destruction of eight wooden oasts

Landlords and tenants were slow to learn the lesson of building in brick, as the catastrophic fire at Tatlingbury Farm in September 1884 demonstrates. This summary of an article by local historian the late Frank Chapman tells the tale.

In the middle of September 1884's hop-picking Isaac Pemble's wood-built group of eight oasts were full again two years after the crop failed in the Great Blight. The consequent shortage meant every farmer had planted a few extra acres to catch the high prices. At about 8 p.m. one evening the chief dryer, Bill Jenner, went into one of the kilns to turn the drying hops when he found it on fire and raised the alarm. Mr. Pemble quickly organised a bucket chain from the farm pond and set men and boys to dragging heavy sacks of hops to safety. As the fire grew in intensity and began to spread to the other seven oasts maids carried furniture out of the nearby house.

Bill Jenner soon saw that buckets were useless in such a serious blaze. Mounted on Tim, the farm's fastest horse, he galloped off into the night to summon the Tonbridge Brigade, scattering bystanders with his cries of "Mus Pemble's oast, Mus Pemble's oast". He reached Tonbridge in 20 minutes, smashing the glass on the fire alarm at Primrose Hill (Pembury Road) while Tim stood winded and head down, dripping sweat from his heaving chest. The bell ringing in Tonbridge fire station told the crew that the alarm came from Primrose Hill, but where was the fire? The firemen harnessed their horses to the heavy manual pump and headed for Primrose Hill.

Bill heard the engine's bell before he saw fire chief William Flood turning out of the High Street and whipping up his horses from the high seat of the red and gold engine. Still mounted on Tim, Bill led the brigade through Tudeley and Crockhurst Street, the crew jumping down to put their shoulders to the wheels and help tiring horses haul the engine uphill.

They were too late to save the eight hop-filled wooden oasts, little more than a heap of blazing timbers when they arrived, but with help from volunteers the firemen worked the heavy beam pump to stop the fire spreading to a large barn and the Pemble family's house. As well as the oasts five or six pockets of stored hops and a very large quantity of charcoal were lost.

The fire was "attributed to the dropping of some lucifer matches" and lived long in the memory of local people and the hundreds of itinerant workers who witnessed it. Lighting up the night sky it was visible for miles around, giving rise to a rumour that the whole of Five Oak Green was ablaze.

The damage, described with great understatement by the Sevenoaks Chronicle & Kentish Advertiser as "considerable" was, fortunately for Mr. Pemble, "fully covered by insurance" but it must have been heart-breaking to him and his workers to see the product of months of labour destroyed.

Another oast house fire

Almost exactly two years later, in September 1886, there was another oast house fire blamed on a match, which is perhaps less surprising than it would seem to us today for then almost every man smoked while he worked and would have carried matches, and of course every kiln fire had to be lit with a match. As the Courier put it: "It is supposed that a match got amongst the hops which were being dried." This fire was at Crockhurst Farm, then occupied by Mr. E. Mercer, and it would have been more serious but for the timely arrival of the Tunbridge Volunteer Steam Fire Brigade as the building was surrounded by hay and wheat stacks. The kilns and contents were destroyed, while a quantity of hops in the store were damaged by water. Mr. Mercer's policy with 'The Royal' covered the damage, estimated at £200 (£18,000 today).

Neighbours successfully fight a fire

A few days later, on the 29th September, swift action by villagers dealt with a fire without calling on the services of the Brigade, when a fire was discovered in Mr. Charles Hemsley's cottage at Five Oak Green. It was in the middle of a row belonging to Mrs. Cox, and everything was left apparently safe in the morning by the family who were out at work. 'Cox's Row' stood between Hoppers and the Green. Towards evening neighbours saw smoke issuing from the roof, and men returning from work rushed to the scene and succeeded in extinguishing the fire with buckets of water, but not before a hole had been burnt through the floors, and the most of the furniture destroyed. The cause of the outbreak was thought to have been an accumulation of soot in the chimney, which smouldered and set fire to the woodwork. It is fortunate that the fire was discovered when it was as if it had taken hold in the roof space it could have spread and burnt down the whole row of cottages. The men who got the fire under control and saved their neighbours' homes were praised for their efforts. Unfortunately Mr. Hemsley's furniture was not insured.

A more serious fire occurred at the other end of the parish almost exactly a year later, on 19th September 1887, and was reported in the Tonbridge Telegraph.

Maidstone Brigade called but turned back

This fire was in the barn on Mr. Benden Hassell's farm at Tudeley Grange, now known as Capel Grange. The alarm was raised and an attempt made to save the hops which had only recently been picked and stored, and to extinguish the fire. Mr. Dampier, Mr. Hassell's nephew and farm steward, with several men, succeeded in getting out a dozen pockets of hops before the fire became unmanageable. Mr. Hassell's son saddled a horse and rode to Tonbridge to summon the fire brigade, and the Maidstone brigade was telegraphed for later on when it was seen that the wind had carried the fire to some cattle sheds stacked with straw. Lean-to sheds against the oast houses were just caught by the flames from the burning barn, but Mr. Hassell's nephew and several of his men tirelessly threw bucket after bucket of water over the wooden gable facing the barn until the flames issuing from it had subsided. In the meantime a large stack of hay and part of another stack had caught fire and were soon burning terrifically, fanned by a strong wind. Yet another stack narrowly escaped the flying sparks.

It is not difficult to picture the scene of frantic efforts by the men to contain the fire.

The Tonbridge Volunteer Fire Brigade, commanded by Superintendent Flood, arrived at half-past ten but as the nearest source of water was some 200 yards away the apparatus was not ready until nearly eleven o'clock. The buildings had, however, all fallen in and were a confused burning heap before the arrival of the brigade so all that could be done was to get the fire under control as soon as possible in case the wind changed and carried sparks to more sheds, haystacks and the oast houses. Before the fire in the ruined barn and other buildings could be extinguished the supply of water, a small pond, was exhausted, and a messenger had to be sent to Tonbridge for a further length of hose in order to reach another pond lower down the road. In the meantime the stack of hay had nearly burnt itself out, and there was not much left for the firemen to do. When it was seen that nothing could be saved Mr. Hassell, jun., rode out to meet the Maidstone brigade and stopped them from coming any farther. The buildings were all new, and besides nearly a ton of oilcake, &c., there were about 30 pockets of hops in the barn, all of which were completely spoilt. The cause of the fire was unknown and, mysteriously, at the time the fire was discovered the barn was locked. Hop picking on the farm had been completed several days previously. The damage was estimated by the Telegraph at between £600 and £700, but the Courier put it at £1,500. Currency conversion is an inexact science, but Mr. Hassell's loss would be around £50,000 today.

