May 20, 1892, was the blackest of days in the annals of Sixpenny Handley.
In a matter of hours, a fire that started in a wheelwright’s yard near the church spread to much of the village, destroying 49 houses and making 200 people homeless.
Damage was estimated at £10,000.
The wheelwright, who was clamping red hot iron rims on to huge wagon wheels, failed to spot that sparks were being carried away on the strong north-east wind.
‘Some of the burning material was carried by the wind on to some thatched cottages, and burning thatch from those was carried to others, and so on,’ recalled Helen Adams in an article published in 1972, when she was Handley’s oldest native inhabitant.
‘There had been a dry spell and there was a shortage of water, added to which the wooden well-heads were burnt so that the water in the wells could not be reached.’
The thatch was tinder dry and soon most of the village was on fire.
Most of the menfolk were away in the fields. Those that were left – tradesmen, old men, the parson and the doctor, along with women and children – battled against the flames and tried to rescue possessions.
But without water or proper fire appliances, the task was hopeless.
‘The fire, aided by the wind, seemed to be possessed with demonic cunning, sparing one part to descend upon another and then returning to devour what it had missed,’ wrote the Rev A Turing Bruce in an account of the disaster published 90 years ago.
‘It even pounced down upon the piles of household stuff to destroy them too.’
Among the properties consumed was a general store with large stocks of oil and candles.
Soon the whole village was cloaked in a vast cloud of dense, oily smoke.
One man was seen rushing out of a shed with his arms full of burning hens.
A small boy, told to help save his family’s possessions, emerged clutching his bread and cheese lunch, which he carefully buried in the garden.
The landlord of the Roebuck Inn is said to have saved his pub by offering free beer to everyone who helped him.
The Bishop of Salisbury sent a former Handley curate on a mercy mission to his former parish.
The envoy trudged sympathetically through the ruins, chatting to anyone he met, including an elderly woman, who gave him a graphic account of the fire.
When asked later about his response to the tragedy, the woman sniffed contemptuously.
‘The pa’s’n?’ she said. ‘He be no sense! What do ’ee think his text were on Sunday?’
In a rich Dorset accent, she proceeded to quote the text: ‘We went drew vire and water, but Thou hast brought us unto a wealthy place.’
‘Tis true there was fire enough but there weren’t no water to put it out. And I ask you, sir,’ said the old lady gesturing towards the smouldering ruins, ‘would ’ee call this a wealthy place?’
After the fire some families lived in army tents or shepherds’ huts until new houses could be built.
The disaster aroused great public sympathy and clothing and other gifts poured in.
In neighbouring villages, it was reckoned that you could tell a Handley man because he wore two or three waistcoats.
A public appeal was launched, attracting donations from far and wide.
‘So much was collected that when all claims had been met at least £1,000 was left over,’ wrote the Rev Bruce.
‘Unfortunately, so much squabbling arose about the further spending of this big balance that it was put into chancery where it has remained ever since.’
By: Roger Guttridge