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A Costly Haystack Fire in Clapham

A newspaper cutting of 21st October  1916 [AD1082/4a] gives details of the prosecution of the unhappy farmer at Clapham Park Farm for showing a light contrary to the Defence of the Realm Act when a haystack of his caught fire. If any of the hay was green, or still living, haystacks commonly self-ignited as heat built up inside them.

The country had been raided by German airships since 1915 and in 1917 London would suffer a particularly destructive raid by German Gotha bombers. Whilst air raids precautions of the Second World War are better know, the authorities in the Great War sought to minimise risks too. Altogether during the war German terror bombing killed 1,414 people and injured another 3,416.

“Lancelot Clark, farmer, Clapham, was summoned under the Defence of the Realm Act for failing to extinguish a certain external fixed light, to wit a burning haystack, at Clapham, on the 16th September”.

“Mr Graham, for the prosecution, said the haystack was on Clapham Park Farm, which was on a hill, and visible for many miles round. On the 14th September it caught fire, and remained light until 17th. The regulations said that all external fixed lights of all descriptions must be extinguished, but no steps were taken by Mr Clark to extinguish the fire. On the 15th a constable said to him that some means must be found before  night to have it put out, but Mr Clark said he could do nothing. Later on the same day he was seen again, and he then appeared to suggest that the police had powers to put out lights under the Defence of the Realm Act. If he had called the Fire Brigade they would have been able to get water. There was a hydrant on the Kimbolton Road 4,200 feet from the stack and the Brigade had 6,000 feet of hose. There was also a pond within 300 yards and two deep wells 300 or 400 yards from the stack. He would also have had 50 soldiers to spread the hay. Mr Clark was himself a special constable, and should have left no stone unturned to have the fire put out”.

“Henry Whiltock, gardener to Mr J Howard Howard, said that early in the morning of September 14th he saw a haystack ablaze, and he saw it burning on the night of Sunday, the 17th. There was a pond of water about 300 or 400 yards from the stack. In his opinion if the Brigade had been called they could have so subdued the fire that the stack could have been pulled to pieces. On Friday he told Mr Clark that he could have 50 soldiers to pull the stack down. There were two wells at Park Farm, but one was closed up. He saw no attempt to extinguish the fire”.

“By Mr Clark: The stack was in a hollow, and the mansion was 50 or 60 feet higher: the stack was not on a hill. The ponds were fed by surface water. He did not know how the well was fed, or that the well was fed by a pond. He could not see the fire from the South Lodge. There was a hill intervening between Bedford and the stack”. 

“Mr Clark suggested that it was question of whether the fire was a light within the meaning of the Defence of the Realm Act, and not of how many people saw it”.

“John Thomas Ashwell, resident engineer at the Bedford Fire Station, stated that he received no call from Mr Clark or anybody on his behalf. If the call had come there were two engines at the Station and 6,000 feet of hose. There were about twenty firemen. On the Kimbolton road was a borough hydrant near the Park Hotel, and there was a county hydrant opposite Clapham Park Lodge. - Witness was cross-examined as to whether the Brigade were not called to the Wrest Park fire on the 14th; and whether one engine and some of the firemen went to that fire”. 

“Mr Clark said this was a case of particular interest to farmers. The prosecution sought to set uo the view that a haystack accidentally on fire was an external fixed light within the meaning of the Act. At this time of the year there were heaps of thorns and trimmings about the farms and if some person chose to set them on fire the view of the prosecution was that the farmer was responsible. He submitted that as the stack was only there temporarily, and the fire was only temporary, it could not possibly be an external fixed light”.


“Mr Graham replied that the light existed, and the regulations concerned all lights. The only point was whether it was under defendant’s control. It was clear that the stack was overheated, and was not set on fire at all”.

“Fined £10”.