The Stratton Fire of 1857

In 2006, while going through old copies of the Swindon Advertiser, Graham came across accounts of a major fire at Stratton in 1857, which destroyed a cottage occupied by a James Carter. We know from census returns that this was our great great great grandfather, and have pieced together the story as we know it so far. We are planning a trip to Trowbridge to find out more details about Stratton in those days.
The Stratton fire of June 28, 1857 was probably the largest ever seen in the Stratton/Swindon area as it destroyed eight cottages and various outbuildings - and might have affected the whole village if the weather had been less favourable.

Although nobody died in the fire, it must have traumatised the people involved - not least James Carter, our great great great grandfather, who lived in one of the cottages destroyed that day.

According to the 1851 census, he was a greengrocer, although the report of the fire, six years later, describes him as a general dealer. He did not own the cottage, but he lost valuable possessions in the fire, apparently including his stock.

Although the worst destruction was close to the Crown, the fire started in Swindon Road - possibly close to its junction with what is now called Ermin Street but was then known as Stratton Street. The map shows the area affected by the fire but dates from about 20 years after the fire - some time after 1875.
Despite the information in the reports of the fire in the Advertiser, below, we are still not absolutely sure of the exact location of the cottages. However, as James Carter's cottage was reported as being "immediately opposite" the Crown, it's probable that the site of it is close to an old footpath which is now a road - Hobley Drive.

Although the Carter family were later associated with Upper Stratton, they first came to this area near the Crown, which is usually known as either Stratton St Margaret or Lower Stratton.

James Carter was orginally from Stanton Fitzwarren, where he was baptised on May 28, 1815 - exactly three weeks before the Battle of Waterloo.

By the time of the 1841 census, he had moved to Stratton, and we don't know why, but his timing was good because Stratton was about to undergo a boom because of the Great Western Railway's Paddington to Bristol line, which reached Swindon in December 1840. This timing must have been a stroke of luck because it would have taken extraordinary foresight on his part to anticipate the impact of the railway on Stratton.

Most of this impact was due to the GWR's decision to build its Railway Works at Swindon, but as even Brunel didn't know this was going to happen until September 1841, it's unlikely that James Carter could have guessed what a blessing it would be for the local economy. Although he never worked for the GWR himself, many people in Stratton did, including his sons, and as a dealer he would have been able to cash in on a suddenly prosperous neighbourhood.

By 1851, James was living with Ann Sellwood (née Mills). She had been married previously and was probably still married to her previous husband, whom we are almost certain was called Joseph Selwood.
In the meantime, according to census records, Ann was James's housekeeper, although there was clearly much more to the relationship because they had several children together, including our great great grandfather, Albert Edward Carter, before they finally married in 1859.

One of the children of Ann's previous marriage - and therefore James Carter's step-son was Edwin Selwood. He was still living at home when the 1851 census was taken, but had apparently moved out by the time of the fire because he is mentioned in the report as living next door.

A detail of the 1851 census is shown below. Notice how James Carter's occupation of greengrocer has been entered on the wrong line, while Albert Carter is recorded as a daughter, Alberta! The census was compiled by an official enumerator and we are certain that in this case he made a mistake.

Also living at Stratton at this time were various Adamses - all of whom are probably ancestors because our great grandfather, Albert John Carter, later married Kate Adams.

The John Adams who is mentioned in the report of the fire is therefore almost certainly some kind of future relation, although we haven't yet established exactly where he might fit into the family tree.

Fortunately for us, the Swindon Advertiser was established in 1854, just three years before the fire, so we get quite a good account of what happened. In those days it was published weekly.

The first report of the fire appeared in the Swindon Advertiser of June 29, 1857 - the day after it happened (but note that some of the details are corrected in the second report).

Under the headline 'Great fire at Stratton', the report reads:

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, about eleven o'clock, a fire of a most destructive character broke out in the village of Stratton St Margaret, by which eight cottages, some stables and out-buildings, two ricks of straw, and one of hay, and other property were totally destroyed.

It appears that at about the time mentioned a man, sitting on the door-step of the cottage adjoining the Crown inn, perceiving smoke rising from the rick yard belonging to David Archer, Esq., on the Swindon road, about 150 yards distant, immediately ran to the yard where he discovered one of the straw ricks to be on fire, but so slightly that a bucket of water would have put it out.

He immediately ran to some cottages on the opposite side of the road for a bucket of water, but some little delay occurring before he could obtain any, the fire had gained a complete mastery over the rick and was spreading furiously.

Close adjoining the burning rick was a second straw rick, a barn, and at a short distance off, a rick of old hay. The yard was bounded on one side by out-houses belonging to Mrs. Stone, butcher, and on another side by a cottage in the occupation of John Adams.

