Page Nine

Well-known Island House destroyed

Spectacular fire at Wootton

Known throughout the Island as the residence for half a century of the Brodie family, Fernhill House, Wootton, was completely burnt out in a few hours on Thursday. The most fortunate aspect of the occurrence was that the house was un- occupied and has been so since Mrs A.J.Brodie, J.P. now of Bridge house, Wootton left it in 1934 following the death of her husband Major C.G.Brodie. The Newport fire Brigade made a very prompt respose to the call which was made shortly after 3.45 p.m., but were hampered in their efforts by lack of water and eventually found themselves compelled to concentrate on preventing the spread of the fire to an adjoining cottage occupied by a workman on the estate, leaving the main building to its fate.

The present owners are Mr.A.E.Whatley of Redway, Merstone and a Mr.H. Cooper, High street, Newport who are developing the estate.

The fire started in the south end of the building and was due to roofing material already heated by the sun being ignited by a spark from a bonfire made by workmen engaged in clearing timber from the grounds. Immediately efforts were made to smother the flames by the men on the spot, but as misfortune would have it, the only available ladder was not long enough and they were unable to reach the fire which was rapidly gaining a firm hold, fanned by a strong southerly breeze. Meanwhile a telephone call was put through to Redway and Mrs Whatley at once called out the Fire Brigade, the alarm sounding at 3.47pm. The first engine was away in about 3 minutes with First Officer W. Phillips in charge and hose was radpidly connected with the hydrant near the entrance gates and run out down the drive, a distance of some 150 yards, but when the ladders were run up to the roof there was only a trickle from the hose owing to the poor pressure on the hydrant. The Dennis engine was sent down through the gardens to pump from a small ornamental pond and a further 200 yards of hose were run out, using the whole of the available supply of hose on both engines. A faulty coupling on the hose caused further delay, and when eventually the pump was sending its full quota of nearly 400 gallons a minute through the hose line, the flames had broken through the roof and crackling slates and mounting flames gave evidence of the fierce heat beneath. The smaller engine was sent to the hydrant to augment the meagre pressure and evidence of the paucity of the supply available was the fact that Wootton High Street was entirely without water whilst the hydrant was in use and residents who did not possess storage tanks either went without tea or borrowed from more fortunate neighbours. Some of the more enterprising filled their kettles from the engine in Station Road.

In half an hour, in spite of very zealous work by the fireman on the roofs, it became obvious that the whole main building was doomed. The roof of the former servants quarters had already disappeared and greedy tongues of flames could be seen through the windows, spreading along towards the centre portion of the house. In a very short time the whole top storey of all but the northern end was involved. The reason for the rapid spreading of the blaze was obvious when it was seen that the central portion was largely built of wood and plaster, tiled on the outside, to represent bricks, and the large amount of timberin the construction, combined with the fact that extensive portions of the roof were felted, had proved fatal to any efforts to stay the spread of the fire. Lead in the guttering and piping ran like water in the smaller 0rnamental windows glass melted and twisted into fantastic shapes.

Another hour and the whole of the building was a blazing furnace, window after window cracked and broke, allowing still more air to add to the intensity of the blaze within. By half-past six even the more solid stone built north end was on fire from top to bottom and a serious of dull crashed accompanied by showers showers of incandescent sparks betokened the havoc which was being wrought behind the curtain of flames, as heavy beams and masonry crashed through to ground floor. When the breeze rose the front of the house facing east made a highly impressive sight, for every window had become a gaping mouth, from which roared solid tongues of flames, extending at times to a lenght of some 20ft.

A blaze of such intensity soon destroys itself for want of combustible material with which to feed its great maw, and by 8 o'clock the flames were on the wane, while it was evident that the firemen had saved Fernhill Cottage, fortunately separated from the house by a solid constructed outbuilding. by this time the brigade were able to get near enough to attack and isolate portions of the fire and little over an hour only a smoking ruin remained.

Throughout the afternoon and evening the fire attracted large number of sprctators, who were effectively marshalled under the direction of Inspector Willmott of Newport, and Police Constables Chandler and Corney.

Probaqbly one of the most interested spectators was Mr. Plumbley, the 78 year old father of the occupant of Fernhill Cottage, who stood at the cottage door only a few yards away from where the fireman were working and was keenly interested in all that was going on, seemingly oblivious to any danger.

After the fire was finally subdued, members of the brigade remained on duty all night to ensure that there was no fresh outbreak. Mr. Whatley informed our representative that the house was insured but not for a large amount, and that there would be a very considerable loss on account of the valuable fittings which the preemises contained. There were finely carved marble fireplaes for which he and his partner had been offered hundreds of pounds and a very fine central staircase of which no trace remained. It had also been intended to convert the house into smaller dwellings, and a considerable amount of work had already been done. The fire occurred on the 9th June 1938.

Now all that remained of the beautiful mansion are a few flagstones marking the spot where it stood, and an old stone brick wall skirting the garden. In the wall are built two stone pillars flanking tall wooden gates; these gates being set at an angle to allow the family carriage to enter the drive from the coach-house down the lane. After it had picked up its passengers from the main entrance door, which Miss Brodie said was at the side of the house, it turned left round the oval flower bed, which still exists and continued along the drive through rear gardens of the present bungalows, on the right hand side of the lane. An old map dated 1806 shows that the drive curved to the right and the carriage travelled down the left hand side of the field where the giant oak tree still stands; subsequently reaching the gates at Lakeside. Forming a junction at the right-hand curve mentioned above, a drive is to be seen leading to the entrance in Station Road, which in those days was about "Red Tiles".

In the immediate vicinity of the now vanished house there are some steps leading down to an old cellar, which are now boarded in. Under this cellar, I am told, runs a stream which cooled the wine and beer stored there, and I can imagine the "comings and going" to obtain the precious liquor served at the sumptuous banquets and parties held in this grand old mansion in its hey-day.

Also, just inside the old stone wall there is a quaint looking hexagonal building, with a pointed roof, which unfortunately is falling into disrepair. I imagined it had been a well house, but Miss Brodie said that it had formerly contained an outside privy, although when her family had owned Fernhill an engine for producing acetylene gas was installed there to light certain pendants in the main rooms; this task being somewhat tedious. The well was situated in the yard.

The stables and old coach-house still stand in the lane, and Mr. Ray Williams who now uses them as a garage, told me that mangers for 6 horses still exist in the stables, and there is a loose box at the far end. Also there are some stairs leading up into the hay-loft. Built at an angle to the stables is the coach-house, portioned off to hold 3 carriages. The family coach stood in the centre, where up in the roof there is a frame still holding the remains of the cover for the coach when it was not in use. This frame was lowered down on to the coach by means of pulleys; these are still in existance.