Morston Hall on Fire


… in the fields of Trimley St. Martin

Part 1 Morston Hall

When I moved to Trimley in August 1964 one of the first tangible signs of living in an agricultural community was the burning of stubble in nearly all the fields surrounding our house in Grimston Lane. Black smuts floated through windows and coated every available surface unless someone, probably my mother, was swift enough to close all the doors and windows. However quickly they were firmly shut, the fine ash had a way of coming through small cracks and crevices to universal household despair.  Clean washing left to dry outside demanded a rapid sprint to the clothes line, although if the household were away when the fires started there was no remedy but to wash everything again. Such annual conflagrations continued unabated for nearly three more decades, only finally disappearing when The Crop Residues (Burning) Regulations 1993[1]  came into force. Now all stubble appears to be ploughed back in and burning is only used if it is for, disease control or the elimination of plant pests where a notice has been served …” or “disease control or the elimination of plant pests…”  [2] , such as Black Grass Weed.

Fire is a terrifying experience for all, in any time or place. In one way or another all defensive coverage of modern fires refers back to 1666 and The Great Fire of London. This one event saw the rise of two aspects of fire protection: insurance and fire brigades. The first fire insurance company was set up in 1680 by Nicholas Barbon[3] who had been heavily involved with rebuilding of the City of London after the Fire. Other companies followed one being the Sun Fire Office which later became Sun Alliance. Some of the insurance companies provided pumping machines to attack fires for their client but not alas, for the uninsured. In 1802 the Suffolk and General country Fire Office was founded. It was known later as The Suffolk and General Amicable Fire office until 1849 when it was absorbed by the Alliance Insurance Company. It was then known as the Suffolk Alliance life and Fire Assurance Company[4]. `As for fire brigades, well, I will mention these as I proceed. A good description of an agricultural fire may be found “Far from the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy and describes the moment when the worthy Gabriel Oak views a haystack on fire,

“The fire was issuing from a long straw-stack which was so far gone as to preclude a possibility of saving it. A rick burns differently from a house. As the wind blows the fire inwards, the portion in flames completely disappears like melting sugar, and the outline is lost to the eye., However, a hay or a wheat rick, well put together, will resist combustion for a length of time, if it begins on the outside,”[5]

With similar fiery images emblazoned on my mind’s eye, I started to look for evidence of such occurrences in Trimley St. Martin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and discovered shocking stories of accidents, deaths and arson over a period of sixty years, mostly centred upon Morston and Grimston Hall. Both farms appear to have experienced more fire damage than the remainder of the Trimley villages combined.  This week I focus on Morston Hall.

 The first Fire at Morston Hall, 1861

1861 Penny 3

My first report comes from ‘The Ipswich Journal’ on March 16th 1861 and concerns a fire at Morston Hall. The owner or Lord of the Manor at the time was the Duke of Hamilton[6], although he is unlikely to have been affected by the event. It was the occupier of Morston Hall, Mr. John Williams who took the greatest hit.  He was 85 years old and lived in Morston Hall with his wife who was about 72. He farmed 900 acres, employed 30 men and 15 boys as well as house servants and it’s reasonable to suppose he was a comparatively wealthy man who garnered fair sized crops during the good years. But on Friday 15TH March 1861, a fire was discovered in a Barley stack and in the same manner as that described by Thomas Hardy, it took hold. The flames where fanned by a strong south wind and the spread to an adjacent wheat stack. Both blazing stacks magnified and in no time at all, contiguous buildings caught fire. The buildings comprised: three stables, two granaries, two ‘cart lodges’, a bullock shed, three barns, a machine house, a chaise house and a wheelwright’s shop. (Evidence of the stature of the farm at the very least.) All were obliterated although Morston Hall, the ‘Dwelling House’, narrowly escaped destruction. Reading the article, it becomes apparent John Williams had taken out an insurance policy. When the fire started he must have despatched a speedy message to the Suffolk Alliance Office in Ipswich who rapidly deployed two engines. The early fire machines were horse drawn and would have been very similar in appearance to the image below:

Lingfield Fire 1855 2 1855 Image of hand pumped Fire Engine from Lingfield, near Crowfield in Sussex

