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Beehive Cottage fire:1952

The day Beehive Cottage burned down – August 1952

 “A beautiful morning in August 1952:  I had cycled up from my lodging in Houghton to where the combine-harvester waited on the edge of the cornfield.  It was just on 7 o’clock and my job was to take off the tarpaulin sheet and grease all the movable parts of the machine ready for the day’s work.

The wheat field, forty acres of it, stood below the Horsebridge Road between Bossington and Broughton and dismounting, I lingered on the headland breathing in the crisp, clear air.  The early sun shone golden over the ripe wheat-ears and a lark sang above.  The sky glowed, mostly and pink fading to the palest of pale blues.  Along the hedges, fine dew sparkled on dozens of spider webs.  I felt good and healthy and glad to be alive on this lovely day.

Bill Blake, the Foreman, came cycling sedately up the road from his cottage called the Beehive – because of its unusually long, low-thatched roof reaching nearly to the ground.  He strolled over pulling on an old straw hat and lighting up his pipe.

“Look’s like we’ll ‘ave a fine hot day.” he said. “Time you’ve greased ‘er up and I’ve fixed tractor, dew’ll be off an’ we’ll be into a good start, eh!”

Half an hour later, we cut into the crop, the noise of the great machine shattering the morning silence.  Round and round the field we went, hour after hour, Bill driving, me on the bagging-platform, filling the sacks, tying them up, dropping them off.

It was very hot and very dusty and we were glad when 1 o’clock came and we could climb down and sit under some trees near the road for our lunch.  We drank our cold tea and munched away at the sandwiches, then relaxed.  Bill lit up his smelly old pipe and we talked about the good old days before combine-harvesters and how a dozen or so folks would be out with the reaper-binder; the stoking of sheaves, the carting on coloured wagons drawn by big horses.  We’d had much more fund, we agreed, than just the two of us doing the whole job in one go.  Then Bill snoozed off and I lay back and dozed.  But not for long….  I came wide awake as sudden wet drops splashed on my face.

“Hey, Bill, blooming RAIN!” I yelled. “Hey look at all those black clouds!”

We started up in amazement gazing at the sky.  Huge thunderclouds had appeared over the horizon and were massing and threatening overhead.  Then the sun had gone and within minutes rain lashed down in torrents. We ran to the combine, dragged the sheet over it and crawled beneath.  Thunder rolled and crackled and, peering out, I saw blue flashes of lightning jumping along the ground and got a bit scared.

“Bill, it’s getting dangerous!  There’s blue lightning hopping about all round us!” I cried, holding on to one of the huge rubber tyres, hoping to somehow earth myself. 

“Huh! Seen them often enough afore now…blue devils they calls ‘un….dammit, me pipe’s gone out, bowl’s full of’ water, blast ‘un!”.

There were some almighty crashes overhead and I said a quick prayer asking Thor to spare us.  Then I saw forked lightning but didn’t bother telling Bill; he’d only say it was ‘white devils’ and he’d seen them afore too!  Then, as suddenly as the storm had started, it was over and the sun came out.

Whew! Well, we were still here alive even if Bill’s pipe was dead!

Grumbling and throwing spent matches about he pulled off the combine sheet.  I combed up to the platform looking around at the drenched and glittering field and caught sight of a thin column of smoke coming from the roof of the Beehive cottage.  “Bill! I yelled, “Bill, your house looks like it’s on fire!  Smoke…..the thatch…LOOK!”

“Oh my God…..” he muttered.

We ran for our bikes and pedalled madly down the road.  Rushing in we found Mrs Blake in a state of shock, white and shaking…..she could hardly speak, mumbling about lightning coming down the chimney and striking some horse-brasses on the mantelpiece.  She showed us one, all blackened and bent.

“Leave ‘her to me” Bill said.  “She’ll be a'wright. You get t’ farm quick an’ phone fire-brigade…quick as y’ can…hurry!”

I did my best to emulate Reg Harris (famous cyclist) as I raced along the lanes and burst breathlessly into the Bright’s. “Phone, quick….Bill’s house…lightning struck thatch…fire-brigade….quick!”

Mr Bright hurried to the phone, calling back… “You get the men….and a tractor and trailer and we’ll be off down there to lend a hand.”

The tractor sped along and Bert Mason said. “Must a bin a thunder-bolt went in that there thatch.” as we came in sight of the cottage.

Arthur Damian, the carter, shook his head mournfully.  “Whatever ‘tis, ‘tis got a hold an’ if they fire-brigade lads aint ‘ere soon….”

“We can start getting their things out, anyway.” Mr Bright said “so come on now, all hands to the job!”

We jumped from the trailer and went into the house.  “Get the stuff from the top rooms first.” He ordered, “Hurry along before the rest of the thatch takes!”

Young Basil and me dashed up the narrow stairs to be confronted by a large brass bed, huge wardrobe and other bits and pieces.  We decided on the other bits and pieces and started handing them down: water jugs, ere, towels, clothes, curtains and….chamber pots! “Gosh, what a lot of po’s” I said. Couldn’t help laughing as I passed down one and then another and heard Mr Bright laugh too, as he took hold of yet another, saying “How many more of these ‘personal items’ are you giving me, Norah?”

“Dunno” I said, handing down two more and dropping the last one with a crash and lots of splintered china.   “Where’s dratted firemen, that’s what I’d like t’ know?” Bill was shouting as smoke began to fill the house.  “Should‘ve bin ‘ere by now if ‘ems coming from Romsey…” Arthur coughed.

The trailer was piling up; kitchen utensils, tables, chairs, sideboard, garments, tools, boots and shoes.  “What about our best bed?” Mrs Blake cried, “Our brass bed….and the carpet?”

Bert, Bill and me tied dirty handkerchiefs round our faces and staggered upstairs again, this time to a shower of sparks.  The ceiling was cracking up and bits of burning thatch fell through.  I stamped it out as Bill and Bert managed to dismantle the bed.  We had a terrible time shoving it and the dumpty mattress down those stairs.  I tried to rescue the carpet but it was nailed to the floor and as more flaming straw fell in around me, gave up and stumbled down, coughing and spluttering.  Just then we heard the bell of the fire-engine….at last!

“Where on earth ‘av you been?” Mr Bright asked angrily. 

“Sorry, Mister, we’d a’ bin here sooner but we saw smoke up the hill there by the Beeches an’ went on up fast as we could.”

“The Beeches???” we all chorused.  “Yerse…there was lots o’ smoke, see, but when we arrived it was just some ole fella burning hedge-trimming!

“Oh, my god!”, Mr Bright groaned, “That was Ernie, one of my men!”

They’d rushed the hose down to Wallop Brook opposite and we all stood about waiting for a powerful water-jet to burst through the nozzle and quench the blasé.  But nothing happened.

The fire-men came back cursing, looping up the flaccid hose.  “Won’t reach the brook, Miser. Too short by a few yards.  Sorry, can’t be ‘elped.  No water…sorry”

Everyone groaned as we stood helplessly and watched the fire win; the burning roof caved in at last and what remained of the Blake’s belongings went up in smoke.

Dorothy Bright came down with the car to take Bill and Mrs Blake to a temporary home on Bossington Estate and as they were leaving, Mrs Blake (still in shock I think) called out to me: “You dropped my best po, you did!  The one wiv the blue flowers onnit, what we ‘ad on our ‘oneymoon…dropped ‘un and BROKE ‘un my best pos…GONE!”

I apologised profusely as Mr Bright struggled with his laughter.  Then we all went away leaving the fire-men to cope with what remained of the lovely old Beehive Cottage.

Written by Norah Golden in 1991 of her memory of this sad occurrence.