Disastrous Fire

1841 blaze raged out of control


This corner of Church Street and High Street South, once the site of a pub called the Wheatsheaf, was the scene of a disastrous fire which destroyed around 20 houses in June 1841. It began in a bakehouse belonging to Mr T. Fossey whose family was awakened by the blaze and escaped with great difficulty. There was much confusion in the town as the fire spread. Dunstable's fire engine was brought to the spot but was so dilapidated that it didn't work. An express message asking for help was dispatched to Luton. An hour and a quarter passed by before the Luton fire engine arrived. By that time the blaze was threatening to engulf the whole town. Eight houses were destroyed in the high street, seven more in Church Street, and six houses in a narrow courtyard leading from Church Street to the high street. They included a chemist's shop, a grocer's and a cabinet maker. The area was rebuilt and by 1911 a well-known local personality, Percy W. Ashwell, was running a shop on the corner selling ladies' wear. Later the site was occupied by the Home and Colonial grocery shop with a highly polished brass frontage and sawdust on the floor. Next door was the Freeman Hardy and Willis shoe shop. Both these buildings were demolished in 1963 when Church Street was widened, leaving the corner as it looks today. Foster Brothers became the corner business with the Gibbs and Dandy hardware shop next door, in High Street South. This was a large walk-through store which extended to another entrance in Church Street. A later business on the corner was a pet shop which suffered a disastrous fire in 1971 when many animals were killed.

Old Dunstable fire engine in front of brick building.
Dunstable's old fire engine
A photo showing the corner of church street with shops and people.
The corner of Church Street which was rebuilt after the great fire of 1841.

Text: John Buckledee of Dunstable and District Local History Society. ©
Design: David Turner.
Narration: Barbara Morton of Dunstable Repertory Company.
Recording: David Hornsey.
Website developer: Joshua Buckledee.