In a very brief space of time the fire had destroyed the two straw ricks and the barn, and had ignited the hay rick, the cottage, and Mrs. Stone's premises.

Although there was but little wind at the time, in consequence of the lightness of the burning mass large flakes of fire was flying about in all directions. Had there been any wind it is exceedingly probable that the whole village would now have been in ruins, for within twenty yards on the west side of the yard was a farm house and out-buildings, all thatched; facing on the south is a house in the occupation of Mr. Morse, Draper and Grocer, five cottages and out-buildings belonging to a brewery, close adjoining, leading to Swindon; whilst running southward from Mr. Morse's premises there is, with only a few feet occasionally intervening, at least one hundred thatched houses and cottages.

The fire, however, moved in the direction of a much less thickly populated part of the village. On the east side of the fire are a number of cottages running up by the Crown, on the Highworth road, with thatched roofs. The thatch on the roofs of three of those cottages was quickly on fire, but fortunately many persons had now arrived on the spot, the people had all rushed from the church, and the Rev. Mr. Jones, who at the time was conducting the service, was in a few minutes afterwards on the roofs of the houses labouring hard to quench the fire, and continued to be so engaged until all danger was over.

Whilst the people were engaged at those cottages, the clubroom, stables, and out-buildings at the back of the Crown had caught fire, as well as four adjoining cottages, respectively in the occupation of William Wilkins, Widow Hunt, Samuel Sturman, and Martha Pinnock.

The fire at this point raged with great fury, and in a very short time completely gutted the whole of the buildings, the Crown having a slate roof was fortunately saved, as was also several adjoining houses.

A house and two cottages immediately opposite, however, caught fire, and were soon a mass of ruins. These houses were respectively in the occupation of James Carter (a general dealer, who, we hear, lost fourteen pounds worth of postage stamps in addition to a large stock in trade), Edwin Selwood, and Charles Brett.

Fortunately through the prompt arrival of the Old and New Swindon and the Highworth fire engines several houses, including the post office was most miraculously preserved.

After the fire had been subdued, on looking round the scene was as desolating and heart-rending as it is well possible to conceive. For some distance around the ground was literally strewn with beds, bedsteads, and other articles of furniture, frantically torn away from the neighbouring cottages; here and there a man or woman bearing off some more valued article to some place of greater security.

Here and there some children lugging away at some piece of furniture, probably the chief remnant of their house and home.

Here and there men, women and children, who, as the night drew on would have to seek a strange place on which to lay their heads. Desolation was here more striking than on the barren heath or arid plain.

The promptness with which assitance was rendered is worthy of all praise: The Rev. Mr. Jones, David Archer, Esq., Mr. Superintendent Haynes and the men in charge of the several fire engines, a number of the able-bodied men and women from the workhouse, under the guidance of the porter and labor superintendent, Messrs. Hill and Argyle, and the inhabitants generally, are deserving of all praise for the prompt manner in which they volunteered their services: but for this prompt action the whole village would have been destroyed.

Two further reports appeared a week later (July 6, 1857), under the heading 'Stratton St Margaret'.

This includes a reference to a house belonging to Joseph Carter, which is confusing. This is probably an error for several reasons, including the fact that no Joseph Carter appears in any other records we have checked. It is possible that it was erroneously referring to Joseph Selwood and this would be understandable because his step-father was a Carter - but this would seem unlikely because Joseph Selwood (Ann's son by her first husband) was only 21 years old at the time and therefore probably too young to be a householder.

The most likely explanation is that it should have read James Carter, particularly as we know from the first report that his home was destroyed in the fire, yet he does not otherwise appear in the second report. Besides, what is reported does tie in with details about James Carter in the first report.

The fire at this village on Sunday last happening so shortly before the publication of our last week's paper, we were prevented from more than briefly alluding to the particulars.

A correspondent has since kindly furnished us with the following more detailed account.

In the account given last week of the alarming and destructive fire at Stratton St. Margaret, the seriousness of the damage is not at all overstated; the losses which some of the poor have sustained from that disaster are indeed very great and distressing; no small quantity of their furniture was consumed by the flames, and the remainder was so bruised and broken while it was being carried from their homes to a place of safety, as to be rendered almost useless.

No less than eight houses have been burnt to the ground, not to speak of a barn, and a rick of hay, and a rick of straw, and other property belonging to David Archer, Esq., besides all the back premises behind Mrs. Stone's house, and part of a rick of hay belonging to Mr. Morse, and the stables and outhouses in the yard of the Crown Inn, and two conveyances that were in the yard at the time. There were however in the account of last week two or three misstatements, which though unimportant in themselves, it might be as well here to correct :

The Rev. C. Nesfield, the vicar, was doing duty in the church when the fire was first announced, and not the Rev. Latimer Jones, as that account gave.

