Skip Navigation

Welcome to Bedford Borough Council

Home > Community Histories > Kempston > The Half Moon Fire 1904

The Half Moon Fire 1904

The Half Moon in 1815 by W. H. Pyne [X67/935/19]
The Half Moon in 1815 by W. H. Pyne [X67/935/19]

On 8th January 1904 the Half Moon Public House caught fire and was almost completely destroyed. This newspaper account is preserved in the scrapbook maintained by the Bedford Volunteer Fire Brigade [AD1082/3].


"A disastrous fire broke out in this village last Friday, which has destroyed what was probably one of the oldest and most picturesque hostels in the county. How it originated will never be certainly known, but the strong probability is that it was caused by the heating of one of the many old oak timbers which had enabled the structure to attain such a venerable age. The old "Half Moon" Inn stood on the side of the main road at the further end of the village, and had a return frontage to what is now known as Water-lane. In its early days it was doubtless a place of no little importance, and the size and colour of some of the grand oak beams which defied the devouring element would seem to indicate that it may have been the scene of revels of considerable standing. How old the structure was we cannot say; some of the oldest villagers say it was reputed to be the oldest house in the county; others that it was known to be over four hundred years old, but whether the place could claim either of these distinctions or not it is certain from the style and plan of the structure that it was erected when modern methods of buildings were quite unknown. And it was a strange mixture of weakness and strength, sometimes in very strangely close juxtaposition. For instance of its three chimney stacks, the one at either end is down, and they were evidently of a much mor recent date than the massive stone erection which stands firm and four-square amidst the wreck and ruin of the greater part of the building. The was built to stand and, barring accidents or its probable demolition when the new structure rises out of the ashes of the site, it would have stood for as long again, as it has done up to now. The "Half Moon" of the present age was a by-no-means-to-be-despised place of refreshment or encounter. It boasted a good club-room, - which by strange irony of fate had last Friday been specially got ready for a big smoking concert that night, - a bar wherein was found one of the broad, old-fashioned open fireplaces, with a grand oak beam, black with age and as hard as iron across its front, and on the other side of this a typical old tap-room of the good old coaching days. The party walls were mostly composed of wattled hurdles, the stakes and clay of which were still firm and good as when they were first built in, and which were hidden from sight by coats of plaster, oft-renewed and made a warm comfortable set of rooms. The lower part of the front had been renovated in the picturesque style so often found in houses belonging to Messrs. Jarvis; with casement windows, having pretty stained glass panels above, and clear glass below, the whole harmonising well with the overhanging thatched roof , which made the exterior of teh house so pleasant to look upon. To meet the growing needs of the growing town, for surely Kempston, with its six thousand inhabitants, ought now to rank no longer as a village, - a convenient lean-to portion had been added to the rear of the house, and this, with the pretty little porch at the front door, was the only part of the place that boasted of a tiled roof. Indeed, the "Half Moon" was one of those quaint old houses that led one's thoughts back to the days before life was all hurry and rush when the coach was the common means of locomotion, and "Mine Host" was a friend to look for at the various points of call on the long road journies of the time; and so one regrets its disappearance".

"The present tenant is Mr. George Anthony and his family comprises his wife and four children, the youngest barely a month old, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Browel, an old lady of seventy-six who, though enjoying good general health, has almost entirely lost the use of her legs. The host having been busy, as stated, in getting ready for a "smoker" to have been held that evening , the old lady was taking care of the baby in the large front bedroom, whilst Mrs. Anthony was seeing to the mid-day meal of the faily down below. This had bust just been finished, when on going to the cupboard udner the staircase, Mr. Anthony fancied he saw a light in the wall of the cupboard, or through a chink in it. Before he could make sure what it was, an alarm was given to the inmates by Goff, the carrier, who on passing the house about half-past one, noticed smoke coming out from the thatch at the Water-lane end of the house. Mr. Anthony only went far enough to make sure that the alarm was correct, when he returned and rushed upstairs to rescue the old lady and infant. These he got down safely. amidst the rapid development of the fire. It being the dinner-hour, there were soon plenty of willing hands to help remove some of the goods, but so fast did the flames spread that practically nothing at all could be saved from upstairs; and the result was that the landlord had not a particle of clothing of any description saved but what he stood upright in. A few things, such as the piano, tables, and such like, were rushed out of the doomed building, and a messenger went up  to the Post Office to telegraph to Bedford for the Fire Brigade. The "call" was received there at 1.40 p.m., and at 1.50 the steamer "Victoria", fullt equopped and manned, passed over the town bridge on its errand of mercy, in charge of Foreman Shelford, by whose order Engineer Purdue lit the fire and raised the steam as they dashed through Bedford and on to the scene of the fire. Arrived there, the firemen saw the thatched roof already fallen in, and all that could be done at first was to prevent the progress of the flames, and try to save other buildings from destruction. A plentiful supply of water was found in Mr. Hilton's pond across the road; a line of hose was quickly laid, and a good stream of water was soon pouring on the flames. From the first it was evident that nothing else could be saved from the interior, and so attention was directed to isolating the house, by extinguishing the flames which were spreading over the stables and wash-house, both having thatch roofs. This end secured, the brigade proceeded to drench the flaming mass of the erstwhile inn, but this proved a long and tedious operation, owing to the materials of  which the house was built. To get to the floors of the bedrooms the firemen had literally to dig away loads of burnt thatch and rafters, and this was attended with some risk, for several of the men repeatedly fell through holes in the burnt-out floors. Still they continued the work for hours, and finally, about half-past nine, it was thought safe to pack up and leave the smoking and reeking ruin in the charge of a trusty watchman. In the evening the spot was visited by hundreds of people, who gave the police, Sergeant Nicholson and P. C. Marritt, a difficult task in keeping open the roadway and giving the firemen room to work".

"A visit to the spot on Saturday revealed what a clean sweep the fire has made. With the exception of the walls up to the eaves and the central chimney stack the place has gone, save that the oaken beams and rafters still kept their positions, though charred and burnt to a degree. Amongst the things destroyed were several jars of spirits and barrels of beer, and about six hundred cigars, also deeds and other valuable papers which Mr. Anthony had kept for safety in the ebdroom he was occupying at the rear of the house".

"The roadway in front of the house presented a strange sight to the onlooker; heaped up in hopeless confusion were iron bedsteads, bits of furniture, settles, lengths of piping, broken crockery, and oddments of all kinds, resting on and partially smothered by heaps of ashes and refuse which the firemen had thrown off from the floors of the bedrooms as they worked down to the ground floor. The cellar was completely blocked in its approach by fallen timber, burnt thatch and walling, and indeed it was as uncommon a sight as one could very well imagine".

"In order that the landlord should suffer as little as possible by loss of trade, Messrs. Jarvis sent over a staff of men of various trades, with instructions to rig-up temporary accommodation as quickly as possible, and before evening time on Saturday the coach-house (part of the new brick-tiled out-buildings apart from the older portion) had been converted into a passably comfortable bar, with counter, lights, and stove, and a good trade was soon being done".

"A large number of people went over from Bedford on Saturday and Sunday to see the ruins, and many were the regrets expressed that the old place was destroyed; whilst some, somewhat unkindly, remarked that the landlord had had his "smoker", but of a very different character to that which he had anticipated. This makes four fires in Kempston, all of a serious character, which the Bedford Brigade have been summoned to attend within the short space of six months".

The Half Moon in 2007
The Half Moon in 2007