The History of  
Hinchingbrooke House  

the Hart of Hinchingbrooke

hyncel

wylton

oliver cromwell

edward montagu

pepys

fourth earl

5th-7th earls

Eighth Earl

ninth earl

headteachers

housetour

school

 


The Hinchingbrooke Fire, 1830
from an article in "Records of Huntingdonshire 1977"
by Roger Mitchell

The fire began early in the morning of 22nd January, 1830. At this time the young Earl of Sandwich was at Trinity College, Cambridge, and his mother, the Dowager Countess, was in Rome. Letters were sent to her with full details and these and the extensive press reports mean that the fire is extremely well documented.

The two female servants and a lad who are described as being the only persons in the house at the time of the fire were blissfully unaware of the outbreak until passers-by alerted them to the danger. By then it was too late. The Press Report tells us that by 8 o'clock "the appearance was truly terrific, the flames issuing through the windows with awful grandeur and ascending in immense volumes."

At that time the destruction of the whole building looked inevitable but the arrival of fire engines from Huntingdon, Godmanchester, Buckden and St Neots and some sensible preventive action by the steward, Maule, managed to confine the destruction to the North-East corner and even there the external walls remained standing.

The scene outside was one of immense confusion. "The splendid furniture scattered about in all directions, some of it mutilated by too hasty removal - marble chimney pieces and tablets torn from the walls - paintings by Van Dyck, Sir Peter Lely, Zoffani, Hogarth, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Teniers, SAlvator Rosa and other masters, thrown hastily with beds and mattresses - a splendid library piled in one mass upon the snow - and all the beautifully painted glass that could be tor from the windows lying about in various directions, much of it shattered and broken - gave a melancholy appearance to the distressing scene around".

This confusion was heightened by the strange behaviour of some of the crowd as reported in a letter to Louisa, the Dowager Countess from her brother. He writes "There seems to have been a desperate mob there. Some blackguards took away the pump handles and cut the pipes to stop the water. Women and children broke into the little cellar at the foot of the back stairs and drank all the champagne, etc they could find. Your wine in the great cellar however is safe. Mr Maule sent three barrels of beer to the Common which took off some of the worst. The mob came from St Neots and every village for ten miles around."



... Maule, the steward, did his best to secure the house. Having received £6,661 from the insurance office, he felt entitled to employ forty or fifty workmen and lay out some £750 to secure the house against the weather and informed her Ladyship that the external walls might be rebuilt so as to preserve the original character of the House - "a London architect will not say so, of course, but in my opinion there is no doubt".
The young Earl was anxious to return to Hinchingbrooke but was told that he would be far better attending to his studies in CAmbridge and it was not until 1832 when he came of age and his mother returned from Rome that serious attention was given to the rebuilding of the House. They were both anxious to retain as much as possible of the old features and were very willing to take the advice of Louisa's brother who wrote, "I do not think that any architect would answer your purpose as well as Blore. His charges are most reasonable, he is very ready to hear what you have to say, and instead of abusing what you have to propose, he will do all he can to enter into your views ... I think that Blore would give you a plan that would at little expense preserve the character of the old house in every respect. As to the interior I think that you had better plan that yourself as probably no architect coud do it so comfortably."
This appears to be exactly what happened. Entries in Blore's account book show that he inspected the house in March 1833, commenced work in June of the same year and completed the work in 1836. Blore's drawings are now in the British Museum and as well as his drawings of Hinchingbrooke before the fire, there is a sketch to show the damage caused by the fire and then two most attractive drawings of his proposed rebuilding.



Hinchingbrooke was in many ways a compromise and Blore appears to have been man who was more ready to accept this than some of his contemporaries. Most of the external features were retained - notably the two bay windows on the North Front and the Great Bow Window of 1602 which reduced in size and moved round to its present situation on the South Front. A fine new drawing room with an ornate Gothic ceiling was created on the ground floor and a new entrance was formed surmounted by an imposing tower. This destroyed the proportion of the Hall but enabled a convenient spot to be found for the butler's pantry and housekeeper's room.

The rebuilt Hinchingbrooke confirms Mark Girouard's judgement on Blore in The Victoria Country House "Blore was never flashy: his buildings were gently picturesque and gently Elizabethan. He gve them just enough intricacy to suit the taste of the times, but not enough to push up the bill unreasonably. His drawings are remarkably attractive, his buildings remarkably feeble".
Pevsner is more brutal: "Blore was a dull man: Hinchingbrooke confirms it".

The fire of 1830 is described above in detail. Use the information to write a newspaper front page in the style of today.

 

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