The Fire in December 1920 at
Downham, Essex

Little Abbotts The Fire Aftermath Renewal Thank You Time Line References Read Me

Little Abbotts: History and Mystery

The house known as "Little Abbotts" is located on what used to be the estate of "Fremnells", the 16th Century Manor House that was destroyed in 1957 (or 1954) to make way for the Hanningfield Reservoir. "Little Abbotts" is thought to have been a house for the gamekeeper on the "Fremnells" estate.

Little Abbotts Today

In the early hours of Tuesday, 7th December 1920, a disastrous fire struck and reduced the original building to a totally burnt out shell, killing its three occupants in their sleep. Mercifully, it appears that the three were overcome by heat and smoke before their demise, and as a consequence escaped being burnt alive. Intriguingly, NO pictures or early photographs could be found of what "Little Abbotts" looked like before the fire in 1920. However, the round towers present in today's house suggest the original house may have had the appearance of a small castle. The slender clue that we have is derived from reference [2] below, which map is in the National Library of Scotland [3]. The original pre-fire house may have given its original width to the rebuilt house. Today's house has four towers, one at each of the two front corners and one along each side, the distance between the two left hand columns being the same as the distance between the two right hand columns. This implies that the depth of the original house may have corresponded to the distance, on each side, between the corresponding front column (left or right) of the house and the rear column appearing on each side (left or right) of today's house.

Outline of Little Abbotts, dated 1919.

The outline of Little Abbotts is shown in the 1919 Ordnance Survey Map.
Here we see "Little Abbotts" (top) in the context of the "De Beauvoir Arms" (bottom).

Possible plan view of pre-fire (1919) "Little Abbotts"

The Fire on 7th December 1920

In the "Chelmsford Chronicle" of Friday, 10th December 1920 [5] we read of a devasting fire at "Little Abbotts", in the early hours of Tuesday, 7th December 1920. In this fire, three individuals died: a married couple and their manservant. At the time, their untimely death was a great tragedy to all in the local community who knew the victims. The house and its contents were completely destroyed, leaving only the shell of the original building.

   + name +   age   
   Stanley Wilton48   
   Edith Mary Wilton46   
   Robert James Ralph25   

Below you see a transcript of the report in the Chelmsford Chronicle. Apart from the historical account, it is interesting to see that the style of English used is already different from that to which we are accustomed today, almost 100 years after the tragic event.

Signs of the Times
The Downham Fire

THE isolation of some rural districts has been terribly emphasised during the past week by a tragedy that has involved not only the complete destruction of a fair-sized house and the whole of its contents, but also the lives of its three occupants. The house, known as Little Abbotts, situate at Downham, about five miles from Billericay, was occupied by Mr. Stanley Wilton and his wife, and a manservant named Ralph. They were apparently last seen by Mrs. Watts, wife of the licensee of the Beauvoir Arms, who after visiting the Wiltons was escorted home by Mr. Wilton and Ralph, who, after a short stay there, returned to Little Abbotts. To a certain extent the time of the conflagration can be approximately fixed by the fact that at one o'clock on the morning of the fire Supt. Boyce and other officers of the police force were in the vicinity of the house making a special round. At that time the police say there was no sign of fire, but 4½ hours later - 5.50 a.m. - a horseman going to work was astonished to see that the house was entirely burnt out, the bare walls only remaining standing. The police were informed, and, searching the debris, they found what remained of the three bodies - charred fragments. That, in brief outline is the story of a tragedy the like of which has not occurred for many years, if at all in Essex.

What was the Cause?

THE cause of the fire and its ghastly results must ever remain a mystery, though it may not be difficult to reconstruct the terrible event. It may be supposed that the deceased went to bed fairly early, as most residents in the country do; that during their sleep the smoke from the burning building permeated the rooms they occupied and suffocated them in their sleep before the possibility of their being awakened by the crackle of fire and fall of burning debris. Death, therefore, to the occupants of Little Abbotts was robbed of the dreadful features associated with some burning buildings and trapped occupants who succumb while fully awake in agonising terror in enveloping flames. All the same, the fate of Mr. and Mrs. Wilton and their manservant, Ralph, is an appalling one, and real sorrow must be felt for the victims of the tragic affair.