What seems extraordinary now is that a horse-drawn fire engine should be expected to come all the way from Maidstone to Tudeley. It is hardly surprising that the fire was over long before they arrived. One wonders how far they had come before young Hassell met them and sent them back.

No major fires are reported until July 1891, but there is some confusion about exactly where that month's occurred. The Courier of Friday 17th July says it was Kindall Farm, and it seems that might have formed part of the larger, or adjacent, Bank Farm. On the previous Monday a serious fire broke out in a stack of hay belonging to the tenant, Mr. W. Tolhurst. The Courier's report told the story which unfolded. Readers learned that a message was at once sent to Tunbridge on a tricycle, and arrived at five minutes to two. Fortunately, Supt. Flood, the engineer of the waterworks, happened to be at home and at once sounded the steam alarm. This quickly brought the firemen together, and the steamer of the Volunteer Fire Brigade being well horsed by Mr. Mark Hills, covered the four miles to the scene of the outbreak in the short space of 24 minutes. It was found that a large stack of some 60 tons, and valued at £300, was well alight. As the water was so far distant, a messenger was despatched to Tonbridge for additional hose. On this being procured, water was obtained from a pond on a neighbouring farm, and just as the efforts of the firemen were appearing to be successful, owing to the severe pressure caused by the long distance that the water had to be conveyed the hose broke in several places, and Supt. Flood found it advisable to telegraph for the Tunbridge Wells Volunteer Brigade, who arrived with their steamer at half-past six. In the meantime some of the tubes of the Tonbridge engine burst, and it was at once despatched to Messrs. Shand and Mason for immediate repair. The Tunbridge Wells men, under Captain Catchpool, on their arrival assisted the Tonbridge men, and succeeded in saving the farm buildings and homestead, which were threatened. All danger was not over till half-past nine on the following morning. The labouring men of the district lent valuable assistance. The report concluded with "We hear that Mr. Tolhurst is insured in the Phoenix Office. The origin of the outbreak is a mystery."

Eight days later, on Saturday 25th July 1891, there was another haystack fire at Bank Farm, reported in the Maidstone Journal and Kentish Advertiser. When the fire was discovered a messenger was sent to alert the Tonbridge Volunteer Fire Brigade, but as the steamer was in London undergoing repair as a result of the accident caused at the previous fire on the same farm, the large town manual was speedily horsed, and proceeded to the spot. Before starting, however, Superintendent Flood, knowing from experience how difficult it would be to obtain water, telegraphed to the Tunbridge Wells Brigade for their steamer. Pending their arrival the Tonbridge Brigade did what they could with buckets of water to prevent the fire spreading to the adjacent outbuildings and stacks, but the flames reached one of the nearby stacks. On the arrival of the Tunbridge Wells steamer, the two stacks (one of new hay and the other of old), were found to be well alight, and although the combined brigades worked with a will throughout the night both were completely destroyed, but the farm buildings were saved. The damage was estimated at between £200 and £300, but the Journal's reporter said that in this case Mr. Tolhurst was "unfortunately not covered by insurance." Why he should be insured in one instance and not the other is unknown, and there is of course the possibility that the reporter was misinformed. Considering that the previous fire occurred only a week before through some unknown cause, it is believed that these conflagrations were "the work of an incendiary."

Tragedy at Tudeley Brook Farm

Any fire which results in a fatality is especially tragic, and when a child is the victim even more so.

At 3.30 p.m. on the afternoon of 15th November 1901 Lois Ethel Bridges, nearly three years old, was playing with three other children in a room at Tudeley Brook Farm, where her father was a labourer. The eldest of the children was only five years old, and although they were sitting around an open fire it was completely protected by a heavy fireguard which could not be easily moved by a child.

Her mother, also called Lois, left the house for a few minutes when she suddenly heard screams and rushed back to find Lois Ethel with her clothing well alight. The eldest child said at the subsequent inquest that a spark had come out of the fire and landed on the little one's pinafore. Although the mother pulled off the table cloth and with the help of farm worker Stephen Swann wrapped it around her daughter, extinguishing the flames, the child was badly burned about the head and face and left side.

A doctor was sent for and once he dressed the burns advised that she be taken to the hospital. House surgeon Dr. Biggs told the coroner, Thomas Buss, that when she arrived she was only semi-conscious and the burns were so extensive there was little chance of the child recovering. He re-dressed the wounds but Lois Ethel died at 11.30 p.m.

The Coroner's Jury returned a verdict of 'accidental death', which was attributed to 'shock to the system', and expressed sympathy with Mr. & Mrs. Bridges in their loss. Lois Ethel Bridges was buried on 21st November 1901 in Capel old churchyard west, row 3.17. The grave has recently been marked with a wooden cross.

A rural brigade?

Following Tonbridge Urban District Council's decision to take control of the Fire Brigade and build a new Fire Station to house it there remained the question of who was to take responsibility for parishes outside the town's boundary. Known by the Courier in journalistic shorthand as 'The Fire Brigade Question', in May 1902 an adjourned meeting of the delegates for the various Parish Councils was held at the Rose and Crown Hotel to consider the advisability of amalgamating for the purpose of forming a Fire Brigade for the outlying districts. Capel was represented by Mr. Dampier. The Chairman said that the meeting was called to receive the reports of the various Parish Councils as to their willingness to jointly take over (and presumably pay for!), the District Brigade for the protection of their own parishes in case of fire. They were decidedly unwilling, for Capt. Ferguson said that the Rural District, Capel, and East Peckham all refused, while they had received no reply whatever from Hildenborough.

This unsatisfactory situation is well demonstrated by a report in the Courier fifteen months later. On 20th August 1903 there was a stack fire at Mr. T. D. Harris's farm at Shernden, near the Red Cow (now the 'Poacher & Partridge'). A message was sent from Tudeley to Tonbridge, but as the former place was not in the district covered by the Tonbridge Brigade another message was sent to Tunbridge Wells. Another difficulty presented itself then, as Tudeley was not in the district covered by the Borough Fire Brigade, being in fact unprotected; so the Volunteer Brigade was called and proceeded to the fire, which was found to be in a 40-ton stack. Such was the size of the fire that the Brigade did not expect to return to Tunbridge Wells until mid-day on the following day.

Parish Council decides against having a village appliance

Despite Capel's refusal to co-operate with other parishes the Parish Council was alive to the need for adequate cover, and April 1904's Council Meeting chaired by Mr. O. E. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid J.P. considered whether the present means of fire protection in the Parish, entrusted to the Tunbridge Wells Volunteer Fire Brigade, were satisfactory. Mr. Bowles said Capel had had 12 fires in 50 years, but records suggest that this was an under-estimate and perhaps refers only to fires to which a brigade had been called out, or maybe Mr. Bowles relied on a memory of questionable accuracy.

