|Fighting Fires at Birch
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - August 2010
In the last issue mention was made of a fire at White House Farm, Birch, in 1887.
One point of interest is that, on that occasion, engines from two organisations attended. Not only was the Colchester Borough Fire Brigade in attendance but so were that owned by the insurance company. We know that local properties were insured at least ten years earlier than that. A Fire Insurance policy was taken out by Mrs E Woodyard, in 1877, to cover 10 cottages in Birch with a value of £250 for which the premium was 7s 6d.
Although it is impossible to identify the premises covered we know that they consisted of 2 cottages of plaster, tiled and slated, occupied by Faircloth, and valued at £50; 6 cottages with a value of £150 occupied by Whybrow, Mrs Woodyard, Reeve and others; the last pair, occupied by Bailey and Everett, were also valued at £50.
Much later the Essex County Standard of July 1932 has a report of a thatched cottage blaze in Birch in which "Colchester firemen used record length of hose."
"Despite strenuous efforts by the Colchester Fire Brigade, in the course of which a record length of hose was run out, a thatched cottage - on the main Colchester Maldon Road, at Birch, was gutted by fire on Sunday, June 26. The cottage is occupied by Mr and Mrs W Everett and their family, one of whom on rising on Sunday morning, noticed that the heavy thatched roof had become ignited. Immediate efforts were made to stem the outbreak, all the extinguishers from Messrs Hutton's premises, which are in the vicinity being brought into use, while a number of helpers, including Capt C J Round of Birch Hall, the owners of the cottage, and neighbours assisted Mr and Mrs Everett to remove their belongings, which was achieved without any serious loss or damage.
The Colchester Brigade was informed about 9.20, and under Capt J Cocker made a smart response with their Leyland engine, which is in temporary use pending the completion of repairs to the usual vehicle.
The Brigade found the thatch burning front end to end, and the woodwork of the cottage also becoming involved. The firemen first got to work off a soft-water well on Messrs F Hutton' premises, and when the supply had become exhausted, the engine had to be moved to Heckford Bridge, about three quarters of a mile away. This entailed a record length of hose, 67 50-feet lengths as a matter of fact, to enable the firemen to fight the flames. All the available hose was quickly coupled up, and meanwhile Capt Round proceeded in his car to the Brigade headquarters and returned with a further 20 lengths, which were just sufficient to enable two jets of water to be played on the fire. Moreover, the water had to be pumped up hill all the way, in addition to an appreciable lift from the river - a task which the temporary engine excellently fulfilled.
The firemen did their utmost to save the actual building by pulling down the burning thatch, but the upper portion was completely destroyed. The battle with the flames did not terminate till well into the afternoon. An over-heated beam is believed to have been the cause of the outbreak.
Thanks to Capt Round, Mr Everett, who is employed by Messrs Hutton, and his family have not been rendered homeless. Capt Round has furnished them with accommodation at an empty gardener's cottage at Birch Hall."
The cottage described was Beehive Cottage and there are at least two versions (known within the family) as to how the fire actually started. The most charitable is that the eldest Everett son had the job of clearing the ashpan from the fire first thing in the morning. In doing so a spark flew up in the wind and caught the thatch. This must have been a constant danger in such premises.
It may not be a coincidence that immediately after this item, at the foot of the page, there is an advertisement for insurance from the Essex and Suffolk Equitable Insurance Society!
A few years later there were two disastrous fires at Messrs Hutton's premises, one of which was dealt with by connecting lengths of hose in order to obtain water from the lake at Birch Hall (see Centenary Chronicle No.4 . Clearly in a country area the lack of a ready water supply, combined with thatched cottages was a constant hazard.
On a completely different subject some unexpected items crop up when looking through the Electoral Registers. The one prepared for the first post-war election, for example, included ladies in the WLA (Womens Land Army) living in a hostel in Layer Breton Lodge. Also in this area there was a YMCA hostel and it was a surprise to find an elector working for the USAAF at Birch airfield, presumably a British citizen. What a shock it was to find the Birch NAAFI also at the airfield.
We would like to acknowledge the help received from Christina Edwards of Stanway for drawing our attention to the fire at Beehive Cottage. Mrs Edwards is the author of books on Stanway and her most recent deals with Lexden & Winstree Union Workhouse.