Posted by: Democratic Thinker | February 7, 2015

Weekly Story: A House Afire

Weekly Story

The Rector of Epworth takes an unpopular political stance. On February 9, 1709, he and his family wake to find their home ablaze.

The next day, as he was walking in the garden, and surveying the ruins of the house, he picked up part of a leaf of his Polyglot-Bible, on which just those words were legible: Vade; vende omnia quœ habes, el attolle crucem, et segvere me. “Go; sell all that thou hast; and take up thy cross, and follow me.”—John Wesley.


Young John Wesley Escapes From Fire.


A House Afire.


Shortly after the fire the Rector of Epworth wrote a detailed account to his good friend, the Duke of Buckingham:—



RIGHTEOUS is the Lord, and just in all His judgments! I am grieved that I must write what will, I doubt, afflict your Grace, concerning your still unfortunate servant. I think I am enough recollected to give a tolerable account of it.

On Wednesday last, at half an hour after eleven at night, in a quarter of an hour’s time or less, my house at Epworth was burnt down to the ground—I hope, by accident, but God knows all. We had been brewing, but had done all; every spark of fire quenched before five o’clock that evening,—at least six hours before the house was on fire. Perhaps the chimney above might take fire (though it had been swept not long since) and break through into the thatch. Yet it is strange I should neither see nor smell anything of it, having been in my study in that part of the house till above half an hour after ten. Then I locked the doors of that part of the house where my wheat and other corn lay, which was threshed, and went to bed.

The servants had not been in bed a quarter of an hour when the fire began. My wife being near her time, and very weak, I lay in the next chamber. A little after eleven I heard “Fire!” cried in the street, next to which I lay. If I had been in my own chamber as usual, we had all been lost. I threw myself out of bed, got on my waistcoat and nightgown, and looked out of the window; saw the reflection of the flame, but knew not where it was; ran to my wife’s chamber with one stocking on, and my breeches in my hand; would have broken open the door, which was bolted within, but could not. My two eldest children were with her. They rose, and ran towards the staircase, to raise the rest of the house. Then I saw it was our own house, all in a light blaze, and nothing but a door between the flame and the staircase.

I ran back to my wife, who by this time had got out of bed naked and opened the door. I bade her fly for her life. We had a little silver and some gold,—about £20. She would have stayed for it, but I pushed her out; got her and my two eldest children down-stairs (where two of the servants were now got) and asked for the keys. They knew nothing of them. I ran up-stairs and found them, came down and opened the street-door. The thatch was fallen in all on fire. The northeast wind drove all the sheets of flame in my face, as if reverberated in a lamp. I got twice on the steps, and was drove down again. I ran to the garden door and opened it. The fire was there more moderate. I bade them all follow, but found only two with me, and the maid with another in her arms that cannot go, but all naked. I ran with them to my house of office in the garden, out of the reach of the flames; put the least in the other’s lap; and, not finding my wife follow me, ran back into the house to seek her. The servants and two of the children were got out at the window. In the kitchen I found my eldest daughter, naked, and asked her for her mother. She could not tell me where she was. I took her up and carried her to the rest in the garden; came in the second time and ran up-stairs, the flame breaking through the wall at the staircase; thought all my children were safe, and hoped my wife was some way got out. I then remembered my books, and felt in my pocket for the key of the chamber which led to my study. I could not find the key, though I searched a second time. Had I opened that door I must have perished.

I ran down, and went to my children in the garden, to help them over the wall. When I was without, I heard one of my poor lambs, left still above-stairs, about six years old, cry out dismally, “Help me!” I ran in again to go up-stairs, but the staircase was now all afire. I tried to force up through it a second time, holding my breeches over my head, but the stream of fire beat me down. I thought I had done my duty; went out of the house to that part of my family I had saved, in the garden, with the killing cry of my child in my ears. I made them all kneel down, and we prayed God to receive his soul.