The Council's deliberations covered such questions as:- Should Tunbridge Urban District Council be approached? How much would they charge? How long would it take Brigades to arrive from Tunbridge Wells or Tonbridge? Who would be quicker? As it would take either of them an hour to reach a fire in the centre of the parish should a small manual engine be bought?

In the end it was decided to do nothing, as the Rev. W. R. Holman's proposal that the Parish Council not seeing their way clear to having a manual (engine), affairs should remain as they are, was carried unanimously.

Steam fire engine at Monson Road Tunbridge Wells
Steam fire engine at Monson Road Tunbridge Wells

The Brigade causes a fire!

An incident in June 1905 probably wasn't seen as such at the time but in retrospect is almost amusing. It is easy to imagine something like it featuring in a Robb Wilton comedy film or an episode of 'Dad's Army'.

The Tunbridge Wells Volunteer Fire Brigade, commanded by Superintendent Mason, had been engaged to attend outbreaks in the parish and went to Mr. Pemble's farm at Tatlingbury to give a demonstration of their fire-fighting skill, perhaps using 'The Alert', their Shand Mason 200 gallons per minute steam pump which had been put into service in 1882.. While this was in progress it was noticed that a large haystack some distance away was on fire, having presumably become ignited by a spark from the Brigade's own coal-fired engine. In a few minutes the firemen were engaged in coping with a real, instead of a sham conflagration, but unfortunately the stack was practically destroyed.

Parish Council again deliberates

At Capel Parish Council's meeting on Wednesday 12th February 1908 the question of fire protection was again discussed, at length, and eventually it was decided that the Water Company be written to with a request to provide stand pipes at Five Oak Green. It was the feeling of the Council that the Tunbridge Wells Steam Fire Brigade's services should be relied upon, and the Clerk again offered to collect subscriptions for their Association. No doubt the incident three years earlier had been forgotten, or forgiven, and the Tunbridge Wells Brigade had an opportunity to demonstrate its efficiency just a few weeks later, in May, when a fire occurred at Colts Hill Farm. A stable and other buildings were destroyed, but fortunately the house was not involved. The Brigade arrived in time to prevent a more serious conflagration.

They were in action again less than twelve months later, in April 1909, when a stack of hay of about 12 tons at the Chequers, Whetsted, was discovered to be on fire. A telegram was immediately dispatched to Tunbridge Wells and Engineer Willicombe at once set out with the engine and a section of the Brigade, picking up the Pembury members en route. On arrival it was found that the stack was well alight, and a plentiful supply of water being available, the steamer got to work. The firemen succeeded in saving a portion of the stack, and removed another part, but it was some time before the fire was finally subdued. It was one o'clock the following morning before the Brigade arrived back at Tunbridge Wells.

A more serious fire

There was a much more serious fire, causing £1,000 of damage (more than £80,000 today), at the other end of the parish on 5th September 1909. That afternoon well-known hop-grower Mr. T. D. Harris saw a small puff of smoke rising from buildings at Hale Farm, Tudeley. He saw no flames, but he instantly understood the danger and immediately mounted his cycle to ride to Somerhill, which was not only his landlord's house but perhaps the nearest with a telephone. The Tunbridge Wells District Steam Fire Brigade took the call at 1.40 p.m., and with commendable smartness arrived on the scene of the fire in about three quarters of an hour. Second Officer A. Willicombe, Engineer C. Goddard, and eight men, together with the Pembury contingent, turned out with the steamer and the hose van. The horses were supplied by Mr. Gillingham, of Dunstan Road, and the Courier reported that "they accomplished the journey in good time." On arriving at the farm the Brigade immediately set to work, and a good supply of water was secured from a pond near the fire. The buildings affected consisted of large bullock sheds, a timber barn, and part of the stables. Not only was the wood from which they were constructed coated with a preservative layer of tar, but the floors were covered with straw in preparation for newly arrived hop pickers. They were accommodated in the sheds, which were divided by partitions to house about twenty families.

The buildings quickly blazed and were burnt down before the Brigade arrived, but a portion of the stables was fortunately saved. A successful attempt was also made to save a pair of cottages standing opposite the farm, and beyond their gardens being burnt, and the paint work scorched, they were undamaged. The hoppers' scanty belongings perished in the flames, although several attempts were made to save sundry articles, and one man, in entering the barn to rescue a baby, had his arm slightly burnt. In one of the sheds a quantity of implements were burnt, but otherwise the buildings had been cleared for the hoppers to dwell in.

Amidst the serious aspects which the flames presented, the ludicrous element was supplied by a man living in one of the neighbouring cottages. He calmly went out to his garden and cut his marrows while the fire burnt within a few feet of him, causing no little amusement by the remark that "he didn't care about the fire, but he was going to cut his marrows before they were burnt." Some hay-ricks on Mr. Seabrooke's farm in the vicinity were in some danger of being burnt, but the Brigade succeeded in preventing the flames reaching them.

When the flames were "got well under", the Brigade received a call to a fire about three miles away at Five Oak Green, but this was quickly put out, and they returned to Mr. Harris's farm, where they remained until between seven and eight o'clock, not arriving back in Tunbridge Wells until 9.30 p.m. Two firemen, however, remained on duty near the scene of the fire all night. A large crowd of people watching the fire was kept under control by P. C. Tippett and other police, who helped to get the hoppers out of the buildings.

Fortunately Mr. Harris was insured with the Kent and Alliance Company's Office, but nevertheless there was great sympathy for him as the fire occurred at the worst possible time - the opening of the hopping season. He did all he could to secure the comfort of the hoppers, for although, mercifully, no lives were lost the people lost all their belongings, and their shelter was burnt down. The Vicar of Tudeley and the Hop-Pickers' Mission kindly offered the use of tents for the night, and several members of the Hop League, including Mr Herbert Simmons, of Hadlow, sent tents the first thing on Monday morning. Mrs. Seabrooke also very generously assisted in caring for the people after the fire, the origin which was unknown.

The fire in Five Oak Green that Sunday afternoon was at Mr. W. Levett's, Badsell Mains Farm, where a haystack was found to be ablaze. The Tunbridge Wells Brigade, which as we have just seen was then engaged at the fire on Mr Harris's farm at Tudeley, were summoned and rapidly covered the three miles between the two. The burning haystack, which stood among a group of farm buildings, was believed to have been set alight by children playing with matches. Several hopper families were lodging in the adjoining buildings, and they, with the farm hands, beat out the flames before the Brigade arrived, and a part of the stack was eventually cut out. The £5 (equating to £400 now) worth of damage resulted as much from loss of the "spilt" hay as that which was burnt. Mr. Levett was able to claim for his loss as he was insured with 'The Northern and Guardian'.

Stack fire started deliberately?