The Ipswich  Office was about seven or eight miles from Morston Hall and assuming the horses were going at a break neck speed of about twenty five miles an hour it would probably take a minimum of forty minutes for a round trip to Ipswich. However, in this instance John Williams and the farm labourers received assistance form an unexpected source;

“The coast-guard men stationed in the vicinity and the gunner and 40 men belonging to the tender of H.M.S. ‘Pembroke’, lying in Harwich harbour, under the command of Lieut. Nash, R.N. rendered very valuable assistance…”

Originally built in 1802, H.M.S. Pembroke[7] had been converted into a ‘screw ship’ or ‘an iron screw steamer’ for Coastguard duties in 1855 based in Harwich. There is no explanation as to how H.M.S. Pembroke became involved in the fire-fighting, whether through sharp observation of the distant fields of Morston Hall or through a second message sent to the ship.

img_4186 2View towards Harwich, beyond the cranes of Felixstowe Dock from the Morston Hall Pill Box, January 3rd 2019. 

I have yet to discover the cause of the fire, if it was known, nor the cost to the insurance company when remunerating Mr. Williams. He died on 22nd April 1863 leaving effects worth under £7,000. This doesn’t sound very substantial until it is converted into today’s value[8] when it emerges as £836,111.11p. But money is not everything and the loss of buildings combined with the shock must have been a dreadful experience. After the death of John Williams his widow, Rebecca, remained at the Hall until at least 1871. But by 1881, there was a new tenant, John Playford.

Second Fire at Morston Hall, 1883

1883 PennyJohn Playford was from Great Yarmouth and in 1883 he was aged 48. His household was sizeable indeed, consisting of himself, his wife Annie, seven children, one governess, one Agricultural student boarder, four servants and one business partner, Armitage Heal. His property was to be damaged by fire and reading the report it is possible to see how technology had not moved much in twelve years.  In the early afternoon of Saturday, August 28th 1883, a fire was started in one of the barns about half a mile from Morston Hall. Two newspapers picked up the story, The ‘Diss Express and Norfolk and ‘The Ipswich Journal’. As you may gauge from the time of year, the harvest had been gathered in and a stiff south easterly breezed prevailed to the detriment of the surrounding area.  The sequence of events as described by ‘The Diss Advertiser’ is complemented by those in ‘The Ipswich Journal’ and it is possible to have a clear outline of what happened.

At about one o’clock a lad called Moyes, accompanied by three other boys, tried to extract water from a pump; a barn was on fire. He cried for help from a man thatching the barn, William Mosely, who immediately raised the alarm. Nearby labourers ran to the fire and also tried to stop the fire with the water to hand but this was unsuccessful. The embers from the barn, encouraged by the breeze, resulted in the dry corn burning within a very few minutes. Such was the intensity of the fire the flames ran along the dry stubble and within five minutes five wheat stacks were fiercely ablaze.  At this point Frederick Playford, the owner’s eighteen year old son seized direction of the operation and tried to save a further five Barley stacks which were then untouched but such was the heat of the fire, it was to no avail.  It appears two messages were despatched. One to Colonel Tomline, presumably in nearby Nacton, requesting use of the estate machine.  A second messenger, William Everitt, was sent to Walton Post Office to send a telegraph to the Woodbridge Fire Brigade.  Colonel Tomline’s personal steam fire engine was the first on the scene under the direction of the Estate Engineer, Mr Scales, but left shortly after arrival as they were unable to locate an adequate source of water. The horses which pulled the Woodbridge engine and were owned by Mr. Garnham, were all out when the message was delivered and it was thanks to two Woodbridge citizens, Mr. Sealey and Mr. Cleveland lent their own horses so that the machine was able to arrive by four o’clock. This was three hours after the alarm was raised.  When they arrived, Mr Seeley and Captain Booth set to and by five o’clock had broken through a covered well, which proved to have a seemingly never ending supply of water.  The engine worked all night managing to prevent the fire spreading further and saving about five stacks. They finished at one o’clock on Sunday afternoon. The ‘Diss Advertiser’ reports their clothing and boots were, ’much damaged’. Their exhaustion must have been profound.

