THE expansion of Lyme in the 19th century was restricted by its topography, this led to buildings being congested and therefore fire was a major hazard.
On Guy Fawkes Night 1803 ‘a great fire broke out at a bakers close to the George Inn’. The town’s three fire engines were poorly maintained and ineffective so the fire rapidly spread. Houses in Mill Green were soon ablaze, 42 were destroyed as was the cloth factory.
It was said that “a great distress prevailed, the houses being tenanted by the lower orders, nevertheless the destruction of so many close unhealthy houses may have beneficial results”. It is unlikely that those made homeless had the same feelings, weeks later they were still having to cook their meals on a furnace erected in the church porch.
Note the term ‘lower orders’. It was an age of inequality asserted by a defined hierarchy which included the church. The poor were exhorted ‘to be happy with the station in life that God had placed them and not to envy those above them’.
On the 11th May 1844 a second and more extensive fire broke out. The London Evening News stated “nothing could arrest the flames”. This conflagration also started in a bakers, which once again was close to the mediaeval George Inn, and it was soon ablaze.
Completely destroyed it was never rebuilt, George’s Square is the only link to what was an historic building and the centre of the pack horse trade.
The fast moving fire consumed the Three Cups Hotel (at that period opposite Cobb Gate), the Pilot Boat Inn, the adjacent Market Place and Custom House – all were reduced to smouldering ruins. The Shambles was the next victim, its roof caught fire, the building along with the clock and spire burnt to the ground, the bell was saved and now resides in the museum.
Some 50 houses were wholly or partly destroyed leaving the families homeless, the total estimated damage to the town was £25,000, which would equate to £1,750,000 today.
November 1889 saw yet another fire, this time in Broad Street destroying “several buildings below the Three Cups in Broad Street”.
Lyme had always celebrated Guy Fawkes Night with a degree of recklessness; a dangerous custom was that of lighted tar barrels being raced down Broad Street by youths who attempted to control them with long poles. The authorities put an end to the practice (circa 1895) when a flaming barrel crashed through the door of the Pilot Boat Inn causing a serious fire.
That so many of the town’s historic buildings that would today have had listed status are no longer with us is a tragedy.
Historian and author