The reported loss of the postage stamps was also incorrect.

No satisfactory information respecting the origin of the fire has as yet been obtained; a flame was first seen to arise from a rick of straw in Mr Archer's yard, and before any assistance could be brought, it had spread to the barn which began to burn so fiercely that all attempts to rescue it were hopeless; it made its way along the barn with wonderful rapidity and attacked the slaughter house, the house itself having a slate roof was not destroyed.

Flakes of fire were carried by the wind to the opposite side of the street, where they first alighted on the roof of the house in which Mr. Habgood lived; the house would certainly have been burnt to the ground had it not been for the unceasing exertions of the Rev. Mr. Jones, and several others, and among them especially Mr. Archer's servant, who never left the roof of the house till the last spark was put out.

The thatch of the nearest house very soon became ignited, and the fire was making considerable progress all along the roof in different parts of it, till it was checked and eventually extinguished by the timely assistance of William Dunn with the help of a water machine which was conducted by the son of Mr. White, the brewer.

A row of seven or eight houses, immediately adjoining, all of them with thatched roofs, were, of course, in great danger, for flakes of fire had alighted in several places on them. The furniture was hurried out in the greatest haste, and the confusion which followed may be easier imagined than described; the whole row however was saved, owing entireley to the vigilance and activity of those who were on the roof.

Fortunately the fire spread no further towards that end of the village, but it made rapid progress in the direction of the Crown Inn. The house of Mr. Fisher, the postman, had a very narrow escape. All the back premises and stables of the Crown were very soon in flames: a ladder was immediately placed against the slate roof of the inn, and the Rev. Mr. Jones, and Mr. John Lewis, who was as active and useful as any one at whatever part of the fire he was present, and many others with them ascended the ladder at the peril of their lives, and continued to throw water on to the stables.

In spite of such exertions these places were finally given up as hopeless, and attention was next directed to a row of four cottages on the other side of the inn.

By this time the Swindon fire engine had arrived and all efforts were now directed to supplying it with water : a long line of people in double column was formed from the engine to a well which was at the distance of about a hundred yards up the Highworth road.

As soon as that well was drained the length of the line had to be doubled, for which purpose additional hands were obtained from the Union Workhouse, the Vicar, Mr. Archer, Mr. Day, and others assisted in giving directions. The row of people now extended some distance up the Highworth road, and buckets of water were passed down from the new well unsparingly, but in spite of the powerful assistance thus rendered scarcely anything but stone walls were left standing.

The house opposite the Crown on the other side of the street, in which Joseph Carter lived, was burnt to the ground; a flake of fire had lighted on it accidentally, and had there been a ladder at disposal one bucket of water could have put it out, but as the fire received no check, in about half-an-hour's time nothing but the four walls were remaining.

A man of the name of Hyde made a violent effort to save the house and approached so near the flames that his clothes took fire and he was severely burnt.

Two cottages on the Cricklade road were set on fire in the same way, and here a man of the name of Richard Hunt advanced so boldly to try and rescue them that his shirt caught fire his conduct is deserving of the highest praise and admiration. Here the disaster stopped, for people were now standing on the tops of their houses, and putting out any flame immediately when it appeared. By the help of the Swindon and Highworth fire engines all the neighbouring thatched houses were well drenched with water to prevent any further danger.

The people in the street behaved all through the fire with the greatest boldness and determination, many women as well as men; there were also men who worked incessantly at the pumps and wells, whose names are especially deserving of mention, and, if they were known, would certainly be mentioned in this place.

In the evening of the following day, Monday, measures were at once taken towards ascertaining the amount of the losses which the poor people had severally sustained; the examination of the damages has been conducted by the Vicar, Mr. Ellborough, Mr John Lewis, Mr. Harry Fisher, and Mr. Rd. Fisher.

It is hoped that within a short time most of these losses will be made up to the poor, and there will be a general contribution in the village in order to raise a fund sufficient to meet the expenses.

Mr W. Morris, of Westcott Place, has also sent to say that he, in company with two other young men of New Swindon, was the first to discover the fire and raise the alarm.
On Friday evening last a public meeting of the inhabitants was held at the Crown Inn, the Rev. C. Nesfield in the chair, for the purpose of ascertaining the amount of damage and loss sustained by the working people and tradesmen in consequence of the fire of Sunday last.

The meeting was attended by all the principal inhabitants and rate payers of the parish, who at once entered into a subscription for the immediate relief of the poorer sufferers, and to defray the necessary costs and expenses incurred at the fire.