From one of the sources below, it appears that that Mrs Watts, wife of the licensee of the De Beauvoir Arms had visited Mrs Wilton for tea. Mrs Wilton was not too well at the time, so in a way it was a courtesy visit by Mrs Watts. The visit indicated how close-knit rural communities were in 1920.


The aftermath to this event is reflected in three aspects: (1) the inquest, (2) reporting in the newspapers (Newspapers? - Remember, it's 1920.) and (3) burial of the deceased.


The inquest took place on Thursday, 9th December 1920 in Downham (precise location not known). It was reported in (probably among others) the following newspapers.


The events - the fire and the inquest - were reported in a number of national newspapers. Newspapers were, of course, in 1920, the main news sources. Public radio broadcasts started in 1922 (2LO) and therefore were yet to come! The following are examples of reports in the papers of 1920.


The three victims were buried on 11th January 1921 "in Downham". I assume this means in the churchyard of Downham Church.


Three buildings on the former Fremnells Estate bear the mark "PJ 1922" as shown below. It looks as if this is probably the sign of the builder who renovated all three buildings after the fire at "Little Abbotts", the renovation being duly completed in the year 1922. At least one of the three buildings (the detached house in the table below) is presently let to its occupants from the Essex & Suffolk Water Company, the owners and managers of Hanningfield Reservoir.

The "PJ 1922" sign on all three buildings probably signifies the builder and the year in which house was built - or rebuilt in the case of "Little Abbotts".

latitude (°) longitude (°) description detached ?
51.646096 0.485039 Hawkswood Road, closest to site of Fremnells detached
51.643521 0.489491 "Little Abbotts" 2x semi-detached
51.651977 0.472983 Hawkswood Road, close to T-junction with Dowsetts Ln and Downham Rd 2x semi-detached

The three buildings and their respective approximate locations.
All bear the same mark "PJ 1922"
and are therefore presumed to have been worked on by the same builder.

Thank You and Finale

Thanks go to the present-day residents of Little Abbotts. They alerted me to this interesting but ghastly story, interesting because of the mystery that surrounds Little Abbotts to this day. What caused the fire? What did little Abbotts look like before the fire? To whom or what does "PJ 1922" refer? We can of course speculate on these questions, but speculation it may well remain for posterity.

Time Line

before 1919 "Little Abbotts" built
during 1919 OS® Map of Essex revised.
during 1920 OS® Map of Essex published.
1920-12-07 Tuesday Fire (Monday night)
1920-12-08 Wednesday Fire reported in the daily "London Times"
1920-12-09 Thursday Inquest in Downham
1920-12-10 Friday Fire & Inquest both reported in
the weekly "Chelmsford Chronicle"
1920-12-10 Friday Inquest reported in "The Scotsman"
1921-01-11 Tuesday Burial in Downham
during 1922 "Little Abbotts" rises again (PJ 1922)


  1. Private Communication, 2018-11-19
  2. Essex (New Series 1913-) n LXXII.7 (South Hanningfield); Revised: 1919; Published: 1922, accessed: 2019-11-26
  3. National Library of Scotland, accessed: 2019-11-26
  4. "London Times", The Fire near Downham, December 8, 1920, p.9, c.4.
  5. "Chelmsford Chronicle", Signs of the Times, The Downham Fire, 1920-12-10, p4
  6. "Chelmsford Chronicle", Inquest on The Downham Fire, 1920-12-10, p8
  7. "The Scotsman", Mysterious Fire in Essex, 1920-12-10
  8. "Wikipedia", Hanningfield Reservoir, accessed: 2019-11-21
  9. "Essex Life", Forgotten Secrets of Hanningfield Reservoir, accessed: 2019-11-21
  10. "Wickford Community Archive", Fremnells Manor and Hanningfield Reservoir,
    accessed: 2019-11-21
  11. "Lost Heritage, England's Lost Country Houses", Fremnells, accessed: 2019-11-21


  1. Clip Art. On this web page, the picture of the fire is from Microsoft's® clip-art libraries,
    originally supplied with some versions of MS Office®.
  2. The Author. The depiction of the Essex crest is my own creation!