The Great Fire of Colebrooke

The Great Fire of Colebrooke

At the western side of the churchyard, by the road leading up to the village hall, three rows of graves cover the area once occupied by a row of thatch cottages. On the afternoon of 24th August 1893 these cottages, including the grocer’s shop, were destroyed in one of the most massive conflagrations in Colebrooke. The alarm was raised by the schoolmaster Mr John Sharland who from his house beside the school (Chenery House) could see smoke rising at the back of one of the cottages occupied by retired farmer Mr John Cooper. Fanned by a strong breeze, the flames quickly spread through the rest of the houses.

A telegram was sent via Yeoford station to summon the Crediton Fire Brigade who arrived within half an hour after receiving the message. According to newspaper reports of the event, they were faced by a shortage of water when they arrived, but the only casualties were Mr William Kemp the shopkeeper’s flock of hens which couldn’t be saved. His dog escaped by jumping through the bedroom window. The villagers rallied round under the guidance of Mr Kemp, and together with Mr Francis Lee of Rowes Farm, who provided wagons, most of the cottagers' furniture and effects were ferried away to a safe haven in local barns. We have no pictures of the Colebrooke fire, but this is much as it might have looked the next day. An initial cause for alarm was the plight of the couple living in the top cottage, Sam Easterbrooke, who was incapacitated with a broken leg and his heavily pregnant wife, Sarah. However, they were saved and later moved into an empty cottage at Coleford (Tudor Cottage) where Sarah gave birth to Sidney six weeks later. Of the other occupants, Mrs Louisa Chudley, a widow, went to live for a while at the ill-fated Broomhill Cross cottages, which were burnt down in 1941. Mrs Harriett Hammett, an elderly widow, moved into what is now Bell Inn cottage, where she died in 1910. Mr Kemp and his family went to Easterbrooke in Penstone. However, he never enjoyed good health afterwards and died in August 1894 at the age of 38. His widow Alice and their four children moved to Exeter. Mr Cooper and his family moved into the bottom cottage of the row, which was empty and had miraculously escaped the fire. This cottage stood on the corner where cars park now. Mr Cooper died there in 1909 and his widow in 1919. After her death, the house fell into disrepair and had to be pulled down following numerous complaints about its dangerous condition.

(John Cooper was the father of Mary Ann Catherine Stoneman of Great Heale Farm known as Aunt Polly. After Aunt Polly’s death, John married his housekeeper, a young woman who had been looking after him and who had become pregnant!!. She was some 40 years younger. They moved from the small farm at Eastcoombehead into the cottage at Colebrooke. They had four children, the last being born when John was 80! He had the reputation as being a bit of an old rogue.)