Coleshill House Post War
|Please Note: The Coleshill House site
and grounds are owned by the National Trust. The woods and grounds of the house
are all strictly private and access is limited to set days a year. See our events page for their official open days. Attempting to
access the site outside of these times is not only trespassing but could damage
the future of our work and relationship with the Trust and villagers.
Please respect this.
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In 1946, shortly after the end of the Second World War. Coleshill House was
purchased from the Playdell - Bouverie family by a Mr E Cook, a founding partner of the international travel
Agency, Thomas Cook & Son. Six years later in the late summer of 1952, disaster struck and Coleshill House
was no more.
The following is extracted from the Swindon Evening Advertiser of 24th September 1952 and
graphically displays the drama of the previous day:
Fire last night destroyed Coleshill House, Nr Swindon, the former home of the Playdell -
Molten lead pourng from the roof like silver rain, drove from the house, Firemen and Estate
workers who were carrying out onto the lawns art treasures and furniture.
An inadequate water supply which had to be pumped half a mile uphill, hampered the 14 fire
brigades that responded to the call. Within 4 hours of the start of the fire, all that remained of the building was
the burned out shell surmounted by the 8 massive chimneys, 3 of which had recently been renovated at a cost of more
Flames leaping more than 20 feet from the roof were seen for miles around and within a short
time the lawns around the house were crowded with spectators.
A painter had been using a blow lamp to remove paint from the dormer
windows, the Evening Advertiser was told. Mr L H Knapp, Director of Messrs J Knapp & Sons Ltd, carrying
renovations at the house said "The men were equipped on the roof with fire extinguishers and buckets of water
in the event of something like this happening. The fire carried through cracks
in the woodwork and the wind carried the fire away from the men. It was not detected at once and we could not stop
it with our fire
Decorators, farmers, estate workers and villagers hurried to the house to help carry out
valuable paintings, Furniture and books. Everything of value was saved with the exception of one or two of the
heavier pieces of furniture. Mr Harold Williams of Home Farm, described how he and his men stopped work immediately
to help remove paintings and furniture. Soon all that remained were 3 busts, one beheaded which lay neglected on
Suddenly a wave of heat swept over the spectators and a mushroom of yellow smoke rose
skywards as the second floor caved in, whilst firemen continued in vain to play water on the flames from a
turntable ladder. Mr Williams said, "I think we managed to get everything of value out including 2 sets of
chairs costing £2000 which Mr Cook had purchased from the Playdell - Bouverie family and left in the house. Only
when the molten lead cascaded from the roof did we give up"
Whilst firemen waited for further water supplies, some carried by tender, they were served
with cups of tea brought up in buckets from the village. Water was even taken from an ornamental goldfish pond,
being replenished by a pump sited on the banks of the nearby River Cole. Even this was inadequate to meet demand
and the goldfish were soon left floundering in the mud.
Villagers were visibly affected by the fire with one quote being that with the House having
gone, the whole character of the village had gone.
The fire was eventually brought under control at 10:15pm, but continued to blaze until
midnight. Fire brigades from Didcot and Abingdon continued to tend the fire overnight being relieved at 7.00am by
firemen from Faringdon and Wallingford. Regretfully, 2 firemen sustained injuries whilst fighting the fire, these
being Fireman H G Hocking of Curtis street, Swindon who was treated for shock at Swindon GWR Hospital when a
turntable ladder from which he was operating collapsed. The other casualty was Sub officer N G Speight of Swindon
who was treated at St Margaret's Hospital, Swindon after a burning ember dropped in his eye.
The fire was fought by Fire Brigades from 3 counties and included Brigades from Swindon,
Faringdon, Fairford, Wantage, Abingdon, Bampton, Newbury, Lambourn, Ramsbury, Witney, Wallingford, Didcot and
The house was scheduled to be passed onto the National Trust upon the death of Mr Cook. Mr
Cook was said to be too distraught today to make any comment.
The Fire Brigade Society
The article below was kindly provided by "Fire Cover Magazine". The Fire Brigade Society
MANSION DESTROYED - LOST THROUGH LACK OF WATER
Compiled by Mike Smith, Editorial Team, from a report in the January 1953 edition of "Fire".
The construction of Coleshill House was believed to have commenced in 1650. The building was
situated on high ground in an extensive estate some 3.5 miles from Faringdon and some 9.5 miles from Swindon. It
was a large structure in which timber had been extensively used. Fire precautions within the house included the
deployment of fire extinguishers (soda-acid type) and some small-bore internal hydrants, with hose, fed from a tank
in the roof. However, the tank seems to have been installed in such a way as to be singularly
There were no public water mains to the house (the nearest 6" main was 3.5 miles away), an
immediate water supply being available from an ornamental fishpond in the grounds some 60' from the house and
holding some 3000 gallons. Additional water could be obtained from the River Cole some 2400' away. At the time,
this river marked the boundary between the counties of Wiltshire and Berkshire. Access to the river was not easy
and it was 200' below the level of the house.
Over the summer of 1952 major renovation work was proceeding at Coleshill House. During the
afternoon of 23rd September workmen were burning off paint with blowlamps. They were working on paintwork around
upper floor dormer windows. It appears that fire extinguishers had been deployed in the vicinity of this work and
buckets of water had been provided as an additional precaution.
