Fire Brigade Society report of Coleshill House fire

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Web page article


Compiled by Mike Smith, Editorial Team, from a report in the January 1953 edition of "Fire".

The article was kindly provided by "Fire Cover Magazine". The Fire Brigade Society Journal.


Compiled by Mike Smith, Editorial Team, from a report in the January 1953 edition of "Fire".

The construction of Coleshill House was believed to have commenced in 1650. The building was situated on high ground in an extensive estate some 3.5 miles from Faringdon and some 9.5 miles from Swindon. It was a large structure in which timber had been extensively used. Fire precautions within the house included the deployment of fire extinguishers (soda-acid type) and some small-bore internal hydrants, with hose, fed from a tank in the roof. However, the tank seems to have been installed in such a way as to be singularly ineffective.

There were no public water mains to the house (the nearest 6" main was 3.5 miles away), an immediate water supply being available from an ornamental fishpond in the grounds some 60' from the house and holding some 3000 gallons. Additional water could be obtained from the River Cole some 2400' away. At the time, this river marked the boundary between the counties of Wiltshire and Berkshire. Access to the river was not easy and it was 200' below the level of the house.

Over the summer of 1952 major renovation work was proceeding at Coleshill House. During the afternoon of 23rd September workmen were burning off paint with blowlamps. They were working on paintwork around upper floor dormer windows. It appears that fire extinguishers had been deployed in the vicinity of this work and buckets of water had been provided as an additional precaution.

At about 1500 a workman smelled smoke but could see no sign of fire. A minute or so later however, he saw a puff of smoke followed by flames from a dormer window. An attempt was then made to deal with his fire using the internal hoses, but there was no pressure. Soda-acid extinguishers were then used, but several were faulty.

Further attempts at fire fighting were then made using buckets of water. These were ineffective and the fire had, by now, taken a firm hold, fanned by a strong wind. At this point the attention of a man mowing the lawns appears to have been drawn to the fire and it is believed that he called the fire brigade.

There is no doubt that this was a, "delayed call". Some 40 plus minutes appear to have elapsed between the first hint of fire and the call to the fire service. Communications were nowhere near as sophisticated then as now and although Coleshill House was in Berkshire, the fire call was taken by Wiltshire Fire Brigade at Swindon fire station. There was a predetermined first attendance for the house - PE and WrT from Swindon and pump (possibly an ATV and TrP) and WrT from Faringdon (then Berkshire & Reading Fire Brigade, today Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service). It is not clear who operated Faringdon's siren and call bells - it may have been Swindon. In the event, Faringdon could not raise enough men to turn out both appliances and the WrT proceeded on its own - getting away within a remarkable three minutes of the alert sounding. To make up the full PDA, Gloucestershire was asked to send a pump from Fairford.

The Faringdon WrT was the first appliance to arrive. It seems, Jn keeping with its speedy departure, to have made very good time, sending back an assistance message (a telephone would have to have been found to do this)-"Make pumps 4, turntable ladder required", at 1600. This resulted in pumping appliances being ordered on from Abingdon and Wantage (both towns then in Berkshire) and from Bampton, Oxfordshire.

The TL from Swindon was also mobilised. At 1642 a "Make pumps 8 " message was sent - bringing on pumps from Didcot (also then in Berkshire), Hungerford, Berkshire and Witney, Oxfordshire. CFO Taylor of Berkshire & Reading Fire Brigade, had arrived form his HQ in Reading to take command and, at 1710, he made pumps 10 and requested a second TL. The pumps for this make up came from Ramsbury (Wiltshire Fire Brigade) and Newbury. Oxford City Fire Brigade supplied the TL.

Five fire brigades - Berkshire & Reading, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Oxford City had now been involved in mobilising 15 appliances from 12 stations to this job. Four of the attending stations-Swindon, Didcot, Newbury and Oxford had whole time personnel, the rest were fully retained. Almost half the crews attending had had to travel over 15 miles to the fire, with Newbury clocking up 28 miles.

Initial fire fighting fell on the shoulders of the crews from Faringdon and Swindon - almost literally so, molten lead flowing from the roof was a severe problem. Two lines of hose were got to work from Faringdon's WrT and from the WrT from Swindon. Swindon's PE set into the fishpond and a line of hose was taken up the escape.

This was transferred to the TL from Swindon when that appliance arrived on the fire ground. Reinforcing pumps were directed to the River Cole. However, given its distance from the fire and the higher level of the latter, only two "fair" jets could be provided from this source. But a light trailer pump was "dismounted" on the riverbank and used to supply three WrTs, which operated a shuttle to the fire ground.

In spite of the fire fighters' efforts the fire continued to spread. At 1700 it was decided to withdraw all personnel from the building. This was done just in time before a major roof collapse took place.
With the arrival of the last of the reinforcing pumps further relays were set up from the river. These produced an additional three jets - one of which was deployed from the Oxford TL.

At 2230 two of the massive brick and stone chimneys collapsed into the building. Prior to this virtually of the whole of the structure had become involved in fire, but the "Stop" was sent at about 2215. In sending it CFO Taylor added, "Am now proceeding to the 5 pump fire at Shrivenham", suggesting that there was another significant fire under way at the same time and in the relatively near vicinity.

By 2241 it was possible to dispense with one of the water relays and by 2358 only one relay was left in
operation. The use of large amounts of dry timber in the roof; heavy lead covering, also in the roof, which
insulated and retained heat in the upper parts of the house; extensive cavities between panelling and walls, which assisted fire spread and a glass cupola which collapsed into the hall at an early stage in the blaze, all contributed to the intensity and extent of the fire and to difficulties in fighting it. These factors were compounded by the serious shortage of water. CFO Taylor commented that even a 4" main at the house and a larger fishpond would have provided enough water for the initial Faringdon and Swindon appliances to have held the fire in the roof. But, as it was, a part of the nation's heritage was, in spite of heroic efforts on the part of the fire fighters, totally destroyed.

Glossary Of Terms Used Above

PE          Pump Escape - fire appliance with pump and 50 or 60 foot ladder which was moved into position on a large wheeled carriage.

WrT       Water Tender- a standard British fire appliance evolved from wartime experience, carrying pump, hose, ladders, etc and 400 gallons of water. The 1952 version is likely to have been of pretty basic construction.

ATV       Auxiliary Towing Vehicle - a wartime fire appliance; virtually all of these that remained in post war service were on the Austin 2 ton chassis. As originally configured, they were vans with a ladder gantry carrying crew, hose, etc and towing a trailer pump (TrP). After the war many were modified by the fitting of a 100 gallon water tank, hosereel and small pump driven by the road engine. They still towed the trailer pump and remained in service, particularly in rural areas, until the 1960s/70s.

TrP         Trailer pump - pump, often Dennis or Coventry Climax, on towed two wheeled chassis.

PDA        Predetermined attendance - a specified number and types of fire appliance automatically turned out to a call to a particular fire risk.

TL           Turntable ladder - self supporting, mechanically extending and swivelling, ladder, usually at least 100 feet when fully extended.

CFO     Chief Fire Officer