In Focus: Country Houses & Fire

My adventures don’t seem to cease at the moment – last week, Rob and I went up to the hayloft above the Stables to have an explore. The wooden flooring is well over a hundred years old and somewhat rickety, but it houses an array of treasures. Highlights included markings on the wall from 1871, the old dovecote, and my personal favourite – a 1920 Minimax fire extinguisher. These fire extinguishers are known for their unique conical shape, and having carried one down a steep ladder, I can vouch for the fact that they’re actually extremely easy to move around! Minimax were extremely popular in the early 1900s, supplying fire extinguishers to King Edward VII, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey, Oxbridge and Winchester College amongst other places, and they also did a huge trade abroad. This was, of course, before the advent of CO2 extinguishers, but it would have contained chemicals. Precisely which chemicals Minimax were using at this point in time is unclear, but many of the combinations were quite dangerous if used in confined spaces. Minimax was bought by The Pyrene Company Ltd in 1955. 

On closer inspection, there are several fire hoses scattered around the house – installed seemingly by the Bruce Wards. The threat of fire still strikes fear into the hearts of those responsible for country houses, and devastating blazes at places like Clandon Park and Uppark in relatively recent years show just how destructive fire is. In the days before sophisticated fire detection systems and rapid response times, fires were much more common, and often had much worse consequences – Witley Court, for example. was completely gutted (the ruins are now run by English Heritage). The hoses were strategically placed next to water pipes, and so mains water could be quickly diverted to fight a fire much more effectively. Similarly, a fire extinguisher nearby would also be helpful for dealing with a smaller, more localised incident.

Luckily (touch wood!) Godinton is yet to have to use this equipment, although that is not to say fire hasn’t touched the lives of those who lived here. Samuel Murdoch, a footman at Godinton in 1910, knocked a lighted paraffin lamp off a rail, and hot oil exploded over him. His colleagues beat the flames out with a doormat and hearthrug, but poor Samuel died several days later from his injuries. Whilst the hoses are redundant today, they do serve as a remainder of exactly how much more dangerous life was one hundred years ago!