Driving along Leighton Buzzard Road out of Hemel Hempstead, you may have seen the *Totternhoe stone walls of Gaddesden Place, peeking over the green fields and overlooking the River Gade. Built in 1774, Gaddesden Place has been the seat of the Halsey family for centuries, its most notable resident being Sir Thomas Frederick Halsey, 1st Baronet. Sir Thomas was the Conservative MP for Hertfordshire serving in the post until 1885 and then serving for Watford until 1906.
However, on the night of February 1st, 1905, a fire would break out in this magnificent building, which had been his family’s home for two centuries, initiating change and technological development in the small ill-equipped fire brigade which Hemel Hempstead relied upon at that time.
Early in the morning of February 1st, a fire started near the main heating boiler, the results of which included enormous damage leaving nothing but portions of bare walls. The Butler and the Footman died in the fire. Others, including the local police constables and firemen, had narrow escapes.
At the time of the fire, the house was being rented by Sir John Kerr MP and his family. Sir John’s daughter Margot was sleeping in a room on the second floor and was awoken by the presence of smoke. ** She immediately called her father and at ‘4:05am the whole household was in a state of commotion … all the occupants of the house escaped as quickly as possible in the first garments they could lay their hands upon. Stewards at Home Farm dressed and mounted a horse then galloped into Hemel Hempstead for the fire brigade.’ The Gazette reported that the ‘electric communication from the fire engine station to the members was put into action at 4:23am and in a few minutes Captain Hancock with Lieutenant Williams and all the members of the brigade were on their way to the scene with driver Allison having horsed the engine very smartly.’
The Town’s volunteer fire brigade used horse-drawn engines with hand-operated pumps to extinguish fires. Private fire brigades were usually much wealthier and could afford steam driven engines. Thankfully, The John Dickinson Paper Mill’s own steamer had arrived a little past 5am and helped to distinguish the fire. Later it was reported at 7am, other brigades arrived; one, for example, came from Berkhamsted and used manual pump engines to help to put the fire out.
The Dickinson’s steamer took a position at the River Gade, 700 yards away and commenced pumping operations from the river into a dam outside the carriage entrance. From here, the manuals were worked and jets were taken into the burning mansion.
The steamer was described to work ‘splendidly’. However, to pump water through the hose up the steep incline from the river to the house created high pressure. The hose ended up bursting and disconnecting in many places, which must have been frustrating for the men working that day. When the fire was at its height, the reflection could be seen for miles around. It was said that the illumination from a two-mile distance was so bright, it was possible to read a newspaper. As the day wore on and the firemen battled the flames, the people of Hemel Hempstead and the surrounding villages gathered by the hundreds to witness the spectacle.
By the evening, the fire was diminishing. The main block of the building was now a shell, but the wings had been saved, and up until then everyone from the household had escaped the fire. Even some of the belongings, such as some of Sir Thomas’s very rare and valuable books and artworks, had been saved. The brigades that were still on site continued to water the red-hot bricks and put out the smaller outbreaks of fire which reignited on any remaining timber.
The expensive contents of the wine cellar had been cleared out and were being guarded over by one of the local policemen, at the request of the servants. Later in the afternoon of February 1st, the cases of wine were carried back to the cellar under the instruction of the Butler William Paton. The wine cellar was directly under the carriage entrance, a substantial arch being the main support for water and debris which had been collected above.
This was when more misfortune befell Gaddesden Place. As it was being debated between the Butler William Paton, the Footman James Smart and the firemen whether it was a good idea to once again remove the wine to safety, the ceiling collapsed.
In the next newsletter, we will set out the accounts of what happened to William and James. Then we will research in The Gazette and investigate how the town wanted to improve the resources for the volunteers of the Hemel Hempstead Fire Brigade. It was agreed that after this tragedy they needed new steam operated engines, but how were such expensive machines to be funded?
* Totternhoe stone is a chalk-based stone found in the Chilterns. It can be seen in the walls of Woburn Abbey and in some decorative carvings at St Albans Cathedral and in the altar screen of Westminster Abbey.
**Margot had recently been married to the British Army officer and first-class cricketer, Captain Henry Baird. It was reported in The Gazette that her dress and those of her bridesmaids, jewellery and presents were all destroyed in the fire.