Two men were cooking a joint of meat for their Sunday lunch ..

Some stories of the source of the fire.

The wig-maker’s account tells us that the Great Fire of Crediton (1743) broke out in “Robert Francis’s house” – which is corroborated by the map. Robert Francis was a maltster. He also held two inns in the High St, and probably leased some or all of his properties to others.

Many local people remember the story that it was caused by some men playing cards while a joint of meat for their Sunday lunch was roasting in the hearth. Engrossed in their game, they paid no attention to what was happening as the fat from the meat dripped onto the fire.

Neither of the contemporary sources (Towgood, or the Wig-Maker’s Tale published in the Gentleman’s Magazine) mentions these details.

The earliest source we have for the story comes from Alfred Edwards, who was compiling notes for a history of Crediton in the 19th century. He never published, but one of his notebooks contains the comment:

“Thos Madge tells me that the great fire of 1743 broke out at the house of one Cowley, an innkeeper where a party playing cards threw some of the dripping of a leg of mutton which was being roasted for them into the fire, which ignited the soot in the chimney. Cowley was never heard of after the fire”.

Venn repeated this story in his history of Crediton, written in the 1960s.

Where had Thomas Madge heard that story? And who was “one Cowley”?

In the 18th century, alehouses had to be licensed, year by year. The records for 1739 still exist, but then there’s a gap until after the Great Fire. No-one called Cowley held a licence in 1739, but “Richard Cowley” is listed as a licensee in 1744. So it is quite possible that Richard Cowley had been the licensee of the alehouse where the fire broke out; and having been burnt out, that he then took on the licence of another alehouse in the town after the fire. Intriguingly, in 1744 someone of that name is listed as one of the tenants of the partly-rebuilt Fountain Court (behind what is now the second-hand bookshop near the pedestrian crossing in the High St) : and we know from other sources that there was an alehouse called The Fountain there in the latter part of the 18th century. So we know that “one Cowley” not only was heard of again; it could be that he was the landlord at The Fountain after the Great Fire.

Like many good old stories, Thomas Madge’s tale appears to contain some truth – with some elaborations and distortions added as it was told and retold over the years. After all, Thomas heard it about 100 years after the event, and Alfred Edwards was the first person to put it in writing.