Fireman Ellen Ann

On the night of 2-3rd September, 1907, Miss Willmott’s magnificent, antique-filled, wisteria-draped French villa burned.

Ellen was not at home at the time . She missed the drama by mere hours, taking the overnighter down from Paris to join her sister and brother in law – who were in the building, fast asleep.

No one was harmed, which is more than can be said for Maisonette, Ellen’s alpine home. By the time she arrived in the early hours the blaze was only just being brought under any kind of control. Her beloved villa would smoulder for a week.

I don’t believe there are any photographs of the damage. This was long before the days when people took snaps for evidence and, besides, Ellen was beyond distressed.

We do have the next-day report from the local paper (found by Willmott-scholar Genevieve Frieh Geraud, who goes into the incident at length in her book La Mairie de Tresserve):

Image from La Mairie de Tresserve, Genevieve Frieh-Giraud

As she stood in the charred wreckage, Ellen made a not-very-wise decision: to rebuild. The effort would tip her teetering finances into free-fall. As the months wore on, it became clear she had not been very sensible elsewhere either: her insurance policy was woefully inadequate.

We have found a number of post-inferno insurance policies that tell us Ellen took the whole idea of fire a lot more seriously after that horrific night. The number of final demands on said policies also tell us that she still wasn’t very good at it, but the thought was there.

But I now think that she also took rather more practical precautions, too.

I was idly thumbing through the 1935 auction catalogue yesterday and found my eye drawn to Lot #1969, and something I’d not noticed before:

Now, we all know Ellen was extravagant, and she had been well and truly spooked by her experiences in Tresserve, but a fire engine?

I didn’t think that a mere fire extinguisher would cut it with that description, even though Heathman & Co did manufacture such things – here’s one for sale by Scifitastic:

So I initially took this to be some kind of bowser – a big old tank on wheels with a hand pump to spray water at whatever was on fire. And of course it might have been. Certainly Heathman & Co made such contraptions (don’t you just love the address – can you imagine an industrial fire-equipment company in Endell St today?)

But look at the original catalogue description. Where are those copper headlamps on any of the above?

We should also note that this particular lot was listed with a load of Ellen’s vehicles: Fred Willmott’s prized Victoria coach, along with another carriage, an old car body (not the Charron, that went to Spetchley, but Ellen did have at least one other motor, about which we know very little), a donkey cart and two of Mrs W’s bath chairs:

Lot #1970, if you can see it underneath the red circling, is for the attachments, including 400ft worth of hosepipe and suction pipes, presumably for drawing water from a nearby pond or dipping pond which, of course, Ellen had dotted around the estate:

Image: Sandra Lawrence

Therefore, I have to conclude that Ellen had, very possibly, gone out and got herself the full Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew. And let’s face it, she had form for large purchases…

The National Emergency Services Museum has an example of a Heathman & Co fire engine that I think must be very close to the vehicle Ellen kept at Warley:

Image: National Emergency Services Museum

It’s not the exact model as this one was the village fire engine for Tickhill, near Doncaster, but it’s by Heathman, it’s from the late 1800s, and it has those all-important headlamps, our only positive description, so I think we’re getting warm for the sort of thing Ellen would have had.

It’s on display in the museum’s Victorian Engine House. There’s also an excellent blog about privately-owned fire engines at large houses.

The website tells me that although it was horse-drawn, it needed 22 people to manually pump water through it, which, of course, Ellen would have easily had in the early 20th century. Perhaps it was in the charge of her dedicated water engineer for use in various ponds, especially South Pond, closest to the house so most useful in tight spots:

Image: Sandra Lawrence

Of course we don’t know that Ellen bought the engine after the Tresserve fire – indeed, we don’t know that she bought it at all. Fred Willmott was a careful man, it might have been him, a couple of decades earlier when the machine was new.

But I don’t think so. Ellen genuinely became very panicky about fire, and for good reason. Security (not, of course, the financial variety) trumped most things for her later in life, other than plants, obviously: witness the ‘deafening’ burglar alarm she had fitted instead of installing electricity at Warley in the 1920s. She would have still been able to manage a second-hand fire engine sometime around 1908 – if she saved a few quid by, for example, not paying Charles Sprague Sargent the money she owed him for Ernest Wilson’s plant-hunting trip to China…

We haven’t started seriously looking at her bills and receipts yet. Many are lost and of those that remain a good few are so shattered they will not be legible. But at least we now have some idea of what we’re looking for and I now won’t be too surprised to find the bill for a shiny red fire engine somewhere in Ellen’s papers.

What happened to it? Who knows. Did it even sell? Just two other examples of this particular machine are believed to survive; I don’t yet know where they are. One of them could be Ellen’s, I guess, but I’m not holding my breath.

But oh, how I hope we find a picture of her sporting one of those old helmets. After all, she did love dressing-up…

Image with apologies to (c) Berkeley Family and the Spetchley Gardens Trust


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