Date:January 06, 2013

Nellie Shellaker


Conflagration – the recollections of a twelve year old girl 

In the early hours of Saturday 7th March 1931, John Brown was awakened by smoke – Nellie & John’s 500-year-old cottage is on fire. John quickly got Nellie, his daughter  Olive and Nellie’s older sister Sarah Shellaker, to safety. The fire spread rapidly and in no time the cottage was completely gutted.

The extremely cold weather hampered the Fire Brigade as the water froze as it left the hosepipe. (Below I have transcribed the newspaper report on the right for ease of reading).

Fire in Billesdon - Nellie Shellaker

Fire in Billesdon- March 1930Four people escaped from a fire, which destroyed a 500-year-old thatched house at Billesdon early today. While the flames were at their height, the owner of the house rescued his cat from a blazing room, and the keen wind froze the clothes of the firemen, and turned the flying spray from the hosepipes into icicles on their faces and hands. John William Brown, the well-known Billesdon nursery gardener and horticulturist, was awakened to-day by smoke that poured into his bedroom.

On investigation, he found the downstairs rooms of his 500-years-old cottage home in flames. He raised his wife, his 12-year-old daughter, Olive, and his sister-in-law. Miss Shelacre, who were asleep in upstairs rooms, and they hurriedly dressed and left the house carrying with them what things they could gather in the scramble to safety. While the flames were roaring in the next room, Brown telephoned for the Leicester Fire Brigade and then tackled the flames with a hand extinguisher, but they had spread to the thatched roof, which was covered with sheets of corrugated iron. He was unable to tear away the iron sheets, and could make no headway against the fire until the Brigade arrived, by which time the cottage was a roaring mass of flames. The Fire Brigade reached Billesdon shortly before 6 o’clock and were engaged on the burning building until 12 noon.

When the flames were at their height Mr. Brown was told his cat was trapped in an upstairs room. He scaled a ladder placed against the window ledge of the room in which the cat was trapped, and brought the cat to safety. With the temperature below freezing point, the Brigade was hampered in their effort to put out the fire. The hosepipes froze, and the water that sprayed back upon the firemen immediately turned to icicles. Huge icicles clung to the ivy round the walls of the house, and the tunics and trousers of the firemen became masses of ice. Neighbours helped the Browns to remove such possessions from the house that were not affected by the fire, but the greater part of the furniture and the clothes of the family was destroyed, including Mrs. Brown’s jewellery.”

Postscript (January 2000) The account above, of this dramatic fire, is in the public domain and accessible to all. However I obtained a unique eyewitness account of the fire, recalled over sixty-eight years after the event, in January 2000, from Nellie’s daughter Olive who was twelve years old at the time her home burnt down. Her memories of that fateful night are below.

1931 - Cottage Destroyed at Billesdon“During the evening we discovered the kitchen chimney was on fire. Chimney fires were not uncommon in those days as a lot of wood was burnt, which over the years formed a resin which would stick to the inside of the chimney. As there was not a local fire service, my father did the usual things, removing everything from around the fireplace and waiting for it to burn out. After this he swept the chimney with a large branch from a shrub, (Laurel, I think), not wishing to use his brush, as the chimney was still warm. A great deal of sticky soot came down and after he was satisfied that everything was all right, we all had supper and went to bed.

Early in the morning, perhaps between four and five we were woken by the smell of burning. Dad got up, went downstairs and looked around but at this point could find no sign of anything wrong. He then opened the front door and looked towards the nursery gardens where a bonfire had been burning the previous day and decided that the burning smell might be coming from that, so he went back to bed and I think we dozed. After a short time, perhaps just half an hour, we were roused again to find the rooms filling with smoke. Dad again went downstairs, opened the front door, and walked outside. As he turned to look at the cottage he saw the roof was blazing! The roof was thatched but the thatch was covered with zinc sheets making it impossible to get at the fire. He ran to the bottom of the stairs and shouted “Get up. All of you, the house is on fire!”