Not all hay was stored in barns or farmyards, some being stacked out in the open in the field where it was cut, but that did not make it any less vulnerable to fire, as this Courier report of October 1st 1909 shows.

STACK FIRE - The Tunbridge Wells Steam Fire Brigade promptly responded to a call which they received at headquarters, Monson-Road, Tunbridge Wells, at 7.10 yesterday (Thursday) morning, informing them of a stack fire near the George and Dragon, Capel. They found the stack well alight. It contained about 20 tons of hay, half of which were destroyed. The origin of the fire is unknown. It is an interesting circumstance that the outbreak occurred within 200 yards of the spot where a similar fire broke out a week or two ago, but whether it was the work of meandering hoppers or no, cannot, of course, be stated. Engineer Willicombe and his men are to be complimented upon their smartness in turning out and in coping with the flames.

No doubt this was not the first time, and it certainly wasn't the last, when the finger of suspicion was pointed at hoppers or other 'outsiders'. Indeed, just three months later the Courier made that clear in its headline 'FARM FIRE AT CAPEL - INCENDIARISM SUSPECTED' of 31st December 1909.

Late on the previous Wednesday evening a fire was discovered at Ploggs Hale (sic) Farm, Capel, in the occupation of Mr. G. Hale. It had originated in a stack of about thirty loads of wheat, which was close to several other stacks and extensive farm buildings. The Tunbridge Wells and District Fire Brigade was summoned by telephone, and the steamer left shortly before mid-night under the command of Second Officer Willicombe and Engineer Goddard. On arriving at the farm they found the stack was well alight, but fortunately the wind was blowing away from the buildings. There was a good supply of water, and the firemen set to work to remove such parts of the stack as could be saved. This entailed a great deal of work, but fortunately the remainder of the stacks and the stabling was saved.

The property then belonged to Lord Falmouth, who had the foresight, and the means, to insure it with the Northern Insurance Company.

As the Courier report concluded - "The fire is suspected to be a case of incendiarism. It is remarkable that there have been ten farm fires in the district within the past twelve months." The cause of the incendiarism or, as it more commonly known today, arson, is not known: perhaps a former employee had a grudge against Lord Falmouth, or farmers in general, or maybe the arsonist simply took perverted pleasure from the destruction he caused.

Boys playing with matches start fire

The same farm had a fire six years later, on Sunday 26th September, shortly after 1 p.m., when the Courier reported that "a stack of oats belonging to Mr. G. Hale, of Ploggs Hall Farm, was found to be alight." Mr. Hayward, the bailiff, communicated with the Tunbridge Wells Fire Brigade, who arrived shortly after 2.30 p.m. The nearest water was over 200 yards away in a pond at Whetsted Farm. After about two hours' work the flames were subdued, and the little that remained of the stack was carted into a neighbouring field. The loss, covered by insurance, was estimated at about £200. The fire was caused by three small boys, all under seven years of age "who had become possessed of a box of matches."

Below the report was this timely and helpful item:-

EVERY DAY an Accident or a Fire occurs. Do not run the risk of being uninsured. Write at once for particulars to Mr. John Watson, Branch Manager, London Guarantee and Accident Co., Ltd. (Established 1869), 22, High-Street, Maidstone. Exceptional benefits.

Railway engine causes fire

Most fires were caused accidentally, of course, and with a busy railway line bisecting the parish there must have been many lineside fires caused by sparks flying from the chimneys of steam engines, which is why, until diesel and electric powered trains were introduced, trackside vegetation was kept under control by teams of workmen. One particularly costly fire blamed on such an occurrence happened in August 1921, when considerable damage was caused to a field of wheat belonging to Mrs. Tolhurst at Moat Farm. The field, which was adjacent to the railway line, was ready for cutting, and a road round had already been made for the machine to harvest it. Fanned by a light breeze flames spread rapidly, and about one-and-a-quarter acres of wheat were destroyed.

Spontaneous combustion

Some haystack fires were caused by over-heating, and this is what is thought to have happened at Reeds Farm, the property of Mr. A. S. Reeves, in August 1923. A fire starting in a hay stack threatened seven more, together with a barn, yards and an oast house. The Tunbridge Wells Brigade under Second Officer Jinks were soon on the spot and confined the fire to the centre stack, which was nearly burnt out.

Suspicious circumstances

Another suspicious fire occurred on the 26th September 1923. At about 5.20 that Wednesday afternoon a telephone call was received at the Tonbridge Fire Station from Mr. J. A. Waite's farms at the Postern, and in under five minutes the fire engine was on its way with Second Officer Boyde and fifteen men. On arriving at the farm it was found that a large wheat straw stack was well alight, and that the surrounding stacks and straw thatched buildings were in great danger of being ignited from the flying sparks. Water was obtainable two fields away, a good quarter of a mile, but within half-an-hour of the notification of the fire water was being played on the flaming straw. Luckily the wind had dropped, but as a precaution tarpaulins were thrown over the thatches. The Brigade were back at the station by ten o'clock in the evening.

When enquiries were made as to the cause of the fire, two children alleged that they saw a roughly-clad man come from the stack and hurry quickly away. He had previously been employed by Mr. Tolhurst, of Hale Farm, Capel. Mr. Waite told a Courier reporter that he had lately refused to employ the man as a picker and he had "turned nasty" over it. No doubt thankful that his loss, estimated at £13 (about £550 today), was not greater Mr. Waite telephoned the Brigade to congratulate them on the smart way they had turned out. Between a quarter and a third of the stack was pulled out safely by the farm hands and pickers. Had there been a high wind as there was the day before there would have been little hope of saving the adjacent buildings.

Hose inspection

At the Parish Council meeting in July 1924 it was reported that the fire hose had been inspected and a sub-committee was appointed to ascertain the cost of three new lengths of hose and a box to store them and the appliance. What the "appliance" was is not apparent, but might have been a portable hand pump, and we don't know when the hose was acquired or where it was stored.

The sub-committee presented its report at the Council meeting held at the school in October, with Colonel O. E. d'Avigdor Goldsmid in the Chair. Councillors were told there were four good lengths of hose and two bad ones and that the sub-committee considered it better to dispose of what they had sooner than have unnecessary expenditure by purchasing new lengths, especially as arrangements were being made with the Tonbridge Fire Brigade. The Council left it to the committee to see what offers they could get for the appliance and to report at the next meeting. The Chairman said that the arrangements with the Fire Brigade would be completed in the course of a week or so.

Two months later, in December 1924, the Chairman informed Councillors that he had completed the arrangements with the Urban District Council for protection against fire in the parish for the sum of seven guineas per annum. He hoped that this arrangement, which had already been made effective, would prove satisfactory to the ratepayers and inhabitants of Capel.

