18th OCTOBER 1884

Fawcett workshop, Melbecks


Richard Fawcett and his eldest son, Richard John Fawcett (c. 21 years) were tallow chandlers manufacturing candles at their workshop in Melbecks.  Above the candle factory, in a cottage, lived the Varty family of Christopher (52) an agricultural labourer and his wife Jane (37) with their three children Elizabeth Ann (8), Henry (6) and Christopher (3)


Their story can be retold from various local and national newspaper reports of 1884.  The fire broke out in the early hours of Saturday morning.  The workshop was surrounded by a brewery and in a secluded position, so the fire remained undiscovered until after 4.00 am when it was well under way.  The fire bell was rung and a crowd speedily gathered to help, finding the door nearly burnt through with raging flames within.  Repeated attempts were made to knock away the door and gain entry, eventually finding the cottage floor completely burnt away.  The crowd poured bucket after bucket of water at the fire and the Sub-Inspector turned on a brewery hose.


In the meantime, other residents devoted themselves to ascertaining the whereabouts of the family with ladders to the windows on the upper floors.  It was rumoured that they had been seen to escape, just as a bed was found to be empty.  As the dense smoke cleared, a cry of horror rang through the crowd when it was announced that a blackened form was found in the far corner with a child in their arms.  On closer examination the adult body was identified as Mr. Varty with another child lying close by.  The bodies were gathered up in sheets and blankets and lowered to the pavement outside via the ladders.


The search continued for the remaining two members of the Varty family.  In a little room off the living room, crouched up in the corner, was the Mother dead and badly burnt with a child beside her.  Ladders were spread across the chasm in the floor, and at the risk of falling into the boiling fat beneath, the bodies were taken out and placed alongside the other three.  Doors and stretchers were procured and the bodies removed to the ‘dead-house’ at the workhouse.


 During the incident Richard John rushed into the burning doorway of the cottage.  Seemingly overlooking the dangers of the burning floor, he fell through and into the vat of boiling fat below.  Escaping from the vat, he knows not how, he rushed, yelling with agony, amongst the crowd, and was taken to a neighbouring house where his very serious injuries were attended to.


An inquest was held at two o’clock on Saturday afternoon, in the boardroom of the Workhouse, before T. Wilson, Esq.  The jury members were sworn in: T. Mason, Esq., J.P. (foreman); Messrs. I. Bainbridge, draper; J. Bainbridge, shoemaker; Frank Brown; Jno. Dickinson, draper; Philip Jones; Wm. Murray, N. Gregson, J. B. Davis, L. Fairer and Thos. Bell.  Supt. Spencer attended representing the police. Mr. T. Brown was present on behalf of the Oddfellows Society who had held a meeting that morning and resolved to undertake the expense of burying the whole family.


First the bodies were viewed, with graphic details published in The Times on Monday 20th October 1884.  The scene of the fire was then visited, and on returning, evidence was given by Elizabeth Rudd, a neighbour; Richard Fawcett, the owner of the shop, who said all the fire had been put out in the shop an hour before his son left, and he thought the fire must have originated in the cottage above; Robert Burrow; Inspector Hutchinson; John Bell, Mr. Fawcett’s apprentice; and James Crewdson, who found the bodies.  A verdict of “accidental suffocation” was returned. 


Mr. Mason, the foreman, said: “I may say that I intend to bring before the Board of Guardians the question of having four or five keys for the hydrants, and suggest that they may be kept in different parts of the town.  Then perhaps some young men would practice fire drill, and so be ready in case of fire.  There is no necessity for a fire engine, as we have water from the works at such pressure.  I made some experiments with the hose recently, and we found we could project a stream of water as high as the church steeple.” 


The funeral took place on the Sunday and was reported in the Penrith Herald, as the largest and most remarkable gathering that ever took place at Kirkby Stephen.  Residents came from miles around to visit the fire site and the open coffins in the workhouse, before joining the funeral procession of an estimated 2,000 people. School children and teachers carried the children’s coffins, and the Mother and Father being carried by Oddfellows Society members.  Rev. Canon James Simpson and Mr. Brown of the Oddfellows officiated.  After the burial service, the large crowd filed past the grave, many in tears and throwing flowers.


It was later published that Colonel Sir Charles Firth, President of the Fire Brigade Association, had investigated the circumstances of the fatal fire and reported: ‘I inspected the scene of the fire at Kirkby Stephen, on the 20th inst.  It was caused by a wood conductor of the steam effluvia from the fat boiling in the set-pot having had one end let so far into the chimney which conveyed the heat and smoke from the fire stove under the set-pot as to get on fire and communicate fire to the boiling fat, tallow &c, in the set-pot, and about the set-pot.  This in turn caused the suffocation of the five inmates of the two rooms above, forming a dwelling.  No means of ventilation existed in the house excepting by the opening of windows or the door.  In the bed chamber no fire-place or chimney placed; the family were sealed up to their fate.  No cat or dog formed part of the establishment to give alarm.  Had the inmates not been so quickly suffocated they could with little risk of limb have dropped safely from the window.  I have visited thousands of scenes of fire, but never saw a more imprudent thing than the placing of this wood conductor into a heated place or chimney; and finding in the depositions of the Coroner that the master chandler expressed the opinion that the deceased inmates caused the fire, it is, in my opinion, adding insult to injury; the dead cannot speak, but the facts speak for themselves.  I never knew so many lives lost by fire with so little fire.  A ten pound note seems to me the utmost amount to replace and restore; no windows burnt, no roof worse, very light scorching done anywhere, save immediately over this set pot of tallow, which, unfortunately, formed the threshold floor of the dwelling, the only entrance door to this sad home, and there the fire raged.  The local sergeant of police displayed commendable tact, and with the aid of a hose belonging to a brewery close by, which was attached to the town’s water service, quickly put out the fire. This Sanitary Authority District have a town gravitation water supply, with hydrants on fire plugs, and a standpipe branch director jet and delivery hose.  The Executive have received my expressions of suggestions as to improving the fire appliances and forming a brigade.’


There is a large memorial in the Kirkby Stephen Cemetery erected by the Oddfellows Society.

                            Father Mother children dear,

                            They are not dead but sleepeth here:

                            Their bodies in the grave we lay

                            To await the resurrection day.


The deaths and fire were remembered with events on Saturday 26th October 2019 organised by Richard Ellis Hawley, a Fawcett descendant.



1881 Census Kirkby Stephen

The Times, Monday, 20th Oct 1884 pg. 10; Issue 31269; col D

Penrith Herald 25th Oct 1884Cumberland and Westmorland Herald 25th Oct 1884


Links to other Kirkby Stephen Blue Plaques