The Way We Were: Olney’s worst ever New Year

Cowper's House at Olney

Cowper's House at Olney

0
Have your say

CITY historian JOHN TAYLOR takes another walk down memory lane....

FOLLOWING a spate of nocturnal robberies, an outbreak of malicious fires plagued the town of Olney from the last days of 1852 until the early weeks of 1853, and to this day there has never been a satisfactory explanation.

The first incident was discovered on Christmas Eve 1852 at about 10.30pm, when, situated on the side of the road leading from Olney to Bedford, a large barley stack belonging to Mr Whitmee was found ablaze. By the valiant efforts of the townspeople about a third was saved, but on the following Monday at about 7pm an attempt was made to fire the premises of Miss Raban, ‘a harmless Miss,’ who was the tenant of a farm belonging to Lord Dartmouth.

Fortunately this blaze was tackled early, but on New Year’s Eve at 7pm another mysterious blaze broke out in the centre of the town, in a large yard behind the house of Mr Thomas Soul, a butcher. Soon a mass of flames enveloped the buildings, and ‘Here the scene was most awfully grand and heart-rending in the extreme, language being wanting to depict the awful sight – that of seeing nine fat and store beasts, chained to the rack, surrounded by an impregnable mass of fire – to hear their mournful cries, and see them fall one by one and consumed by the devouring element.’

Then on January 2, 1853 an attempt was made to set fire to the thatch of a cow barn. Fortunately this failed, and with fire watchers having been appointed to all the vulnerable farms and buildings of the area, the next night passed without incident. At about 6pm on the following day another arson attempt was made on the cow barn, and before the fire engines could reach the blaze the fire had spread not only to a neighbouring bake house, but also to several other thatched properties, including the premises of Mr Killingsworth, a watchmaker. Now there was a real danger that the flames might reach the front of the street, but by 8pm the blaze had been brought under control.

Yet not without sacrifice, for a part of a burning building collapsed on a party of men, among whom Jacob Clifton sustained terrible injuries. On regaining consciousness he frantically asked after John Marson, the local rat catcher.

He had been working with him at the time, and after a frenzied search Marson’s body was recovered, albeit unrecognisable due to the burns and bruises. The following morning the bellman went around the town to announce that William Scott, a farmer, was still missing. He had last been seen fighting the flames, and eventually his body was discovered in the same cellar as John Marson.

News of the fires had attracted national attention, and – with three officers having been sent to investigate from Scotland Yard – a reward of £200 was offered, plus the promise of a free pardon.

In fact by their initial enquiries the officers were led to suspect parties ‘not of the labouring class,’ and a month later a man from the town, ‘of previous good character,’ was brought before the magistrates.

In fact a detective from the metropolitan force was even sent to begin proceedings, but the man’s guilt seemed in doubt when on January 29 a further outbreak occurred. This was in the manger of a stable on Lodge Farm, but fortunately the fire was quickly discovered and put out. Yet still the fire-raising continued, and another outbreak occurred on March 23, again at Lodge Farm.

This was discovered at about 6pm, and despite gallant efforts the wheat hovel was completely destroyed. However, this seems to have brought an end to the arsons. But to this day there has never been an explanation for the mysterious fires of Olney, which were the most traumatic events to ever befall ‘this hitherto undisturbed little town.’