Sale of the hose and fittings was agreed at the January 1926 Parish Council meeting, but when the subject came up at the annual parish meeting in April the Clerk, Mr. T. D. Harris, said he had heard that there was considerable opposition to its disposal. It was agreed to form a temporary brigade to test the hose a few times.

That was not the end of the matter, for at the Parish Council meeting of the following October a letter was read from Mr. Bradley, of the Tonbridge Fire Brigade, pointing out that three additional hydrants were required, and that to make proper use of an emergency brigade they would require an additional six 50-foot lengths of hose.

Less than two years later the parish was reminded of the importance of fire precautions when, on 2nd September 1928, a fire broke out at Tatlingbury Farm. The Tonbridge Fire Brigade was summoned by telephone, and with commendable dispatch arrived within 16 minutes, Second Officer D. W. Spence being in charge of the ten firemen. Two kilns and a large drying house measuring 90ft by 50ft were destroyed, but the Brigade was successful in saving three kilns and a Titan tractor. Fourteen hundred bushels of hops were destroyed, the total damage being estimated at £400 (£17,500 today). Hop pickers on the farm formed a chain and passed buckets of water along from the pond to the burning building, and assisted Mr. C. Pemble, the farmer, until the arrival of the Brigade. The Tunbridge Wells and District Steam Fire Brigade were summoned, and arrived 45 minutes after their Tonbridge counterparts, but by then the fire had been mastered and their services were not required.

A risky business

Hop drying, by its very nature, was a risky business, and the fires in the kilns had to be checked by night as well as by day. It was unfortunate, then, when a farm worker was himself the cause of a fire, as happened on 18th September 1928, little more than two weeks after the Tatlingbury fire.

At 11.15 p.m. that day the Tonbridge Fire Brigade were called to Sherenden Farm, Tudeley, where a fire had been discovered in a kiln, the property of Mr. T. D. Harris. Within five minutes the tender and steamer turned out, again under the command of Second Officer Spence, but with only six men on board this time. On arrival they found the 80ft. by 25 ft. kiln well alight. Chief Officer W. L. Bradley proceeded to the fire in his car and took charge of the operations. Water was obtained from a pond on the farm, and ten lengths of hose were used. In about three-quarters of an hour the fire was well under control, allowing the Brigade to return to the Fire Station at 2.30 a.m.

The fire was caused by 30 year-old employee Harry Kimber, of Sherenden Cottages, Tudeley, who entered the kiln to extract the drying hops and dropped his lamp. The hops immediately flared up, and Kimber was badly burned on the right hand and arm. He was taken to the Chelsea Division of the British Red Cross temporary hospital nearby, where his burns were treated. The fire destroyed 300 bushels of dried hops, and about one-third of the cooling room was burnt and the roof damaged.

Fire at Capel School and another at Ploggs Hall

While some fires were not serious, and barely news-worthy, reports serve to remind us how life was lived in times past. In February 1929 Second Officer Spence and three men of the Tonbridge Fire Brigade extinguished a chimney fire at Capel School. It is unimaginable nowadays that a school would be heated by open fires, but some readers will have vivid memories of their school caretaker carrying a bucket of coal into the classroom and stoking the stove or fire in the corner.

There was another stack fire a month later, when about fifty tons of hay caught fire at Ploggs Hall Farm, then the property of Mr. E. H. Chambers, in March 1929. Mr. A. Mercer, of "Lindow", Five Oak Green, who was passing by, warned the inhabitants and called the Tonbridge Fire Brigade. A nearby pond provided a good supply of water and the firemen, assisted by farm hands, covered the adjoining stack and with a hand extinguisher prevented the fire from spreading. Second Officer Spence, with his eight men, had a busy time getting the upper hand of the fire, but about two-thirds of the stack was saved.

Tunbridge Wells Brigade disbanded

The knowledge that, owing to a lack of support and funding, the Tunbridge Wells District Steam Fire Brigade would be disbanded at the end of March 1929 created a serious problem for the surrounding parishes. A conference for their representatives was held at the Fire Station, Monson Road, Tunbridge Wells, in February. The meeting was called by Tonbridge Rural District Council's Borough Surveyor, Colonel Harris. Capel was invited to send a representative, but didn't. Discussion concentrated on forming a Brigade housed on the ground floor of Pembury Telephone Exchange, operating under the aegis of Tonbridge Rural District Council.

At the Council's meeting in April the Borough Surveyor reported that the conference of parish representatives, at which the question of taking over the apparatus of the now disbanded Tunbridge Wells Brigade was considered, had failed. The Clerk explained that the various parishes had refused to bear the annual charges, and the Surveyor pointed out that some concerted action ought to be taken, if only to look after the hydrants in the villages.

Another conference was held in the Council Chamber, Tonbridge Castle, in June, when members of the Council and representatives of adjacent parishes attended. There was no Capel representative in attendance but Mr. T. Tolhurst was there as a Rural District Councillor, and he will have known that in case of a fire in Capel it was the Tonbridge Brigade which would be called on. Varying opinions were expressed at what must have been a lengthy meeting but no decision was reached, and it was adjourned for a month to give the parishes time to consider the alternatives and their financial implications.

A second 'Tonbridge conference' on fire cover for the villages was duly convened in July, at which a scheme to set up a new Brigade with a station at Pembury was one proposal. Another was that Tonbridge Brigade should be responsible, with £1,200 spent on a new motor pump. The Chairman endorsed the Tonbridge scheme and encouraged the representatives to recommend it to their respective parish councils.

Tar tank fires

The ends of hop poles and fence posts were treated with hot tar in large tanks, the remains of which can still be found on local farms. The tanks were heated by open fires, and all too often molten tar would overflow onto the fire and the whole thing would catch fire. This is what happened in January 1932 to a tank belonging to Messrs. G. and P. Delves, Five Oak Green haulage contractors and wood merchants, when spiles being dipped caught fire. The Tonbridge Fire Brigade was summoned and the fire was put out with what was described as a "first-aid extinguisher."

It is a pity Mr. Delves could not attend the Capel Women's Institute meeting on February 22nd 1935, when Mr. E. W. Hubbard spoke on "Fires and their prevention." One hopes that Mrs. Delves was there to take notes to pass on to her husband, but if so it was to no avail as in November 1936 the Tonbridge Brigade were again called to an outbreak at 'Delden', the home of Mr. Percy Delves, where a tank had caught fire and was threatening an adjacent shed. By the time the Brigade arrived the family had succeeded in extinguishing the blaze.


Fire hydrants having been installed they had to be kept in working order, and in May 1931 the Tonbridge Rural District Council's Surveyor reported on Public Health and the repair and maintenance of fire hydrants in the parishes, including Capel. The question of Capel's fire hydrants was discussed at the Council's December meeting and referred to the Hospital Committee for further consideration. One might understandably wonder why hydrants were the responsibility of a Hospital Committee, but in those days pre-dating the NHS all such welfare matters must have come under the heading of 'Public Health'.