He quickly realised that the fire was beyond anything he could do and rang for the fire engine, which was stationed ten miles away in Leicester. He also phoned my uncle, Sam Geary, but failed to rouse him so he sent me round to his house in Front Street as we needed help to save as much as possible from the fire. I went to Uncle Sam’s house and threw something at their bedroom window, which awakened him. He told me to call next door at the house of Miss Barnes, who was always an early riser and she in turn sent me to ‘Little Rolleston’ to the home of the Gamble family as they also would be up at that time. It was a very sharp frost that morning but I do not remember feeling cold. I think I had a coat on in addition to my nightclothes and dressing gown.

I hung on to my Teddy who always slept with me also some of my mother’s jewellery that I had snatched whilst leaving my burning home. I think I may have been in a daze, as I do not remember thinking of anything but just doing things to help. I then went back to Back Street and found my home blazing. Villages rallied round and some of the furniture was saved, the grandfather clock, a warming pan and the secrétaire, although the glass-fronted bookcase that had previously stood upon it was damaged beyond repair. (These items are now situated in my home at Knights Close, Billesdon).  I was sent to join Enid Norton in bed at the Academy until the next morning. Although the night of the fire is still clear in my memory, the following days are very hazy in my mind. I recollect that the house was completely burnt down, with only one gable and a small section of wall still left standing. The fire had started in the kitchen and then the flames ran along the side of the house so that the bedroom furthest away from the source was the first to be destroyed. I remember that three people offered me a home, but a home was needed for all four of us……”

Front Street Billesdon - Sam & Emma Geary's HomeFollowing the fire Nellie’s home was completely gutted, as the newspaper photograph clearly shows. However Nellie’s older sister Emma Geary would quickly come to her aid and invited Nellie, husband John and daughter Olive to move into her house in Front Street, Billesdon. Consequently Nellie and her family, together with sister Sarah Shellaker, moved into ‘44, Front Street’, staying with Emma and her husband Sam Abell Geary. Emma’s daughter Annie had married the previous October but her son ‘Bert’ was not yet married and was therefore still living at this house, which now had to accommodate two families, seven people in total.

This photograph of ‘44, Front Street’, also known as ‘Ivy House’, was taken many years later, in the 1960’s. However, the structure of the house had remained unaltered since the time the families of both Emma and Nellie lived there. To the rear of the house was a sawmill and workshops in which Emma’s husband carried on his trade as a carpenter. Nellie, John & Olive Brown and Sarah Shellaker lived in the front room and two bedrooms above. The rooms were connected by a separate staircase in the corner of the front room linking the room with the bedroom.

These rooms are those of the left of the photograph above. After the Sunday evening service at the chapel the two families would return to the house. Sam Geary and Olive would often sing around the piano as other members of the family chatted in the other room.

John Brown Army NellieThis arrangement continued until the following year, 1932, when the family moved back into a new house that had been built on land next to the destroyed cottage in Back Street. Nellie’s husband John, together with her brother-in-law, Sam Geary, had designed the new house. A local builder John Barnes had also assisted in the design and had built the house. At the time of building the house was wired ready for light and electricity that was to come to the village some eighteen months later. Back in their new house John Brown continued his Nursery business. Although he was to have a time of ill heath caused by severe heart problem. During this time he had to take things very easy. Due to John’s illness, and the consequences of the fire, Nellie’s family had to endure long periods of financial troubles.

In 1939, following the outbreak of the Second World War, Nellie’s husband John joined the Observer Corps, stationed in Gaulby Road, Billesdon. His duties were to keep watch for enemy aircraft. In the early years of the war Nellie & John provided a home at the new Nursery to evacuees. Firstly a lady named, Mrs. Anscombe stayed with the family until she found a home nearer to her daughter. Then a Mrs Wilks and her daughter Barbara were the next to be accommodated.For many years, one branch of John’s business had been concerned with standing market at both Melton & Leicester.

However the trips to Leicester Market stopped around the time of the ‘blackouts’ that became a major part of life during the Second World War. However he continued with his business at Melton Market until 1956.

Next Page: A wedding and another generation