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Incidents from Tilebury's History

Dr Harriet Longstepp

1 December

The Great Fire of Tilebury

I'm reminded of the great fire of Tilebury by the events of the other night when black smoke billowed across the market square and I spent several hours shuttling back and forth between the village museum and my living room to rescue our priceless collection of village memorabilia and records in case the fire spread (or the firemen misdirected their hoses)

The Great Fire was said to have been caused by the mad wife of the rector of Tilebury Chase. The rector was appointed to be the minister to the Bullen family and his living allowed him to use the bridge house (Commonly called the Bullen Gate - the building just the other side of the stone bridge beyond the Jenns school, which is part of the old Bullen estate). Technically it also required him to hold public services in the old chapel on the village side of the bridge (now just a ruin where you can see the original floorplan of the foundations in the mud but nothing else)

Well the rector was fonder of wine than of services, so he is said never to have set foot in the old chapel. Instead his wife took to the place. initially she just tidied it up and polished the monuments. But as her madness (probably lead poisoning) took hold she began to spend more time there.

At her peak, the rector's wife was said to have moving bedding and closets into the chapel and to be living there most of the time. Villagers started complaining when she started putting dolls on the pews and lecturing them from the pulpit. Curious peeping toms who looked in the windows reported that her sermons were carefully researched and doctrinally accurate (as far as they could tell).

However, it eventually became clear that something had to be done. That something was to send several sherriff's men to clear her and her toys out. This they did. She watched them impassively until just as they took out the last of her dolls she grabbed a torch and set fire to her own dress.

Immediately she seemed to be possessed of immense energy and waving the torch and the flickering satin layers of her outfit she leapt from flammable fitting to flammable fitting. Then she was gone into the village and everything she passed was said to have caught alight instantly. Some suggest that it was the height of summer and the dryness made everything act like kindling. Others that lots of building works meant that there was a large amount of sawdust and new wood around.

Whatever the cause, the village was alight in minutes. Large numbers of buildings disappeared in the conflagration and those that remained often still show the sootmarks caused that day. In case you ever wondered - it is one reason why so many of the buildings along Bridge Road are Georgian.

Our recent fire was rather less widespread. But in a hundred years I suspect that it will be just as memorable a part of our history (not least because of the lurid events connected with it).

Which brings me to a final point. We are living through history. The articles in the Harbinger over the last year record events which future generations will read with interest. I am not immune from the troubles surrounding the Harbinger and I am aware that this may be the last issue (at least of this incarnation of the village newsletter). If so, it would be a pity. Next year's history will be lost if it is not recorded contemporaneously. Historians of the future will peer at our lives through only the narrow window of recent events and will wonder - what happened to Tilebury? How did those unfinished stories which appear in these pages ultimately end?

Only by continuing the Harbinger can we answer them.

Articles from other months are linked from the side bar.

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