Capel foots the bill

Under boundary changes, and with the Parish of Tonbridge Rural ceasing to exist, in June 1934 Capel Parish Council was asked to pay an additional £2 p.a. to Tonbridge Council for Fire Brigade retainer fees. Whether the payment was made willingly or reluctantly is not recorded, but was certainly justified as the Tonbridge Brigade was called out only a month later when there was a haystack fire at Mr. R. Sheard's Tudeley Brook Farm. The Brigade extinguished the fire in the 10 ton stack in one and a half hours, but had to be called back when another outbreak occurred in the very same stack the next day.

Appalling accident

Far more serious was the appalling accident on the afternoon of Sunday 4th August 1935. William Thomas Cheesman, aged four, of Moat Farm Cottages, Five Oak Green, was playing in a stable at the farm with his 6 year-old brother Frank when the building caught fire and he was trapped inside. Strenuous efforts to rescue him were made by the boy's mother and Mr. Albert Reeves, a visitor to the district, but it was possible to get him out only after some boards had been torn from the side of the building, which was constructed chiefly of wood.

The child was badly burned on the back and hands, and first-aid was rendered by members of the Capel St.John Ambulance Brigade. Dr. Pimm was called from Paddock Wood, and after he had further dressed the wounds the child, in a serious condition, was taken to Pembury Hospital by Mr. Edwards. He became worse during Monday and Tuesday and died early on the Wednesday morning.

Tonbridge Fire Brigade were called and eight men under Second Officer Wingfield quickly got the fire under control but about half the stable, the property of Mr. William Tolhurst, was completely destroyed. There were no horses or other animals in the stable at the time.

The war years

Fears of impending war and its predictable consequences concentrated the minds of people and politicians alike, leading to air raid precautions being put in place. As early as February 1939 a petition signed by 400 Paddock Wood householders, citing "the industrial character of the locality, the serious effect on employment of an extensive fire to industrial premises and the close proximity of the railway junction", and calling for retention of the Paddock Wood Fire Brigade, was presented to Tonbridge Rural District Council.

The residents' voices were heard, for at a meeting of the Council it was agreed that, subject to satisfactory arrangements being made between the brigades concerned, the existing volunteer brigades at Paddock Wood and Matfield should be taken over and controlled by the Council to serve the parishes of Brenchley, Horsmonden, Lamberhurst and an eastern portion of the parish of Capel. A recommendation was made that Tonbridge Urban Council should be responsible for the western area of Capel.

There were inevitable financial consequences, for next month the Rural District Council rates for 1939-40 were increased by 3d, "mainly due to the fact that the Council had taken over control of the fire services in the district", which included Capel.

When war came in September 1939 there must have been a review of fire cover which concluded that to leave it in the hands of a volunteer brigade was inadequate, as in October "the Fire Brigades Committee (of Tonbridge Rural District Council) further reported that the Fire Officer had recommended as regards the disposition of the regular Fire Brigade that a Brigade should be at Paddock Wood to cover Paddock Wood and Capel."

Six months later, in April 1940, it was announced that an Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) unit would be based in Five Oak Green. The AFS had been formed in 1938 as part of the Civil Defence Service, and was manned by unpaid part-time volunteers. It was absorbed into the National Fire Service in 1941. Five Oak Green's AFS/NFS station was a Nissen hut facing the Green where the flats are now.

Five Oak Green National Fire Service in 1942

Back Row: C Simpson, T Davis, B Huggins.   Front Row: C Large, J Wood

No reports of major fires during WW2 have come to light, but no doubt the firemen - and they were all men in those days - were called on to assist in other emergencies such as the destruction of Latter's Farm Oast by a doodlebug, and it must have been re-assuring to residents to know that if there were a fire help was near at hand. That does not mean the men of the NFS had no opportunity to put their training to the test, for in October 1943 they received a call to a fire at Sandling Farm, Tudeley. On arrival two fire pumps, a despatch rider, Section Leader Osborne and Company Officer Heritage found a large pole-dipping tank full of poles and tar blazing furiously. In less than half an hour the fire was extinguished.

A dramatic rescue

One of the most dramatic incidents in the post-war years occurred on 11th February 1950, when Amhurst Cottage caught fire. The cottage, which stood on Knight's Lane, the byway linking Alders Road with Amhurst Bank Road, was the home of Mr. and Mrs. S. J. Kemp, Mrs. E. Catt and her three children, Andrew aged 5, Brian aged 4, and Christine aged 2.

Mrs. Catt, 25, whose husband was serving with the Forces in Germany, described how she woke a little after 4 a.m. to find flames a foot high coming through the bedroom floor. She ran to waken her cousin, Mrs. Kemp, and Mr. Kemp, who found the stairs barred by a wall of flame. Dressed in little more than nightclothes Mr. Kemp jumped from a window at the back of the house, and Mrs. Catt threw her children down to him before she and Mrs. Kemp escaped by the window. Minutes later the floor collapsed and fell into the inferno below. Mr. Kemp ran half a mile to the nearest telephone box, probably the one which stood outside the Alders Inn (now the Dovecote) to call the fire brigade.

"It was just fate that I woke up when I did," Mrs. Catt declared. Their nearest neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. W. E. Towner, of Capel Court Cottage, about 20 yards away, were woken by the barking of their dogs. "We ran to the house as quickly as we could," said Mrs. Towner, "but by then they had all escaped, and the heat was so intense that we could not save anything."

Three fire fighting appliances - two from Tonbridge and one from Paddock Wood - arrived in time to save the house from total destruction. It was beyond repair, however, and through gaping holes in the walls could be seen the charred remains of furniture mixed with all that was left of the iron framework of beds which fell through the upper floor. In the centre of the front room stood the only recognizable piece of furniture - a sewing machine on its bent metal frame. The cottage was subsequently demolished and no trace of it remains.

Mrs. Catt and her children went to stay with relations at Horsmonden, and Mr. and Mrs. Kemp, temporarily put up by Mr. and Mrs. Towner, had to find somewhere else to live. Happily help was at hand, for as the Courier of March 3rd 1950 reported, at a meeting of Tonbridge Rural Council Housing Committee it was decided that, in view of the urgency of the applications of the families, arrangements be made for one family to be re-housed at Hadlow and the other at Brenchley.

The local community was obviously deeply affected by the tragic event which left two families homeless and destroyed all their possessions, for a whist drive was held at the Bridge Hall in Five Oak Green to raise money for Mr. & Mrs. Kemp.

