Fanned by what was described as a ‘stiffish breeze’ the flames travelled from floor to floor spreading with great rapidity ‘flames coming from the windows of nearly every storey’ and threatening to spread to adjoining buildings
A small manual engine which was kept at the mill was promptly put to good use but it quickly became apparent that further help would be required. The local Ivybridge fire engine was first to arrive. The superintendent, Mr. William Full, a surveyor for the Urban District Council by profession, and Captain William Martin received the alarm at about a quarter to seven. As most of the men were just going to work, they were at the mill in a few minutes. However, by the time they arrived at the scene it was already apparent that nothing could be done to save the building so efforts were directed at preserving the rest of the property.
The Plympton Brigade and their manual engine, under Supt. W. H. Hockin were next to arrive. Twelve men and the engine were at the fire within an hour. Last to arrive was the Stonehouse Brigade. Mr. F. W. Thuell, captain of the brigade, accompanied by Mr. O. R. Matthews, deputy chairman of the District Council, and Mr Mitchell, chairman of the fire engine committee, motored out to prepare for the arrival of the brigade. The brigade together with their steam engine reached Ivybridge at 9 o’clock. A squad from the George Street Church Ambulance Corps, Plymouth, was also in attendance.
Despite their best efforts the five storeys of the main building were quickly burnt through and by 7.45 am the roof collapsed. The roofs of some of the other buildings were damaged but as they were all low they were largely out of the reach of the fire in the main building. The firemen worked with ‘commendable skill and determination, taking their hoses along the roofs of the buildings and keeping a steady stream of water upon the flames, thus preventing the fire from spreading’.
By 10 o’clock the fire had been brought under control. Apart from the workshop, the damage was limited to a low long building through which the launder channelled water to the rag boilers. The wooden launder, whilst charred, remained intact. For several hours afterwards, the hoses were directed onto the burning debris at the bottom of the building. This consisted of bales of compressed rags and wood pulp and they continued to smoulder producing vast clouds of smoke. A number of cutting machines were also in the building. Thankfully there had been a plentiful supply of water from the launder which brought water from the external leat. However, there was no pressure and had the new water scheme planned for Ivybridge been operational the fire might have been tackled more proficiently during the early stages as the new reservoir situated at 800 feet above sea level would have provided adequate pressure.
There had been many willing helpers throughout the morning. The hand-engines had been manned not only by men but also young women who ‘displayed remarkable endurance at what was decidedly arduous work.’ Also, when the Mill House which adjoined the rag-sorting department became in danger from the fire, volunteers assisted in removing all the furniture to a field close by. ‘That this precaution was wise was evident from the fact that some of the articles in the house were almost too hot to handle’. The furniture, which belonged to mill foreman James Purdie who lived at the Mill House, was later transferred to Stowford Lodge and the Devon School of Gardening.
By the following morning it was clear that major damage had been sustained to the mill. The rag loft was completely gutted. Other adjoining buildings were also damaged, as was the water turbine whilst valuable machinery used for dealing with the rags had been destroyed. The larger quantity of machinery housed elsewhere were fortunately undamaged. The new engine house which was still in the process of completion was also saved.
It was feared that the incident would close the mill, as was often the case following fire around this time. However, Stowford Mill was one of the lucky ones and was successfully repaired. The total cost of the restoration was approximately £14,000. The buildings and their contents had thankfully been insured by several fire insurance companies.
During the reconstruction of the mill the workforce experienced reduced hour working, a hardship which was to last for almost a year until the building was re-established. It was also at the outbreak of the First World War with men up and down the land conscripting for military service. George Clapperton, the Managing Director reported that with his connection with several other paper mills, around three quarters of the male workers at these sites were enlisting and that it was impossible to get women or inferior labour to conduct such skilled work. It is not known exactly what proportion of the labour force was affected in Ivybridge.
In 1916 a local press article reported that the mill had to apply for an exemption of the only remaining stoker on the grounds that they were unable to replace him and without his daily 16 hour shift the mill would have to close. Thankfully the exemption was granted on condition that he remained in his current employment. Coal was of course used to fuel the boilers which provided the power for the machinery. Orders for paper remained scarce throughout the war years and even after the armistice was declared, making it a difficult period in the history of the paper mill.
A bell chamber which existed at the top of the main building was a feature which was not replaced following the fire. The bell which had been sounded to call employees to work was damaged beyond repair. Fortunately there was a bell in the small belfry at the Lower Mill and this was fixed to the side of the rag loft. The bell was later replaced by a hooter.
Reference: Stowford Paper Mill and the Industrial Heritage of the Erme Valley – Colin Harris (1999)