From "The History of Chudleigh" by Mary Jones
Published in 1875
"A dreadful fire, known as the Great Fire, and which forms quite an epoch in the history of the town, occurred on Friday, May 22, 1807. It broke out, accidentally, at noon, in a baker's house in Culver Street.
At first, no apprehensions were entertained of its spreading, but as there had been a long continuance of fine weather, everything very dry, and a brisk east wind springing up, the burning flakes were conveyed to different parts of the town. The flames soon spread to Mill Lane, then across to Exeter Street in which stood the King's Arms Inn - one of the important posting houses of the town, much in request at that time from the travelling consequent on the war. The stables and back premises of this inn, as throughout the town generally, were thatched, and in many instances on fire before the dwelling houses. The terrified inhabitants, while endeavouring to save their goods, found themselves hemmed in by the flames, and had only just time to escape with their lives, leaving much valued treasure behind.
The flames extended with fearful rapidity, and three streets were on fire at the same time. The Market House served at first for a depository for furniture &c., but it was quickly abandoned, and destroyed with its contents. At 2 o'clock, a barrel of gunpowder, which had been forgotten in a storeroom, blew up, shaking the town to its centre, and scattering books and papers more than a mile distant, at the same time giving a fresh impetus to the flames while it added to the general alarm. The only fire engine was soon burnt. To the affrighted inhabitants the place seemed doomed to utter destruction, while they were unable to form any organised plan for its suppression.
As the fire in the centre of the town, where the flames had raged in terrific grandeur, abated, it was though advisable to pull down a few houses to intercept the fire, and save, if possible, the extremities of the town. Assistance being obtained from the neighbourhood, this was accordingly done and the fire subdued at 4 pm.
The town presented for some time a mass of burning ruins, and the coaches, unable to pass, were obliged to make a circuitous route. The fire reached from the place of its commencement on the eastern side of Culver Street to within three or four houses of the large houses now occupied by Mrs. Yarde, and on the west side to where Mr. Taverner resides. It extended on both sides of Mill Lane as far as the house now in the occupation of Mr. Henry Rabbich. In Exeter Street, then the thoroughfare, the flames were stayed by an intervening orchard adjoining the tanyard. On the west side of Exeter Street, it ended at a house which has since been converted into Rose and Ivy Cottages. From the centre of the town on the east it reached the houses now occupied by Mr. Cleave, saddler. The old Church House, used as a school, escaped. On the west side of Fore Street, the last house consumed was on the sire of the residence of W. B. Scott, Esq., owning to the adjoining house having been pulled down.
The town contained about 300 houses, of which about 180 were destroyed. The damage was estimated at £60,000.
Time would fail to relate all the incidents connected with this tragic event; of all the hairbreadth escapes of those, who with what they considered valuable rushed hither and thither through the flames - many even having their clothes burnt on their backs; of sleeping infants in cradles, and the aged almost as helpless, who were removed from one place of safety to another; of anxious housewives, loaded with china and glass, which, in their excitement, were hastily thrown down and smashed, while much that was really valuable and substantial was left a prey to the devouring element.
The mortal remains of an old and highly respected inhabitant, Mr. John Searle, who had died suddenly at some little distance, had the day previous to the fire been brought back to his late home near the centre of the town. On the cry of fire, the coffin and its contents were removed into the street, where they were in great danger of being burnt by the smouldering goods heaped upon and around them. The position of his father's remains was told to the son, who was engaged with his burning h ouse in Mill Lane, part of which was then arched over with flames. With truly filial affection, and to the i mminent danger of his life, he rushed through the narrow burning street in order that he might remove the remains of one whom h e had dearly loved to some place of safety. He arrived not a moment too soon, for the pall that covered the coffin was found to be on fire, but this was speedily put out; and with the assistance of a few friends the remains were hurried to the churchyard where they were hastily interred by the vicar, two mourners being all that could be spared from the appalling conflagration to attend the dead to its final resting place.
It was truly a providential circumstance that, amidst all the confusion of this awful scene, not a single human life was lost. Had the fire happened in the night, it is dreadful to think what might have been the consequence.
One valuable horse and a pig, which could not be extricated, perished. A small shop brought forward considerably beyond the other houses on the west side of Fore Street, occupied by Nathaniel Brimley, barber and Mr. Strowbridge, watch and clockmaker, although surrounded by flames and not far from the explosion of the gunpowder, escaped. After the f ire, the watches were found hanging in the window as they were left, none the worse from what had taken place.
The church served as a refuge, and some families were located in tents in the Play Park, while the more fortunate found accommodation in the houses of their relatives and friends.
It is pleasing to turn from so much misery to the unbounded benevolence manifested on this melancholy occasion. The sympathy of the gentry of surrounding parishes was greatly excited, and clothing and food poured in to the town in abundance. The Masonic fraternity of Teignmouth sent cartloads of bread and beer. The bell of the town crier almost daily announced the arrival of these generous supplies, which were distributed in the Play Park. Boxes were fixed at each end of the town to receive the contributions of the many hundreds who came on the following Sunday from all parts. Subscription lists were opened far and near and the liberality of the public throughout the country was unbounded."