The Grange Fire Mystery

The picture featured in “Art in Wiltshire”, purported to be of the Grange at Chitterne two days after a fire in 1852 by W W Wheatley, seems at first glance to offer a fascinating glimpse of Chitterne’s past, but on closer inspection things don’t add up.

In the background of the picture, to the right of the house, is a church easily identified as that of old All Saints, which had pinnacles at the corners of its tower; old St Mary’s Church was smaller and had a plain tower. It would not have been possible to see old All Saints Church from the Grange, there were too many other buildings in the way and the distance between them was too great. This much was clear from studying a map and the actual site, even though the church is no longer there, (it was totally demolished in 1871). My interest aroused I looked for more clues.

The building depicted is sited on a large plot of land, looks quite ancient from the type of windows and has large gabled wings. Whereas the Grange, which still stands in Chitterne, is a rectangular building of Georgian proportions and sash windows with small gables at the rear. It is sited alongside the village road and its grounds are compact.

At this stage in my train of thought I needed back-up and so I phoned Jeanne George for her opinion.

In her archive Jeanne had a photocopy of a drawing of a house, and when we met and compared the drawing with the picture, it was obviously the same scene. Presumably the artist had made the drawing whilst on the spot, as it had notes written on it, and it had none of the onlookers included that featured in the finished picture. The very indistinct notes appear to say:

“Remains of abbey or monastery burnt down April 17th ……(year not clear). Sketched 2 days afterwards. Several of the ….(the rest is illegible). W.W.Wheatley”.

Jeanne had already formed the opinion that her photocopy depicted Manor Farmhouse, Chitterne All Saints, which she had deduced from the position of old All Saints Church, and I agreed with her.

Next I contacted the present owners of Manor Farmhouse, Arthur and Sarah Gooch, and I struck gold when they produced copies of two different newspaper reports concerning a fire in 1852 at the house that had previously stood on the site. They kindly allowed me to study the reports, and sure enough the date matched with that of the Wheatley picture.

It seems that the fire started about noon on a Saturday in the large farmyard, which was thickly covered with “muckle”. The weather had been dry and so the flames soon took hold over the entire area, enveloping the yard pump and spreading quickly to the surrounding farm buildings and then to the house, where the farmer, a Mr Hitchcock, lay in his sickbed. He was swiftly moved to the safety of a neighbouring house owned by a Mr Hayward. Both Heytesbury and Warminster fire engines attended but were unable to prevent the destruction of three wheat ricks, a barley mow, six calves, twelve pigs, eighteen head of poultry and machinery and implements of considerable value, besides all the farm buildings.

Frustratingly the reports do not name the house, aside from placing it in the parish of Chitterne All Saints, however, both reports describe the house as being “formerly a nunnery”, of “very ancient date” and “built many centuries ago, consisting in great part of timber”, descriptions which tally with the notes written by Wheatley on his preliminary sketch. The building was certainly once part of the estate owned by Lacock Abbey until the mid 16th century, when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the religious houses. In 1824 Hoare described it thus: “another good house, having on its front the following shield: A Chevron between three lozenges, on a chief three martlets. This coat belongs to one branch of the family of Jordan.” The family he refers to is that of William Jordan, who acquired the manor of All Saints in 1580 from his wife’s brother John Temys, who was a nephew of Joan Temys, the last Abbess of Lacock. The manor remained in the Jordan family for about 80 years, passed to the Giles family of Fisherton Delamere, the Michell family and eventually to the Onslow family, who owned it at the time of the fire in the farmhouse.

The Hitchcock family were tenants of the Onslows and are known to have farmed at All Saints Manor Farm for many years, as the number of Hitchcock graves in All Saints graveyard testify. They were no strangers to tragedy as the burials include four of family members who died under twenty-five years of age. The fire was probably the last straw. The Mr Hitchcock who was ill at the time of the fire must have been Henry Hitchcock, who in 1851 lived at Manor Farm with his wife Jane, his sons Henry and Frederick, and his daughter Jane. By 1900 there were no Hitchcocks in Chitterne at all.

And there I rest my case. As to how and when the new Manor Farmhouse was built, that will have to be another investigation.