The Fire at Englefield House
On Thursday 12 August 1886 a fire completely burnt out the interior of the Long Gallery, although not the front part of the House as falsely reported by some sources. A smaller fire had started in the scullery of Englefield House on 21 October 1843 at about four o'clock in the morning but was discovered by a carter going to market and extinguished before the engine from Reading could get there. No harm was done on that occasion except to some furniture damaged in being removed.
The following is an edited version of the newspaper report of the 1886 fire.
About 3.30 pm a bricklayer, who was engaged on one portion of the mansion, which was undergoing repair, discovered a quantity of smoke, followed by flames, issuing from near a stack of chimneys on the roof of that portion of the house in which the Long Gallery is situated, and above which are the servants apartments. An alarm was raised, information being at once sent to the timber yard on the estate. Mr Rhind, the clerk of the works who happened to be in the yard the time, with assistance got out the manual engine and quickly attached the hose to a service pipe near the tower entrance. The engine from Chalk Pit Farm, in charge of Mr A Shrimpton, arrived at the same time and did excellent work. In the meantime the fire engines had been telegraphed for, the message being received in Reading by about five o'clock.
Mr. Benyon was at Englefield House at the time of the outbreak and Mrs. Benyon, who was accompanied by her daughter, was driving along the Bath Road towards Ufton Court for the purpose of attending a garden party when she noticed smoke of an extraordinary volume issuing from the house. She drove back with all speed to Englefield and prevailed upon her husband, who unfortunately is suffering from rheumatism, to leave the house and go to the Rectory at Englefield where he remained all the evening and during the night, the Rev ALC Heigham (the Rector) rendering every assistance his power. A band of willing workers from the village and neighbourhood, with the household servants, was soon organised and under the personal supervision of Mrs. Benyon (who throughout the trying time acted with commendable coolness and deliberation) the contents of the Long Gallery, where were hung some splendid art treasures, were removed on to the lawn and the gardens adjacent, and we are pleased to say that the pictures, notwithstanding the rather rough usage which was inevitable such a crisis, remain almost intact. When the outbreak became known in Theale and the villages around people flocked in and proffered their aid, which was gladly accepted.
There are several hydrants at Englefield, and immediately the tidings became known hose was applied by the servants, and was brought into play, but the flames spread so rapidly that the roof of this wing of the building was soon enveloped in flames. The fire worked downwards, and in a short space of time the servants' bedrooms, the laundry, and the Long Gallery were in flames, this being the old portion of the house. A large quantity of water was thrown on to the flames and, although every effort was made by Mr Rhind and the men under him to save the wing, it was evidently doomed from the first. On the arrival of the Reading Volunteer Brigade, with their steam engine, under the Captain, Mr John Wheeler junr - the time occupied from the reception of the call to the arrival at Englefield being 65 minutes - they ran out their hose, which was placed in pond in the rear of the conservatory, and from whence an ample supply of water was obtained, and they confined their attention to that side of the mansion. By this means a great quantity of water was thrown on to the burning mass and soon sensible reduction was made in the extent of the conflagration.
About the same time that the Volunteer steamer commenced work, the "County" engine, from Reading, under the direction of the energetic Messrs Wheeler, got into play, deriving their supply of water from the same source. In quick succession came the splendid little steam engine from Maiden Erlegh - admirably manned, and captained by Mr Frederick Stallworthy (steward to Mr. John Hargreaves) - and a manual fire engine given by Mr Benyon for the Mortimer people, which is stationed at Church Farm, Mortimer. The Maiden Erlegh engine arrived within 40 minutes of receiving the call, which was made by telephone from the Kennels in the Bath Road. The two latter engines were placed at the lake, which is situated a short distance in front of the mansion, and the Maiden Erlegh steamer having an excellent run of hose, the two engines combined, the leather being brought over the terrace into the yard by the tower, with splendid supply of water, good service was rendered on that side of the house. Notwithstanding the efforts of firemen and others, the flames got a very strong hold of the building, and fears were entertained lest it might spread to the principal portions of the house, including the library, dining and drawing, reception, billiard, and other rooms, but owing to very great exertions and able management on the part of the brigades, the front of the house was saved.
In consequence of the close proximity of the flames to the walls dividing the two wings it was thought advisable to remove the contents of the rooms, and the lawns were quickly strewed with furniture, ornaments, pictures, statuary, and other valuables, including Mrs. Benyon's jewellery, all of which were placed the care of the Berks Constabulary, under Supt Pocock of Reading, who was driving in the neighbourhood, and who arrived on the scene about five o'clock. Unfortunately, in the excitement, many articles of furniture, &c, were thrown from the windows to the ground, and were much damaged. The fire assumed alarming proportions during the evening, the Newbury Fire Brigade was telegraphed for and they arrived, with their steamer, about 11.30, Mr Wilson, the captain, being in command. With copious supply of water from the lake in front of the house, they brought their hose and played on to the roof of the burning wing, one of the engines thus being relieved. A never-failing stream of water was poured on to the fire from different directions, and soon after midnight it was seen that a mastery had been obtained over the flames, which from that time decreased until about four o'clock, when all fears of the fire spreading were at an end.
The Newbury Brigade left between five and six o'clock, the Maiden Erlegh having preceded them by several hours. Some of the members of the Reading Volunteer Fire Brigade and the Messrs Wheeler with the "County" remained until eight o'clock, at which hour there were no signs of a further outbreak, and they left for Reading. Three of the Reading Volunteer Fire Brigade had a narrow escape while engaged in one of the lower rooms, the ceiling falling upon them, but fortunately they did not receive much injury. It is uncertain in which particular spot the fire originated - the laundry, the kitchen, or in one of the servants' bedrooms, and it will probably remain a mystery. The wing destroyed was, as mentioned above, the old portion of the house, and much historical interest was associated with it. In this wing were the celebrated Long Gallery, King Charles' room, the laundry, kitchens, servants' apartments, &c, all of which are completely gutted, only the bare walls remaining. The servants, unfortunately, have lost the greater part of their property. When the fire was discovered to be of a serious nature precautions were at once taken to turn off the gas at the meter, so as to prevent any explosion. A considerable amount of rain fell during the night, and every available covering was obtained for the furniture placed on the lawn and in the gardens. A very large number of persons visited the fire, and remained the greater part of the night, and Supt Pocock with 12 men had no slight task in preventing the crowd from coming into the gardens and elsewhere. In speaking of the ready help rendered by persons many of whom were wet to the skin, we must not omit to mention the names of M. Todd (estate agent), Mr Rhind (clerk of the works), Mr Shrimpton (home farm), Mr Coombes (head gardener at Englefield House), Mr Chiselham (butler); and M. W. Hawley, Mr C. Witherington, Mr Hart (Sulhampstead), Mr Jenkin Davis, Mr. W. Chillingworth (Bradfield), Mr Buoknell (Ufton), Mr W. Holloway, Mr Whatley, &c. The fire Brigades deserve great praise for their promptitude in trning out at short notice and with rendering invaluable assistance. Yesterday (Friday) morning the whole of the articles taken out of the mansion on the previous night were returned to the house; but the rooms are in chaotic state of confusion.
A similar fire also destroyed part of the roof and attics at Mr Benyon's London house, 17 Grosvenor Square, just three years later.
The Fire Brigade
© 2021 Richard J Smith
One of the hand-operated pumps