Reproduced by kind permission of the Hereford Times
Saturday 6th September 1927
Letton Court Gutted. Mid Day Blaze
BURNT OUT IN TWO HOURS
MAIDS' THRILLING WORK
Letton Court, Herefordshire, the beautiful home of Mr. and Mrs. T. M. Dew, a red brick mansion in Mediaeval style, today lies in ruins.
In the space of two hours on Wednesday it was reduces to ashes by a fire which broke out at half past ten in the morning - a day and time when the village is usually denuded of men, who are drawn to Hereford by the markets.
The Household staff, consisting of four maids and others who responded to the alarm, performed prodigies of valour in trying to save the contents, but the all-devouring flames spread from window to window, door to door, enveloping room after room, with such overwhelming rapidity that their efforts were of little avail.
What the damage sustained is it is yet impossible to estimate, but it must be many thousand pounds' worth that lie, irreplaceable in the ashes.
From what can be gleaned, the cause of the outbreak was quite an unusual one. The work of repainting the exterior of the building was in progress, the contract being in the hands of Messrs. Beavan and Hodges, Hereford. Two men were engaged on the job - Wm. Johnson, of 31, Friars St., Hereford and Fred Godsall, who recently came to Hereford to live. Precisely what happened is difficult to to establish, but certain it is that a blow lamp figured in the incident. Johnson, it is stated, was using it on the outside of a spare bedroom window over the study on the east side of the house, when the woodwork and curtains suddenly caught fire and blazed up furiously in a high wind favourable to the spreading of the flames.
An alarm was raised, and Johnson mounting his cycle, rode off to telephone for the Hereford Brigade. Not being aware that the local Post Office had been lately transferred to the Cross Roads in the village of Staunton on Wye, Johnson rode down to the Portway, only to find that he had to double back to Hanmer's Cross, considerably over a mile away. He reached here in an exhausted condition (on the journey he had to climb Tin Hill), and it had just turned eleven o'clock when the call was put through to Hereford.
From the Post Office he cycled back with all speed to Letton Court to help with the work of fighting the flames, which by then had got such a firm hold on the place that the whole building seemed doomed; but on reaching the scene he was so exhausted and prostrated that he fell from his bicycle in a fainting fit, tragically exclaiming, "Oh my God, that man is ruined.". He was picked up and carried to a place of safety, and as he continued very ill he was later taken home to Hereford. he is still in a prostrate condition.
MAID'S THRILLING STORY.
It appears that the outbreak of the fire was discovered accidentally. Miss Ellen Vale, a member of the Domestic Staff, had occasion to go upstairs, and a smell of smoke attracted her attention. She knew that men were using blow lamps on the bedroom windows, and went to them to ask if they had been burning anything. Receiving the reply that they had not, Miss Vale made further investigations, and was joined by Miss Nelly Passey, the Cook, who said it could not be a chimney on fire, because only the kitchen range was in use.
The happenings of the next half hour or so are described in the words of Miss Passey, who heroically led the domestic staff in a brave fight against overwhelming odds. "We noticed that the bottom of the window sill in the Nursery was smouldering, " she said "and all of a sudden the blind broke into flames which spread like lightning. 'Look', I cried ' the blind is gone.'. We shouted 'Fire!' and while we ran to get fire extinguishers, someone went to the tower to toll the bell and raise the alarm. For some reason or another the bell would not ring, and so she got a hand bell and kept ringing it as she went about spreading the news of the outbreak.
"It was not long before everybody came rushing up to see what they could do. One of the men took the fire extinguisher from Miss vale and Miss vale ran out for water. It was just awful. The flames went from one room to another so quickly that within ten minutes of the outbreak the whole of the bedroom seemed to be a mass of flames. The roar of the fire was tremendous, and the big glass dome in the roof appeared like a big red ball.
"We emptied the fire extinguishers, filled them and emptied them again. We kept throwing water on the flames, but it made no difference. We could not stop the fire spreading and then pieces of the roof began to fall in. We were frightened but continued to throw water on the flames until the members of the Fire Brigade came and told us we had to get out of the house, because it was too dangerous for us to stay.