The newspaper stated the total loss to be,

“The produce of fifty acres of wheat and fifty acres of barley, both of which are stated to be of excellent quality and quantity, better than has been known on the farm for years; a large brick and wooden barn with the drum of a threshing machine, three turnip grinders, oilcake crusher, tools, etc., which were inside; two bullock sheds with thirty cattle bins and four waggon loads of straw; and two stack cloths. “

Mr. Playford estimated the damage to be worth about £1,000. Or, in today’s money £32,575.76. Mercifully, he also had insurance cover; stock with the Norwich Union Fire Office and buildings with the Sun Fire office.

But, here comes the question; how did the fire start?  The Police investigated and both newspapers report the fire was started by a match, or Lucifer, carelessly thrown down into the straw on the Barn Floor after being used to light a pipe. And who threw the Lucifer? It pains me to tell you but it was eleven year old Moyes better known as William Moyes of Boathouse Cottages, the same lad who had initially raised the alarm and tried to put out the fire. But I suspect it pained him even more to confess to the truth of his actions and I can’t help wonder just what his father, James Moyes, had to say to him when he returned home.  The Bury and Norwich Post[9] reported that young  Moyes was to appear before the Woodbridge Magistrates the following Monday. The ‘Diss Advertiser’[10] restricted comment, merely observing,

‘… Lucifer matches should be kept of the reach of children.’

Indeed, they should, then and now.

 The third stack fire and fatality, 1908

1908 Penny 3

By 1908 another tenant of Morston Hall, Mr. Herbert Read, had come and gone and there was a new occupier, fifty two year old Mr. Arthur Pratt. He was to experience the third major fire on the farm and on this occasion it unfortunately involved a fatality. The East Anglian Daily Times carried the article[11]. On Wednesday 5th February 1908 at about 2.00 p.m. There were six stacks in a field on Morston Farm next to the Ipswich – Felixstowe Road and Arthur Pratt was the person to raise the alarm. He was riding down the drive to his house when he noticed one his stacks was on fire. He immediately raised the hurdles of some pens holding sheep and lambs and called for men to come and help him as there were other fire stacks in close proximity to the original, but,

‘Ere they could reach him, a second stack was alight.’

Arthur Pratt took control. A message was despatched to Orwell Park for the engine but it proved useless because there was virtually no water to hand. The men set about ploughing the land surrounding the stacks to prevent the spread of the fire. This demanded strength and courage because the horses pulling the ploughs were ‘very timid’ but nevertheless the men prevailed and created strips of earth which acted as an impromptu fire break. Water was drawn from the farmstead and this was used to saturate the earth thereby helping to prevent further damage. But when the men had raked the burning stack to the ground, a fearful discovery was made; the body of a man. The Police, in the person of Constable Charles Runnacles, dealt with the residual matter and a clue emerged, suggesting the origin of the fire. A clay pipe, tobacco tin and some buttons marked, ‘Cutler, St. James Street were discovered indicating the poor man had rested in the stack and taken the opportunity to smoke his pipe. The Tobacco tin was later identified by a man called Morsley, who recalled a man had helped him to drive some Bullocks from Ipswich to Felixstowe and he had just such a tin had been in his possession. Unfortunately, Morsley didn’t know his name.

At the inquest[12], Arthur Pratt informed the Coroner that smoking was not allowed on the farm. A shepherd by the name of John Taylor, who worked for Arthur Pratt said he had visited the sheep and lambs in the morning and had not noticed anything untoward. The Coroner directly asked John Taylor if he knew a James Smith of Kirton, who was a hurdle maker and who had been,

Lying about rough lately…’ .

It would appear he hadn’t been seen since the previous Friday.   Smith confirmed he was aware of the absence of James Smith.  However, in his summary, the Coroner concluded there was no certainty to the identity and the deceased man had probably inadvertently caused the fire and been overcome by the smoke.  I’m unclear if the identity of the man was ever resolved. All I can comment is there was no James Smith in Kirton in the 1911 Census.  As for the Orwell Park Fire machine, yet again it proved to be swift away from the scene and of minimal use when it was there.

