Waking up to a fire in the mid nineteenth century could be quite tricky. There was no emergency number and the firefighting procedures were certainly less sophisticated than now. So in 1838 when Dr Hallet, “a physician of considerable practice” was woken up in Hemel Hemptstead to the sound of a hand-bell, the “customary manner” of giving the alarm he might have been forgiven for being somewhat perturbed. Dr Hallet himself seems to have been more concerned with saving “property of value” than anything else so while he was being dragged through an upper window it was probably lucky for the other “inmates” that the hundreds of neighbours who came running to the rescue were more concerned with saving them than material goods. The report of the “destructive” fire appeared in the Essex Standard. The fire engines came along shortly after the bell was heard, first the Phoenix Fire-office engine, followed by the town engine and then bringing up the rear was the machine belonging to the Sun Insurance Company. They were hampered by a shortage of water for the first hour and a half. These three engines were considered insufficient and “mounted expresses” were sent off to the towns of St Albans and Watford to summon more fire-fighters. The St Albans engine arrived just before 3.00 am while the Watford one had already arrived. Between them they managed to confine the flames to Dr Hallet’s premises and his next door neighbour. It’s difficult to tell from the rather unsensational reporting whether there was anything considered suspicious about Dr Hallet’s having taken out a policy covering his contents for £1000 only six weeks prior to this. Neither he nor his neighbour (who also had a contents policy for £1000 owned the property. That was a Mr Coplin and the reporter fails to give us his insurance details.
This was an exciting incident and obviously caused enormous excitement in the town. Less remarkable was The Oracle’s story of July 1792 when “thunder and lightning” caused “a barn [to be] set on fire near St Albans” where some unfortunate sheep met their end. No mention of insurance is made.
Rather more sinister is the report in the World of 5th February 1788. The accused, John Judd stood in the dock with a charge of setting fire to a parcel of unthreshed wheat owned by George Sworder. It is not clear from the report exactly why an “opulent farmer”, such as Judd had paid various ne’er do wells of the county to harass Sworder. One of the acts perpetrated by these criminals was to “wilfully and maliciously” set fire to a parcel of unthreshed wheat. While it seems to a modern reader an excessive sentence Judd was threatened with the death penalty and was languishing in Hertford Gaol. Thankfully while the sitting magistrates could not agree on the severity of this last act, they bailed Judd for a substantial £250.00 and he escaped hanging. He may have thought better after this of how he treated his fellow farmers.
But perhaps the most worrying reports for farmers throughout Hertfordshire was put very clearly in November 1844 in the Herts County Press. The text reads:
FIRES IN HERTFORDSHIRE AND BEDFORDSHIRE. – We regret to have to record during the past week, the occurrence of several fires in premises occupied by farmers, in these counties, some of which have ended in the total destruction of a large quantity of grain and the buildings in which it was contained. All our correspondents, who possess a better knowledge of the facts than we do ourselves, attribute these fires to incendiarism.
The origin of these incidences of fire raising were certainly a worry to farmers battling against unrest among the rural workers. The labourers were using everything within their power to force employers to improve conditions. Their efforts were generally unsuccessful but discontent in Hertfordshire led to the fire-raising which was reported with some concern by the newspapers.