"We saved a few things from the rooms downstairs after we came down, but we were not able to get into the drawing room at all. The roof was all alight and cracking and pieces of burning wood kept falling. It was terrible to know that so many beautiful things were being destroyed; and yet we were powerless to get them out.
The Hereford Brigade, once they received the call, made a quick journey with the motor fire engine, Mr. T. Rawson, the captain, being in command. On their arrival it was realised that the mansion, in the main, was doomed, so attention was paid to saving the north-east wing, comprising the servants quarters and the ornamental water tower. This section, lying to windward, they were able to keep intact. Then they concentrated on the three strong rooms stored with silver and estate documents, and when the still smouldering ruins have cooled off it is expected that it will be found that little harm has been done to them. Practically the whole of the wine cellar was salved too.
Incidentally, it was a thorough test for the fire engine, which came through the ordeal of pumping continuously through four jets a distance of 200 yards from 11.45 a.m. till 10.30 p.m., water being obtained from a stream, which in times past supplied the moat by which the former building was surrounded.
The interior fittings of the mansion were, it seems, largely of an inflammable nature. It was unfortunate that the outbreak occurred so near the roof, as the interior of this was matchboarded throughout, and once the flames got a hold on this, which they did in the early stages, it was impossible to stop them spreading with devastating rapidity. Almost before the Brigade received the summons, the entire roof had fallen in, and when they arrived the place was blazing fiercely from side to side and corner to corner, the flames leaping high in the air. There was only one fortuitous circumstance in the calamity. That was, that it did not occur at dead of night while the members of the household were asleep.
As it was, the number of helpers available in the incipient stages was small, owing to so many men being in Hereford attending the markets. Mr. Dew's bailiff, Mr. Albert Abraham, was among them. He was in the stock market when he heard the news, and, after assuring himself that the rumour was true, taxied out to the scene.
When he reached there the house was a seething mass of fire. No doubt the main staircase, of pitch pine,surmounted by a glass cupola, acted not only as fuel but as a chimney, creating an immense draught, which could not be stifled.
MENTIONED IN DOMESDAY
Letton is one of Hereford's ancient villages with a church dating back to Norman times. The Court stands - or stood, for only the shell now remains - in close proximity, separated only by a belt of beautiful trees, one of them a unique hybrid pine. So close together are the two that a bridge over the old moat serves as an entrance to both from the main road leading from Hereford to Hay. The Court was formerly the seat of the Blisset family, whose head, the Rev. Henry Blisset, rebuilt the court in 1859. The place is mentioned in Domesday. The present owner, Mr. Tom Millet Dew, married a Miss Blisset as his first wife, and secondly - nearly twenty years ago - Miss Sisum of Garsdon, Malmesbury, Wilts. On the day of the fire, Mrs Dew was away from home paying a visit to relatives in Malmesbury, and was hurriedly fetched back by car on Wednesday night to find her once beautiful home a blackened ruin. Mr. and Mrs. Dew - in their irreplaceable loss - for no insurance can restore their many treasures and family heirlooms - will have the sympathy of the entire county. The material damage must amount to many thousands of pounds. For the present the homeless Squire and Mrs Dew are staying at the Rectory with the Rev. A. L. Osman and Mrs. Osman. Mr. Osman was formerly a Minor Canon of Hereford Cathedral.
Mr. Dew, who is a J.P. for Herefordshire with a seat on the Weobley Bench, is Lord of the Manor of Letton and the chief landowner in the parish. He is also a member of the Weobley Board of Guardians and District Council.
The Court and the Rectory were built in the same style of architecture, being designed by the famous Bodley. Of red brick, the Court was one of the few mansions in Herefordshire built on these lines. It was an exceedingly handsome structure, not familiar perhaps to many people, owing to its invisibility from the main road, being hidden by trees which are the growth of centuries. Erected on a natural dais, the terraced lawns afford a charming vista of pastoral scenery with the wooded Bredwardine Hills as a background, celebrated as the site of King Arthur's Stone, and for the glorious views obtainable from the cairn on Meerbach edge.