Inquest held at the Royal Oak
On Thursday, 20th May 1895, a thunderstorm which passed over Pirton left one man dead, another severely injured, and burnt down four cottages, leaving families homeless and destroying furniture and possessions.
At an inquest into the death of George Downham which was held in the Royal Oak public house in Pirton before Mr. F. Shillitoe, the Coroner. A verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ was returned and the full story of the calamity emerged. Abraham Weeden, Daniel Goldsmith, Arthur Smith and the deceased were working for Mr. King, carting wheat from a stack in Low Field, Pirton, to the threshing machine at Holwell. About 3 p.m. the thunderstorm broke and they took shelter against another stack where they were joined by John Weeden and James Baines. There was a crash of thunder, but the witness saw no lightning, and all the men fell down. The witness, Abraham Weeden, said he rolled over three times, got up, but felt numb in his legs. The other men did not get up. By this time the stack was well on fire. He pulled the men away except the deceased, whom he could not move, then went for help. William Walker came and was joined by Frank Day, a bricklayer, and together they pulled the dead man away. He was dreadfully burnt, his features being quite unrecognisable. The handle of his pocket knife was charred almost to ashes but his watch, although discoloured, went for another half hour. He was aged about 40 years, lived at Holwell, and was married with two children.
At about the same time as the stack was set on fire, a thatched cottage some 500 yards away was struck by lightning. No-one was home at the time, the tenant Mr. John Pearce being at work, and his wife happened to be out. The cottage was soon alight and burned rapidly. John Thrussell at once drove off to Hitchin to alert the fire brigade. Eight minutes after the message was received, the brigade was on its way, under Captain Logsden and Lieutenant Barham. Although there was a steam pump, the equipment was horse-drawn and, with the torrential rain, the road to Pirton was at one point two feet under water, so deep that it put out the fire in the steam pump. Incidentally, there was not a drop of rain at Hitchin.
In the meantime the fire had spread to the adjoining cottages. Mr. W. Newberry climbed onto the beams and directed neighbours to hand up buckets of water to help check the fire until the fire engine arrived. John Pearce lost all his furniture, as did his neighbours, the Roberts brothers, who unfortunately were both deaf and dumb. From the third cottage, the home of Thomas Baines, furniture was removed. The bustle and excitement can be imagined as neighbours and others worked with a will to save whatever they could. By the time the fire engine arrived, all they could do was prevent the fire from spreading to the entire row of homes. This they managed to do with much willing help, and water taken from a nearby pond. So ended a day of drama and sadness. The fire brigade left at 9 p.m. with men on watch for any further damage either at the cottages or the stacks, but the night remained quiet with no wind, and all was well.
None of the occupants were insured although the owner, Mrs. Phoebe Davies, was. Great was the sympathy of all the villagers. It was a heavy loss for people of such slender means.
A subscription list was opened by Mr. Davies, the Guardian of the Poor of Pirton, and Superintendent Reynolds of Hitchin Police, for contributions – however small – to help those who had lost property in the fire and to be shared by the relatives of the men killed in the storm and the injured.