LOOK BACK WITH LITTLE: A story of firemen’s bravery

Kineton Brigade who supported Banbury Fireman at Avon Dassett. Picture taken in 1935. NNL-160830-111001001
Kineton Brigade who supported Banbury Fireman at Avon Dassett. Picture taken in 1935. NNL-160830-111001001

In the light of the expected changes to the local fire service now seems an appropriate time to recall the story of how Avon Dassett’s Post Office was gutted by fire in March of 1935.

It is also an opportunity to reveal remarkable courage displayed by firemen from Banbury and Kineton and how villagers worked together to save people and property.

The fire took hold on a block of cottages in the centre of the village.

One of them was the post office and general stores. First on the scene was the appliance from Banbury but unfortunately the firemen were held up because the engine became stuck on boggy land thus preventing access to a source of water.

When the men from Kineton arrived their superior local knowledge enabled them to go directly to a pool owned by a Mr Wadland.

The postmistress who was a Mrs Watts had lived in one of the cottages for 40 years. At the time the fire started she and her husband were not only sound asleep but all efforts to waken them failed due to their deafness.

Showing tremendous courage a young local farmer risked his life in order to carry the postmistress downstairs and then to his own house higher up the street.

Close behind was her husband who displayed great pluck by going into the post office and picking up all the money, postal orders and books.

So successful was he that when postal officials arrived from Leamington Spa they discovered the discrepancy between the cash books and the money saved was just 2s 1½d (11p).

Even more fortuitous was that the contents of a letter box let into a wall amounted to only one letter which was not damaged.

An especially interesting aspect of the building occupied by the Watts was that it was in the ownership of Baron Profumo.

Amongst his installations were large storage tanks which contained much needed water. Unfortunately by the time of their discovery burning rafters and thatch had fallen into the Watts’ bedroom.

The fire was visible from as far away as Hanwell and Shotteswell where residents little realised how intense was the conflagration that had engulfed bottles of sweets and triggered a series of explosions.

This made it all the more remarkable that a canary and a Pekingese dog came to be rescued. The dog got back into the kitchen but was retrieved by a groom from Avon Carrow.

Much less fortunate was a caged bird in the store room which was asphyxiated by smoke.

Human casualties were happily very few. Banbury’s fourth officer F E Kilby slipped and fell from the roof of an adjoining cottage owned by a Mr Mason.

Fortunately he landed on thatch so that his injuries were limited to muscle damage.

A priority was preventing the spread of the fire to adjacent and nearby properties and in this, the fire crews were successful.

They saved a domestic outhouse belonging to the post office and stopped the flames from reaching thatched cottages, and the village reading room.

By 6.30am the fire was under control and the Kineton Brigade was able to depart, leaving the Banbury crew to render premises safe.

The call for help had been received in Banbury at 12.50am.

In the wake of this sad incident it came to light that Mr and Mrs Watts did not have insurance cover.

The good news is that they were immediately given the use of the reading room as temporary accommodation and appeared to have weathered well the great shock they had experienced.

As for the post office, this was temporarily located at the house of a Mr Herbert who was head gardener to Miss Perry at Bitham Hall.

The Banbury Guardian listed the names of the local brigade. These included some very well-known people notably F E and R V Kilby, F H Anker, G D Braggins, W G Cheney and J Bustin.

My thanks to the Anker family for newspaper cuttings and photograph.