I tried to break the pales down, and get my children over into the street, but could not; then went under the flame, and got them over the wall. Now I put on my breeches and leaped after them. One of my maid-servants that had brought out the least child got out much at the same time. She was saluted with a hearty curse by one of the neighbors, and told that we had fired the house ourselves, the second time, on purpose. I ran about inquiring for my wife and other children; met the chief man and Chief Constable of the town going from my house, not towards it to help me. I took him by the hand and said, “God’s will be done!” His answer was: “Will you never have done your tricks? You fired your house once before; did you not get enough by it then, that you have done it again?” This was cold comfort. I said, “God forgive you! I find you are chief man still.” But I had a little better soon after, hearing that my wife was saved, and then I fell on mother earth and blessed God. I went to her. She was alive, and could just speak. She thought I had perished, and so did all the rest, not having seen me nor any share of eight children for a quarter of an hour; and by this time all the chambers and everything was reduced to ashes, for the fire was stronger than a furnace, the violent wind beating it down on the house. She told me afterwards how she escaped. When I went first to open the back-door she endeavored to force through the fire at the fore-door, but was struck back twice to the ground. She thought to have died there, but prayed to Christ to help her. She found new strength, got up alone, and waded through two or three yards of flame, the fire on the ground being up to her knees. She had nothing on but her shoes and a wrapping gown and one coat on her arm. This she wrapped about her breast, and got safe through into the yard, but no soul yet to help her. She never looked up or spake till I came, only when they brought her last child to her bade them lay it on the bed. This was the lad whom I heard cry in the house, but God saved him almost by a miracle. He only was forgot by the servants in the hurry. He ran to the window towards the yard, stood upon a chair, and cried for help. There were now a few people gathered, one of whom, who loves me, helped up another to the window. The child seeing a man come into the window was frightened, and ran away to get to his mother’s chamber. He could not open the door, so ran back again. The man was fallen down from the window, and all the bed and hangings in the room where he was were blazing. They helped up the man the second time, and poor Jacky leaped into his arms and was saved. I could not believe it till I had kissed him two or three times. My wife then said unto me, “Are your books safe?” I told her it was not much now she and all the rest were preserved, for we lost not one soul, though I escaped with the skin of my teeth. A little lumber was saved below stairs, but not one rag or leaf above. We found some of the silver in a lump, which I shall send up to Mr. Hoar to sell for me.

Mr. Smith of Gainsborough, and others, have sent for some of my children. I have left my wife at Epworth, trembling; but hope God will preserve her, and fear not but He will provide for us. I want nothing, having above half my barley saved in my barns unthreshed. I had finished my alterations in the “Life of Christ” a little while since, and transcribed three copies of it; but all is lost. God be praised!

I know not how to write to my poor boy about it; but I must, or else he will think we are all lost. Can your Grace forgive this? I hope my wife will recover and not miscarry, but God will give me my nineteenth child. She has burnt her legs, but they mend. When I came to her, her lips were black. I did not know her. Some of the children are a little burnt, but not hurt or disfigured. I only got a small blister on my hand. The neighbors send us clothes, for it is cold without them.

Rector of Epworth.


Five months later the Rector’s wife, at the request of a neighboring clergyman, wrote to him a little further account of the fire:—


EPWORTH, August 24, 1709.


MY master is much concerned that he was so unhappy as to miss of seeing you at Epworth; and he is not a little troubled that the hurry of business, about building his house, will not afford him leisure to write. He has therefore ordered me to satisfy your desire as well as I can, which I shall do by a simple relation of matters of fact, though I cannot at this distance of time recollect even calamitous circumstance that attended our strange reverse of fortune. On Wednesday night, February the 9th, between the hours of eleven and twelve, our house took fire; but by what accident God only knows. It was discovered by some sparks falling from the roof upon the bed, where one of the children (Hetty) lay, and burning her feet, she immediately ran to our chamber and called us; but I believe no one heard her; for Mr. Wesley was alarmed by a cry of FIRE in the street, upon which he rose, little imagining that his own house was on fire; but on opening his door, he found it was full of smoke, and the roof was already burnt through. He immediately came to my room, (as I was very ill, he lay in a separate room from me,) and bid me and my two eldest daughters to rise quickly and shift for our lives, the house being all on fire. Then he ran and burst open the nursery door, and called to the maid to bring out the children. The two little ones lay in bed with her; the three others in another bed. She snatched up the youngest, and bid the rest follow, which they did, except Jacky. When we were got into the hall, and saw ourselves surrounded with flames, and that the roof was on the point of falling, we concluded ourselves inevitably lost; as Mr. Wesley in his fright forgot the keys of the doors above stairs. But he ventured up stairs once more, and recovered them, a minute before the stair case took fire. When we opened the street door, the strong north east wind drove the flames in with such violence, that none could stand against them. Mr. Wesley only, had such presence of mind as to think of the garden door, out of which he helped some of the children; the rest got through the windows. I was not in a condition to climb up to the windows; nor could I get to the garden door. I endeavored three. times to force my passage through the street door, but was as often beat back by the flames. In this distress I besought our blessed Savior to preserve me, if it were his will, from that death: and then waded through the fire, naked as I was, which did me no further harm than a little scorching of my hands and face.

When Mr. Wesley had seen the other children safe, he heard the child in the nursery cry. He attempted to go up the stairs, but they were all on fire, and would not bear his weight. Finding it was impossible to get near him, he gave him up for lost, and kneeling down, he commended his soul to God, and left him, as he thought, perishing in the flames.—But the boy seeing none come to his help, and being frightened, the chamber and bed being on fire, he climbed up the casement, where he was soon perceived by the men in the yard, who immediately got up add pulled him out, just in the article of time that the roof fell in, and beat the chamber to the ground. Thus by the infinite mercy of Almighty God, our lives were all preserved by little less than a miracle; for there passed but a few minutes between the first alarm of fire, and the falling of the house.