Just five months later, almost by co-incidence, the following article appeared in the local press:-


Kent Fire Brigade's mobile unit will be visiting villages in the Tonbridge and Sevenoaks area during June.

The public are invited to visit this station-on-wheels in their district. They will be able to see how it would operate at a serious fire, and may obtain advice on how to prevent fires in their own premises.

Five Oak Green was visited on Thursday June 15th, 1950.

Burning stubble

It was not just buildings but sometimes whole fields which caught fire, either by accident or as part of farming practice. The deliberate burning of stubble was once common, but was prohibited in 1993.

Appliances from Paddock Wood and Tonbridge were called to a fire on Tully's Farm in July 1950, but could not prevent an acre of mown hay being lost. This must have been an accident, but less than three weeks later two cottages at Colt's Hill were nearly set on fire by blazing corn stubble in an adjoining field. As the Courier reported, only the prompt action of passers-by in breaking windows to release the heat and throwing buckets of water on the eaves kept the fire from spreading. When fire appliances from Paddock Wood, Tonbridge, and Tunbridge Wells reached the scene about seven acres of the stubble were burning, a hedge was alight, and the coal house of one of the cottages was blazing furiously and could not be saved. One wonders if the 'passers-by' were actually farm workers who had themselves set fire to the stubble!

Mrs. Humphrey, who occupied the cottage which was most seriously threatened, was working on a farm some distance away and knew nothing of the fire until it was all over.

Boys put out fire before brigade arrives

As newspaper reports already cited reveal, in times past when 'health and safety' was less of a consideration, and the brigade's arrival was less swift, it was not unusual for members of the public to tackle a fire.

In October 1951 the Tonbridge Free Press reported that boys ran with buckets of water to Five Oak Green Post Office when they saw flames coming from a downstairs bedroom window. They found bedding in the room alight and with a policeman's help they tried to put it out. One of the boys telephoned Paddock Wood and Tonbridge fire stations, but by the time fire crews arrived with their pumps they found the unofficial fire-fighters had doused the flames.

The prompt action of children again prevented a fire becoming even more serious when, in November 1965, schoolgirls Rosalyn Fuller and Christine Weaver ran 100 yards to the village policeman when they saw clouds of smoke coming from an old brick and timber barn on Finches Farm, Five Oak Green. The barn was near the winter supply of hay for bullocks, and it was thanks to the girls it was not destroyed.

Within minutes Tonbridge and Paddock Wood firemen were on the scene and a quarter of an hour later, in spite of high winds, the blaze was under control. Mrs. Brockman, who lived in a neighbouring cottage, was standing in her garden when she saw the smoke and rushed to raise the alarm, but the two girls arrived ahead of her. The bullocks, which would have been lodged in the barn for the winter just a week later, were safely grazing outside and unharmed.

Village bobby prevents a catastrophe

P.C. 'Ted' Young, the village policeman for 24 years, saved Capel from what might have been a serious fire in June 1961. He was chatting to villagers outside the Alders Inn, now the Dovecote, just after 9 p.m. on a summer evening when he saw smoke coming from the upstairs window of a cottage a few yards away. One of a row of cottages, it was the home of Mrs. Minnie Smith, aged 79, who at the time was watching television with a neighbour three doors away. On investigation, P.C. Young saw that furnishings were on fire in a corner of the downstairs living room, but because the ground floor windows were shut smoke found its way out from an open bedroom window.

P.C. Young called the fire brigade, then entered the cottage and with the aid of villagers organised a bucket chain. A length of garden hose was then coupled to a kitchen tap and before appliances had arrived from Paddock Wood and Tonbridge the fire, the cause of which was unknown, was under control. Furniture was severely damaged but while the cottage wall was blackened by smoke, rambler roses covering it were unharmed!

Hero - or villain?

Another unofficial fire-fighter might not have been as praiseworthy and public-spirited as first thought, as the Kent Messenger of August 12th 1966 reported.

Local people would have been astonished to read that Kent police were searching for a fire "hero" who helped fight two barn blazes in four days at Tudeley. The man, who gave his name as John Mason and said he was a Leeds University student, vanished after helping fight a fire at Crockhurst Farm which caused £3,000 worth of damage. Thirty firemen from Paddock Wood, Marden, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells worked through the night of Sunday August 7th to control the fire, which broke out only 300 yards from a blaze at Church Farm on the previous Wednesday when hay worth £2,000 went up in flames.

The man, police subsequently learnt, was also first on the scene at a third fire, at All Saints' Church, Maidstone, just a few days earlier. The mystery deepened when Kent C.I.D. officers discovered that there was no-one of the name John Mason at Leeds University. The man's claims of being a member of Leeds Auxiliary Fire Service proved false too.

Police tried to unravel the riddle of a charred sleeping bag and documents found in the smouldering barn, and searched the ruins for a missing man, believed to be a Royal Navy seaman. A senior police officer said: "We are pretty certain there is a link between the two fires - and it looks very much as though they were caused deliberately. We are very anxious to question both these men."

The total damage caused by both fires - in which hundreds of tons of hay were destroyed and a new combine harvester valued at £2,000 burnt out - is estimated at more than £6,000. The owner of the combine, Mr. Harry Veall, was in Ireland at the time of the fire, but he said that a man calling himself Mason, who claimed to be a university student, had been engaged as a holiday worker to help with the harvest.

Crockhurst Farm, part of Sir Henry d'Avigdor Goldsmid's Somerhill Estate, was run by tenant farmer Mr. John Wensley. His wife, Valerie, said: "I can't think of anyone with a grudge against us. But it looks pretty certain that the fires were not accidental."

A fatality in Five Oak Green

Mercifully few fires resulted in a fatality, but one in the very heart of Five Oak Green stays in the memory of some local residents.

On Saturday 20th November 1971, 89-year-old Mrs. Maria Grange, who had been caretaker of the Hoppers' Hospital since the war, went next door to the Queen's Head for her usual drink with friends. One of those friends saw her back to her room, where she had a fire burning in the grate, and said "She just sat down in the chair and I said goodnight and left her." The diminutive Mrs. Grange lived alone in the cottage at the rear of the hospital. At 2 a.m. that night police constables Button and Knell, on routine patrol, spotted a fire at the hospital and summoned the fire brigade on their car radio. While waiting for the fire engines to arrive they made a hurried search of the building from the outside, but on trying to enter were forced back by the flames.

Fire tenders from Paddock Wood, Matfield, Tonbridge and Maidstone found the fire burning fiercely when they arrived, but brought the blaze under control by 3.30 a.m. When it was safe to carry out an inspection Mrs. Grange's badly burned body was found near the back door and removed. Both the caretaker's cottage and the chapel were totally destroyed.

