Fire at Hall Place – 28 November 1940 (Part 1)
Taken from a copy of Threads – the Magazine of the House of I & R Morley Ltd – dated April 1946: this was sent to the Society by Jennie James, a descendant of Albert (Bert) Humphrey who lived at 2 Waterworks Cottages. The original article was written by Alfie Houghton, Estate Manager of Hall Place. The full article is now in the Leigh Historical Society archives.
“The Sirens wailed all around – Tonbridge, Southborough, Tunbridge Wells, Edenbridge, Sevenoaks. The time was 6.15pm, the date November 28th 1940. The usual shiver went down my spine and, as usual, my wife and I – the family abed – settled down for the evening. But it was to be far from normal.”
This is the opening paragraph of an article in Threads Magazine – on that night, 28 November 1940, the chimney of the housekeeper’s room at Hall Place had been giving trouble but the local firemen had been unable to find anything seriously wrong. However, by 8pm the Leigh Fire Brigade was on the scene trying to locate a fire which had broken out in one of the second floor bedrooms. In addition, it was soon realized that that one of the gardeners, who had been having a bath, was trapped in the tower and unable to find his way through the smoke to come down the 167-step spiral staircase: fortunately, an extension ladder was soon obtained and he was rescued through one of the tiny windows of the tower.
The Leigh Fire Brigade was, however, unable to cope due to the lack of both hose and engine power: it had been using a fountain pond in the garden for its water supply but this soon ran out. A call had to be made to the district fire brigade and they began to draw water from the 13 acre lake. The fire was relentless and increased its hold, with smoke so dense that it was difficult to see what was happening. With the National Fire Service on the scene, eight engines were soon in action and with more hoses available the fire could be attacked from both inside and out – but it still spread. The order had to be given to clear the house of its furniture and fittings.
Alfie Houghton writes: “Lord Hollenden immediately organized a force to cart away part of his library, which he particularly prized, and the rest of us – employees, local police, villagers and sightseers – set to work with a will to carry furniture, carpets, pictures, in fact everything in sight in the semi-darkness out on to the back lawn”.
Staying at Hall Place on this night were also a dozen London evacuees as well as a number of Morley employees including some wives who were “enjoying the hospitality of Lord and Lady Hollenden”. The London employees of Morley had been participating in “Rest Weeks”, which had been organized to give them some relief from the day and night bombing in London. The evacuees and older guests were immediately dispersed to various places for shelter until the morning – the more able-bodied stayed to help.
Alfie Houghton, as Estate Manager, also says that “my first reaction was to satisfy myself that the insurance policies were safe, and I was much relieved to be able to transfer them to my pocket, where they remained for the rest of the night”.
Of that night of 28 November 1940, Alfie also reports on three incidents which he remembers quite clearly. He and Jim Hansell carried out a valuable grandfather clock when it cracked in half – but was later skilfully repaired. Another incident of one man on steps cutting down the paintings in the dining room and handing them to helpers and who had difficulty unhooking the chains – Alfie shouted to him to “Yank the …. things off”. And Miss Elspeth’s trousseau was in one of the worst affected rooms, the bulk of which she rescued, despite the thick smoke.
As the fire spread it burned out the roof and thereby let out the heat, which helped save the main fabric of the house. On top of all this, an air raid had started and there was a continual hum from enemy aircraft, but fortunately no pilot chose to take a pot shot at what was a clear target – Alfie later learned that “an RAF machine was up aloft circling to ward off any inquisitive planes”.
Eventually, as the fire, driven by the south east wind, reached the end of the roof it started to decrease. The rescued household goods on the lawn were covered with tarpaulins against the frost, which began to settle and even the hoses became frozen.
At about 2 o’clock in the morning the air raid ceased and “shortly afterwards Lord and Lady Hollenden were prevailed upon to partake of coffee and biscuits …. Lord Hollenden smoked incessantly, and his jaws were set firm; he did not display his emotions, tired out though he obviously was. Lady Hollenden seemed more solicitous for the well-being of his Lordship, their guests and the staff than for the loss of their home”.
By 4 o’clock the fire was more or less out and apart from the firemen most people had gone home. Lord and Lady Hollenden accepted the hospitality of a friend. Alfie writes: “I also went home … On my return I found most of the firemen had congregated in the mansion kitchen trying to get something hot to drink; but it was a hopeless task, as the services were cut off and the fires had been drawn – there was a 2 inch layer of water on the floor. Exploring the premises, we found smouldering wood, broken furniture and ruined carpets and, above all, water everywhere. It was a sorry sight.”
More heavy work was undertaken after breakfast – more furniture was salvaged and moved to more permanent quarters and the water was swept away. For Alfie there were innumerable enquiries to deal with – from the police, the National Fire Service, the assessor, the press and this was to last a while, but within 10 months the insurance claims had been agreed, the damaged part of the house was cleared and ready for the builder. In another four months one end of the mansion would be restored and the fabric of the remainder was preserved against the day when the task could be finished.
“Viewed from a way off you would not notice that the building had been ravaged by fire, and it is only when you get close that you realise that the former reception rooms and family bedrooms are open to the sky. The drip, drip, drip of the rain on a wet day is a melancholy note”, so notes Alfie Houghton at the close of his article.
Joyce Field (Parish Magazine: Feb/Mar 2017)