One glance at the scene above will explain why, over many centuries, Devon has suffered endlessly from devastating fires in its towns and villages. Almost all the buildings in view are roofed with straw and built so that properties are connected - even those on the opposite side of the street would be very vulnerable should burning straw blow about in a high wind. A girl stands outside a slate-roofed house on the right but someone has squeezed an extra room on to it by filling in the gap between that house and thatched premises belonging to the Cox family next door who happen to be bakers with wood-fired ovens. A second glance makes you wonder why there weren't more fires than there were.
Today, we have fire brigades standing by with well-equipped modern appliances, phones by which to summon them and access to fire insurance. The people of a century ago did what they could to fight fires but it was nearly always unrealistic to make the attempt in the first place. The first step was always to send out a messenger on horseback to raise the alarm, usually in a place some distance away. After a considerable period, if you were lucky, help would arrive in the form of a "fire engine" - a tiny horse-drawn wooden box containing a primitive pumping mechanism - crewed by volunteers but what could they do if there was not a sufficient water supply adjacent to the fire - and how could anyone prevent the "fire engine" from itself catching fire? Even if an engine turned out, you might not be able to persuaded the firemen to save your particular house if it was not insured by the company who employed them.
In Devon, our ancestors had to live with this for centuries - even now, thatch fires are by no means uncommon and can still be devastating. Apart from loss of life, the greatest calamity was loss of retail stock or tools of the trade - imagine what the loss of a loom would have meant to a weaver, how a carpenter could carry on without tools that may have been in his family for generations, how long it would take a humble grocer to set up his business again so that he would again have income to support his family, how a poor and homeless dress maker could compensate the customer who had left cloth with her to be made up.
And next day, after the fire had burned itself out, where did the victims look for help? There were no agencies to help with re-housing, no social workers to help with claiming benefits, no one to offer counselling or the support that a family would need over the weeks to come. Instead, the local squire or the Rector would set up a public appeal, collect what they could and attempt to distribute the proceeds fairly according to want. This was a very hit or miss system, open to abuse if it worked at all and the cause of further hardship if it did not.
Accounts of the various fires come from a variety of sources and all reflect the amazing resilience and courage shown over and over again when these disasters struck - many accounts give the names and details of those affected and create an insight into the lives of our ancestors which no census return can ever offer.