Aerial view of the aftermath of the 1971 fire
Aerial view of the aftermath of the 1971 fire

Mr. Michael Smith and his wife Dawn, who lived at 31 Nortons Way, woke to find the flames within ten yards of their back door. Mr. Smith quickly started soaking his garden shed with buckets of water and used a 500-watt photoflood light to help the firemen. He said: "By the time anyone knew anything about the fire it was burning so fiercely that no-one could have done anything for Mrs. Grange. Recently there were some children and a party of old people staying in the hospital, but luckily there was no-one else in the building at the time."

A forensic examination concluded that the fire was caused by a burning coal falling from the open fire as Mrs. Grange slept.

Baby thrown from window caught by father

Reeds Farm on Alders Road has seen several fires, including the destruction of its oast, but it was that in the adjacent Reeds Farm Cottage on Tuesday 9th June 1987 which was the most dramatic. At lunchtime that day Mrs. Gillian Segrue tried to light a fire using damp wood by pouring on what she thought was paraffin, but it was petrol! When she went back to the grate to her horror both can and carpet were on fire. Mrs. Segrue rushed upstairs to get the baby while her husband, Michael, attempted to remove the burning carpet from the living room downstairs. By this time much of the room was ablaze. Mr. Segrue told his wife to stay upstairs and throw their baby from a window. Mr. Segrue caught the 10-month-old baby, then his wife jumped. She and the baby were unharmed.

The fire brigade was called using a neighbour's telephone, and when they arrived they found most of the downstairs was alight and the fire spreading upstairs. Brigades from Tonbridge, Paddock Wood, Matfield and Sevenoaks joined the fight. They could not save the 400 year-old listed building, but once they had broken holes in the roof to get at the blaze had it under control in an hour and completely extinguished in three.

Mr. and Mrs. Segrue were tenants in the cottage which at that time was divided in two. The other half was severely damaged but theirs was completely gutted and all the family's possessions and furniture destroyed. The cost of the damage was estimated at £80,000, and the building was not restored, as a single dwelling, until many years later.

Firemen praised Mrs. Segrue for her coolness in a crisis which saved her baby girl and herself. Sub officer Peter Dadson, of Paddock Wood, said; "When Mrs. Segrue dropped her baby into the arms of her husband she must have been completely in a state of panic. But it is amazing what you can do when you panic. It was a brave act."

Tatlingbury - again

In 1984, just over 100 years after the disastrous fire which destroyed Tatlingbury Farm's eight oasts, and 24 years after a smaller barn fire in November 1960, the building again caught fire. Janis Parks remembers being in the small crowd which gathered to watch as smoke billowed across Five Oak Green Road, and police arrived to control the traffic. As firemen began to fight the blaze they wondered why water pressure was so low, only to discover that the policeman had parked his car on the hose! The fire was soon brought under control, and the barn, which still stands, was subsequently restored to its former state.

And again!

Almost 20 years after that Tatlingbury Farmhouse itself was, as the Courier's headline shouted "RIPPED APART IN SAVAGE BLAZE"

More than 30 firefighters battled in vain to save the £300,000 18th century farmhouse in Five Oak Green on an October Saturday night. The alarm was raised at about 9 p.m. by Michael & Glenda Saunders when, on their way to the George and Dragon, they saw smoke pouring from the building.

Two appliances from Matfield and Paddock Wood were called initially to the historic building where both floors were already engulfed by fire. However, four more crews were needed to contain the blaze. By 11 p.m., eight firefighters wearing breathing apparatus were tackling the fire and an aerial ladder was brought in. It took three hours to contain the blaze, during which, Bob Pratt, the George and Dragon's landlord said, his pub's water turned brown and sludgy as the firefighters tapped into supplies. Fire crews left the scene at midnight, and fortunately nobody was injured.

Harry Teacher, who owns the property which is part of his family's Hadlow Estate, told the Courier that no-one was living in the house at the time, the previous tenant having moved out a week before, and added "When the firemen arrived the fire had already taken hold so there was not much they could do."

The farmhouse suffered 60 percent fire damage and 40 per cent smoke damage, leaving a gaping hole in the roof and charred beams. Inside the ceilings have been burned through and wallpaper hangs in shreds.

When asked how the fire started, Lee Rose, Kent Fire Brigade press spokesman, said: "It's believed to be electrical - the house had been rewired five years ago. There was so much damage it's hard to identify a 100 per cent cause." The electrical fault was thought to have been in the kitchen. Mr. Teacher said it was a shame such a historic building had been destroyed but added: "We fully intend to rebuild it", and that has duly been done so that externally the old house looks just as it always did.

The Carpenter's Arms

On the morning of Tuesday 17th September 1985, builder Ronald Shaw was using a blow lamp to strip paint from the roof underleaf and fascia boards of the Carpenter's Arms (now Turmeric Gold) in Tudeley. He described what then happened to a Courier reporter - "A flame from the lamp must have got through a crack and something inside the roof must have caught alight. It's so dry in there that it went up in a couple of minutes. I had come down the ladder and was working on the ground when someone ran round and said that there was smoke coming from the roof. I got a hose and a bucket of water and went back up the ladder. I looked into the hole and all I could see was a red glow. It was only a quarter inch hose and the water came out as a trickle. This is the first time anything like this has happened to me. I was amazed at the speed with which the fire took hold."

It is likely that the blow lamp ignited a bird's nest under the eaves, dry roof timbers caught alight and within a few minutes flames were shooting 30 feet in the air. A strong wind fanned the fire's rapid progress.

Landlord Gerard Kelly, known to all as Gerry, was working at the bar when he saw a man running around the building and heard him shouting "There's a fire!" Mr. Kelly immediately 'phoned the fire brigade and made sure everyone was safely out of the building. Firemen from Tonbridge, Paddock Wood and Matfield spent more than three hours tackling the fire and clearing the building of blackened slates and joists, but all Mr. Kelly could do was watch as the pub whose business he had built up over eight years was turned into a smouldering shell. The blaze destroyed the roof and all the contents of first floor staff rooms, and the bar area was severely damaged by water, but thankfully no-one was hurt.

Recent years

Notwithstanding the suspicious fire at Church Farm, Capel, which destroyed a hay barn in 2000, the fire at Tudeley Church Farm's former oast in 2017, the suspected arson on Moat Farm in March 2019, in which a huge stack of new picking bins and tree stakes valued at £70,000 was totally destroyed, sending up a plume of smoke which could be seen for miles around, and the popularity of wood-burning stoves which has been the cause of occasional chimney fires, there have been fewer accidental fires in recent years. This is thanks to changes in building regulations and farming practices, and the oft derided 'health and safety' rules, together with speedier response times from the Kent Fire Brigade whose aid we now take for granted. We must hope that, with the increasingly widespread use of such devices as smoke detectors, it will be many years before this parish experiences another serious fire.