At about 1500 a workman smelled smoke but could see no sign of fire. A minute or so later
however, he saw a puff of smoke followed by flames from a dormer window. An attempt was then made to deal with his
fire using the internal hoses, but there was no pressure. Soda-acid extinguishers were then used, but several were
Further attempts at fire fighting were then made using buckets of water. These were
ineffective and the fire had, by now, taken a firm hold, fanned by a strong wind. At this point the attention of a
man mowing the lawns appears to have been drawn to the fire and it is believed that he called the fire
There is no doubt that this was a, "delayed call". Some 40 plus minutes appear to have
elapsed between the first hint of fire and the call to the fire service. Communications were nowhere near as
sophisticated then as now and although Coleshill House was in Berkshire, the fire call was taken by Wiltshire Fire
Brigade at Swindon fire station. There was a predetermined first attendance for the house - PE and WrT from Swindon
and pump (possibly an ATV and TrP) and WrT from Faringdon (then Berkshire & Reading Fire Brigade, today
Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service). It is not clear who operated Faringdon's siren and call bells - it may have
been Swindon. In the event, Faringdon could not raise enough men to turn out both appliances and the WrT proceeded
on its own - getting away within a remarkable three minutes of the alert sounding. To make up the full PDA,
Gloucestershire was asked to send a pump from Fairford.
The Faringdon WrT was the first appliance to arrive. It seems, Jn keeping with its speedy
departure, to have made very good time, sending back an assistance message (a telephone would have to have been
found to do this)-"Make pumps 4, turntable ladder required", at 1600. This resulted in pumping appliances being
ordered on from Abingdon and Wantage (both towns then in Berkshire) and from Bampton, Oxfordshire.
The TL from Swindon was also mobilised. At 1642 a "Make pumps 8 " message was sent - bringing
on pumps from Didcot (also then in Berkshire), Hungerford, Berkshire and Witney, Oxfordshire. CFO Taylor of
Berkshire & Reading Fire Brigade, had arrived form his HQ in Reading to take command and, at 1710, he made
pumps 10 and requested a second TL. The pumps for this make up came from Ramsbury (Wiltshire Fire Brigade) and
Newbury. Oxford City Fire Brigade supplied the TL.
Five fire brigades - Berkshire & Reading, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and
Oxford City had now been involved in mobilising 15 appliances from 12 stations to this job. Four of the attending
stations-Swindon, Didcot, Newbury and Oxford had whole time personnel, the rest were fully retained. Almost half
the crews attending had had to travel over 15 miles to the fire, with Newbury clocking up 28 miles.
Initial fire fighting fell on the shoulders of the crews from Faringdon and Swindon - almost
literally so, molten lead flowing from the roof was a severe problem. Two lines of hose were got to work from
Faringdon's WrT and from the WrT from Swindon. Swindon's PE set into the fishpond and a line of hose was taken up
This was transferred to the TL from Swindon when that appliance arrived on the fire ground. Reinforcing pumps were
directed to the River Cole. However, given its distance from the fire and the higher level of the latter, only two
"fair" jets could be provided from this source. But a light trailer pump was "dismounted" on the riverbank and used
to supply three WrTs, which operated a shuttle to the fire ground.
In spite of the fire fighters' efforts the fire continued to spread. At 1700 it was decided
to withdraw all personnel from the building. This was done just in time before a major roof collapse took
With the arrival of the last of the reinforcing pumps further relays were set up from the river. These produced an
additional three jets - one of which was deployed from the Oxford TL.
At 2230 two of the massive brick and stone chimneys collapsed into the building. Prior to this virtually of the
whole of the structure had become involved in fire, but the "Stop" was sent at about 2215. In sending it CFO Taylor
added, "Am now proceeding to the 5 pump fire at Shrivenham", suggesting that there was another significant fire
under way at the same time and in the relatively near vicinity.
By 2241 it was possible to dispense with one of the water relays and by 2358 only one relay was left in
operation. The use of large amounts of dry timber in the roof; heavy lead covering, also in the roof, which
insulated and retained heat in the upper parts of the house; extensive cavities between panelling and walls, which
assisted fire spread and a glass cupola which collapsed into the hall at an early stage in the blaze, all
contributed to the intensity and extent of the fire and to difficulties in fighting it. These factors were
compounded by the serious shortage of water. CFO Taylor commented that even a 4" main at the house and a larger
fishpond would have provided enough water for the initial Faringdon and Swindon appliances to
have held the fire in the roof. But, as it was, a part of the nation's heritage was, in spite of heroic efforts on
the part of the fire fighters,
Glossary Of Terms Used Above
PE Pump Escape - fire appliance with
pump and 50 or 60 foot ladder which was moved into position on a large wheeled carriage.
WrT Water Tender- a standard British fire appliance
evolved from wartime experience, carrying pump, hose, ladders, etc and 400 gallons of water. The 1952 version is
likely to have been of pretty basic construction.
ATV Auxiliary Towing Vehicle - a wartime fire appliance;
virtually all of these that remained in post war service were on the Austin 2 ton chassis. As originally
configured, they were vans with a ladder gantry carrying crew, hose, etc and towing a trailer pump (TrP). After the
war many were modified by the fitting of a 100 gallon water tank, hosereel and small pump driven by the road
engine. They still towed the trailer pump and remained in service, particularly in rural areas, until the
TrP Trailer pump - pump, often Dennis or
Coventry Climax, on towed two wheeled chassis.
PDA Predetermined attendance - a specified number
and types of fire appliance automatically turned out to a call to a particular fire risk.
TL Turntable ladder - self
supporting, mechanically extending and swivelling, ladder, usually at least 100 feet when fully
CFO Chief Fire Officer