The fourth fire at Morston Hall: The Stack fire at Trimley, 1914

1914 2 Penny

The final fire incident for this period took place in April May 1914. Those familiar with local history will recall the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe was burned down on 28th April 1914 by two Suffragettes, Florence Tunks and Eveline Burkitt. But two days before this notable event there was a smaller arson attack at Morston Hall, also delivered by two women. Page 67 of ‘The Suffragette’ newspaper for May 1st 1914 reports upon both events although the burning of the Bath Hotel takes the lion’s share of the coverage. St. Martin’s became unwittingly involved in the fight for Votes for Women. It was reported that at 10.30 on Sunday morning, 26th April 1914, a haystack at Morston Hall in Trimley was seen to be on fire. There was no water available and nothing could be done. According to the newspaper the result was the loss of 100 tons, although the crop is not identified. The stack was isolated from any other flammable material and no further damage was incurred. The article continued,

‘Just previous to the discovery of the outbreak two women were noticed cycling away from the spot, going towards Ipswich. A paper with the words, “Votes for Women” was found near the stack.”

The other articles on the same page all relate to other, ‘Devastating Fires’ and indicate arson was a significant part of the campaign at this time. Many of the arson attacks had notes left at them stating, ‘Blame Asquith.’  For me, the question hanging over this particular Suffragette action is: was the Morston Hall fire attack carried out by the same two women who perpetrated the action on the Bath Hotel?

Reading all of the newspaper reports, it is notable the absence of information is as significant as the fine detail of the fires and the resolute bravery of the fire fighters. Dependency on horse drawnfire machines located more than eight miles away and the absence of an easily accessible water source were profound inhibitors to the fire-fighting cause. Nevertheless, on every occasion it is the energy and determination of those involved which commands admiration. It also reminds me be to be grateful for the existence of the modern Fire Brigade and the men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe.


If you have any comments or would like to be part of this Trimley St. Martin project, please contact me at:

LR  04/01/2019



[1] (2018). The Crop Residues (Burning) Regulations 1993. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 30 Dec. 2018].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica. (2018). Nicholas Barbon | English economist. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 30 Dec. 2018].

[4] (2018). Browse records of other archives | The National Archives. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 30 Dec. 2018].

[5]  Hardy, T. (1875). Far From the Madding Crowd. Macmillan and Company, p.50.

[6] The manors of Walton, Trimley and four other manors were purchased by George Tomline in 1868. Allen, D. (2018). [online] Available at:  [Accessed 31 Dec. 2018].

[7] (2018). Royal Navy – Ironclads 1861. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 30 Dec. 2018].

[8] calculator, I. (2018). Inflation calculator. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Dec. 2018].

[9] Bury and Norwich Free Press (1883). Extensive fire at Trimley. [online] p.7. Available at: [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].

[10] Diss Express and Suffolk Journal (1883). Trimley: Extensive Fire. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].

[11] East Anglian Daily Times (1908). Stack Fire at Trimley. [online] p.2. Available at:  [Accessed 1 Jan. 2019].

[12] East Anglian Daily Times (1908). Trimley Stack Fire: Inquest on unidentified man. [online] p.3. Available at:  [Accessed 1 Jan. 2019].


2 thoughts on “Morston Hall on Fire

  1. Just out of interest I am a direct descendant of John & Rebecca Williams (First Fire at Morston Hall) who were two of my Great Great Grandparents. I am fortunate to have portraits of them both painted, I think, around 1830. If you are interested I could send you photos of the portraits which hang on our dining room wall here in Ealing W5.


    1. Good afternoon, Spencer. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I would indeed be interested and grateful for photographs of their portraits. It’s almost beyond exciting! Would you agree to me adding them to the Blog , please? It’s difficult to find visual source material for the pre-photographic age as I am sure you can appreciate.
      I know the existing inhabitants of Morston Hall will be fascinated to view them as well. If you would like, I’ll try and take some contemporary photos of the building for you, pending the owner’s permission. My email address is:
      Thank you for contacting me. Liz.

      Liked by 1 person

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