Thirty pounds were subscribed at the meeting, and the subscription is still going on throughout the village and neighbourhood.

The claims made to the committee, appointed at the meetings by the working people for loss of furniture and clothes amount to about twenty pounds, most of which will be paid immediately.

The ascertained losses by tradesmen is represented to be nearly one hundred pounds: about fifty pounds worth of stock-in-trade, and other articles, the committee are anxious to make good.

Claims of firemen, and actual costs of necessary refreshments, loss of articles used in extinguishing the fire, the committee believe will amount to thirty pounds.

D. Archer, Esq., is the greatest loser of buildings and other property. Mr. D. Yeates has lost a large cottage, stable, and other buildings, not insured. The four cottages adjoining the Crown Inn, with the stables and back sheds are all reduced to ruins: the Inn being slated was saved by the people with the assistance of the fire engines: this property being insured it is hoped Mr. Pavy, the owner, will not be a loser. Mr. William Barnes' two cottages opposite the Inn, and adjoining Mr. Yeate's cottage, were consumed, or mostly so, being thatched, and whilst the adjoining cottage, which is slated, stood amidst the burning straw the people were enabled to throw water upon the floors and timber which, to a certain extent, stayed the fire from extending further up the street or road. Mr. Barnes is, we believe, fully insured to the extent of his loss.

The property saved by the exertions of the people and by the engines is as follows:- Crown inn, Mr. Pavy, owner; slated cottage opposite, belonging to Mr. Wm. Barnes; two slated cottages adjoining the Crown, belonging to Mr. Joseph Gay; three thatched cottages belonging to Mr R. Fisher; thatched house and buildings adjoining, belonging to Mr. James Pinnegar; three thatched cottages belonging to Mr. Farmer; two thatched cottages and barn belonging to Mr. Joseph Gay; and a slated house belonging to David Archer, Esq.

The committee believe the several fire offices, and the owners of such properties as were saved by the exertions of the people will pay the actual expenses of the day, they therefore only hope the public will be liberal to those persons who actually have suffered in goods and personal property, namely the working and tradespeople.

It is conjectured the fire originated in a spark which fell upon the stack of straw in the rick yard from some adjoining house or cottage.

How James Carter managed to recover, financially, from the fire is not known, but in the 1861 census he appears in Cricklade Road - almost certainly part of what is now Ermin Street. This is literally round the corner from the scene of the fire and should not be confused with the Cricklade Road that skirts Upper Stratton, passing the Moonrakers pub.

It appears from the report of the meeting to ascertain losses, above, that the cottage had been owned by William Barnes - who became James Carter's nextdoor neighbour by 1861 (and lists his occupation as 'gent').

Although James Carter would not have been liable for damage to the building, he would have lost a significant amount of stock - and at this time it was the exception rather than the rule for people to insure the contents of houses. He may have relied, more than most, on the generosity of the local disaster fund to get him back on his feet.

He was back trading as a general dealer in 1861, as the census shows, is recorded as a dealer again in 1866, a fish salesman in 1871 and a greengrocer again in 1881.

Both James and Ann were still living in Cricklade Road, Lower Stratton, in 1881, when both were in their seventies. This was a good age for the time, so they clearly suffered no ill effects from the trauma of the fire. We believe they died during the 1880s because they do not appear in the census of 1891.

As far as we know, they never left the area, but their son, Albert Edward Carter, moved to Upper Stratton in or about 1878.


Mr White, the brewer referred to in the report, was Richard White, the proprietor of the Star Brewery in Swindon Road, which existed from an unknown date in the 18th Century until it was almalgamated with the Beaufort Brewery of Old Town, Swindon - an unsuccessful move that led to the business being wound up in 1896. Part of the brewery still exists, close to the traffic lights at the junction of Swindon Road and Hobley Drive, and is now the T&GWU offices.

The Crown was a comparatively new building in 1857. An inn called the Sow and Piggs had stood on the site since at least 1767, but changed its name to the Crown in 1792. At that time it was three former cottages, but was replaced by the current building in 1832. From this date it was owned by the Pavy family - as mentioned in the report of the fire - and they eventually sold it to Arkell's in 1868.

Mr Morse, the draper and grocer who is mentioned in the reports, was Charles Morse. His department store in Regent Street, Swindon, a chain of other shops in the south-west and a large mail order business, later made the Morse family one of the most prominent in Swindon. Charles's son, Levi Lapper Morse, was Swindon's second mayor and an MP, and the family lived at the Croft, a mansion in Old Town. Ron Carter, our uncle, later worked at Morse's warehouse in Rodbourne, as did Graham Carter, briefly, in 1980, by which time the firm had been taken over by Kay's.