Dennis Bater expresses his frustration at the way things were handled when The George Hotel burned down in Dec 2008
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Page updated: June 11, 2009

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A response to this article has come from Bernard Drew, another former fireman in Hatherleigh. Read it here.

Fire in The George - it's not if, but when!

Dennis Bater, West Devon Councillor and former fireman, explains his frustration at efforts by firecrew to control the blaze on December 23rd.

A Divisional Officer in the old Devon County Brigade was Lesley Orgar. He was the commander of our division when I joined in 1967 and for my 27 years service. He always lectured us that one day the George would burn: "it's not if, it's when," he'd say. He added: "That day could make real firemen of you. Fail and you will have the biggest bonfire Hatherleigh has ever seen. Succeed and you will be heroes.''

He made us do exercises on paper and practical drills even at the George itself. Our experience, mostly based on the George drills, left us in good stead for the other fires we fought (described below).

His words were ringing in my ears during the night of the 23rd December 2008!

Lesley Orgar, and  A.D.O.'s Muggford, Murrin and many others of the old school have all now gone to that big Fire Station in the sky.  But on the 23rd they must have looked down and shaken their heads in disbelief.

We still have some retired officers with us. One I phoned who lives locally told me: "'From what I have seen it's not the way I would have dealt with a fire at the George. We knew it would always be a massive operation when the day came. But it appears the plan I worked on for many years went out the window and was not adhered to on Tuesday night. Now we see how present day fire fighting operations have taken over." He added: "Lesley Orgar must be turning in his grave.''

All the above persons were strict disciplinarians, but we respected their shouting, running and stamping of feet - and the sweating they made us do as we fought fires - because we knew they were right.

Some examples of fires

Back in history there is a record of a fire at the George. The firefighters that day must have been successful because the building has lasted some 150 years since that time.

The Tally Ho (then the London Inn) also burned down some time in the early 1900s). Here's a picture of that fire - it was fought with builder's ladders, a very small hand pump (engine in foreground) and farmers' pitch forks; there were no uniforms, and bystanders helped pump. This picture is from around early 1900s - they were obviously successful as we still drink at this pub today!

I carried a camera with me for many years when I was in the Brigade. As we approached a fire this (below) is what you would see and you got your orders from the officer in charge at this point before you dismounted. Then you ran like hell to get water on.                            

Below are two pictures of Meeth pub, the Green Dragon. It reopened and drinks were served at about 10pm the same night ... and it did not close!

We fought pub fires at Sampford Courtney, Sticklepath, Ash Water and two at Winkleigh. One Winkleigh pub was such a small site it was not rebuilt; the other however is still a pub. All were thatched except for Ash Water.

Some more stories of fire fighting can be read in my book (see here).

A successful Stop is needed

(Added December 28th) All thatched property is at serious risk in fires like this.  And in the past few years the scenes we have seen on local TV news, plus the end results that come from fire fighting, are not promising. Fireman need to get on the roof and make fire breaks in the thatch at a spot identified by an experienced officer (often the first to arrive), and a policy of keeping the flames down to a smolder is also needed, to give time to make the breaks. If these do not happen, then slowly our heritage of Devon thatch properties will disappear. Remember what Leslie Ogar said at the start of my article (see top) - it's not if, but when.

Below is a thatched home near Iddesleigh. A fire in thatch should end with a successful Stop (as it was known in the trade). These fires were fought with no more than 10 pumps at the most, and about 50 men. We had equipment that came to a couple of hundred thousand pounds. At the George on the 23rd, Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue had over 100 fire persons with 20 pumps, and their equipment came to millions of pounds .

It must be said at once that the Hatherleigh crew got to the scene in about two minutes and held the roof for some time using tried and tested methods. But then, remember, two firemen from the old school are still in that crew today!

Nowadays, senior officers take over when they arrive.

On the night of the 23rd, my son - who was in the Brigade with me and was at the Meeth fire described above plus some of the others (although he is now out of the brigade) - was asked by a bystander: 'Why don't they bring one of those turn table ladder things?' He replied: 'If they do I hope they bring a swing shovel at the same time for once you use one, the other will soon be needed.''

The retired Officer whom I spoke to on the phone later said that was a very good assessment. "It's the end to put in a turn table and squirt water from height onto thatch," he said.

The Brigade at The George did deploy two turn table ladders. And as you can see from my photos below, the swing shovel was not far behind!

Four other former firemen (whose pictures are also in my book but are now retired from the brigade) walked way from the scene that night shaking their heads in disbelief, saying: "Had D.O. been in charge, things would have been different!"



The view from Market Street on Boxing Day 2008 The view from the rear on Boxing Day

Editor's Note: it's worth adding that the 'not if, but when' lesson applies to all thatched buildings. Does the George experience mean that we will lose them all eventually?


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