The Great Fire at Johnson's Timber Yard -1941 (Rob Forsyth)

Rob Forsyth

The Great Fire at Johnson's timber yard - 1941

The two pictures in this article are included by courtesy of Anne Waters MBE


Derrick Robbins who, as a young evacuee from London, was staying with his Aunt Mill and Uncle Chris Ell in the Bullring, witnessed this huge conflagration and its aftermath and provided us with this recollection

‘Uncle George Clark worked at Johnson’s timber yard, much to the dismay of the local man from the Ministry of Labour [identified, we think, as Jack Lewis], who thought that he should be doing more productive war work. He tried many times, without success, to have him moved. With so many locals in the Services there was no one to take his place.

I remember with clarity the night my Aunt Mill Ell got me out of bed and took me down through the market square to watch the horrendous fire. Deddington at the time only had a very old hand-cranked trailer pump which had no effect on the fire. I remember vividly going the next day down to the yard to see the utter devastation caused and to witness the horrid smell of burnt timber. The delivery lorry was just a pile of twisted metal giving proof to the great heat that was generated.

Some folk said it was sabotage and some, God rest their souls, said it was the only way the man from the Ministry of Labour could move Uncle George, to send him to the Aluminium Factory in Banbury!’

Derrick says that the extent of the fire stuck in his memory far more than the huge warehouse fires of the London blitz. 

His other recollections of life in Deddington as an evacuee can also be found on Deddington OnLine









Two newspaper articles extensively reported the fire. Unfortunately we do not know which newspapers they are from but one can presume that one of them would have been the Banbury Guardian. They are reproduced in full below.

Those who wish to read a shorter account might like to read a summary by Ruth Johnson (no relation) on p.7 of the  May 2009 edition of the Deddington News.(pdf)


The site is still occupied by Johnson's who are now timber and builders' merchant.











From 11.42 on Monday night till daylight on Tuesday morning a fire of considerable dimensions raged at Deddington illuminating the sky for miles around, the reflection being seen in Banbury.

The whole of Messrs. Johnson and Co.'s timber yard, builders' storehouses and offices were completely destroyed and the fire spread to Dr. Hodges' house on the north side and did considerable damage. Some thatched cottages in Philcote Street were also involved and the residents had to hurry from their beds to a place of safety.

The old town had closed down for the night and the first intimation that anything was wrong was given by an airman who flew over the town about 11.30 and seeing the fire, circled round so low as to give the alarm. Mrs. Hodges, awakened by the flames, phoned for the Banbury Fire Brigade and then informed the local police who called out Deddington Fire Brigade.

Messrs Johnson and Co. took over the business of the late Mr. Baker, who was successor to the old-established firm of Franklin, who, as most people know, had a wide reputation as builders and craftsmen doing much of the beautiful oak work in churches for which they were famous far beyond Deddington and Oxfordshire.

The fire was the biggest experienced in Deddington in this generation, the last big outbreak being at Castle House soon after its restoration and at the time when Mr. H. Long lived there.

The Banbury Fire Brigade had only just returned from Heyford Aerodrome where they had been engaged in connection with the water facilities, when they received the call to Deddington through which they had passed only shortly before. The Brigade (under Chief Fire Officer F. Anker) and the Auxiliary Fire Service contingent turned out in strong force with the Dennis engine, the tenders, pumps and full equipment, and the Deddington’s brigade (under Chief Officer R.S. Hall) was already out.

Within 20 minutes of getting the call the Brigade were getting to work, the Dennis engine pumping from an underground tank in the Market Place, and one trailer pump, from a pond at the back of Castle House was set to keep this reservoir filled. Another trailer pump was got to work from a small underground tank in the main Oxford Road. Later a message was sent back for another squad of Auxiliaries and another pump, and the latter got to work from a pond on the Aynho road.

Deddington Brigade with their manual engine concentrated on endeavouring to prevent the fire spreading to properties in adjoining streets and for many hours pumped water which they obtained from street hydrants on to the thatched roofs of cottages, principally those in Philcote Street.

The fire had originated at the south end of the large timber yard and it had got a good hold before the brigades could begin operation. Fragments of burning wood flew in all directions, aided by a fairly strong breeze, and at one time, fears were expressed that the whole, town might become involved.

Plenty of water was available from various standpipes, and about a mile of hose was used across the Market Place to the scene of the fire. Messrs. Johnson’s Yard for a long time was a complete burning mass of timber and the large storehouse of builders’ materials and the office were burnt completely out, including the safe, where there were documents of value, but which contained no money. A lorry near the centre of the yard had been burnt out and the petrol tank had exploded, but a 500 gallon capacity underground petrol tank was found intact.

One of the main objects of the Banbury Brigade was to save the house of Dr. Hodges, which overlooks the timber yard, and which had become involved. Six of the rooms were seriously damaged and the surgery and contents destroyed. Willing hands helped to remove much of the furniture to the Wesleyan Schoolroom close by, kindly placed at the disposal of Dr. Hodges by the trustees. The main part of the house was saved.

In the meantime the fire had spread to some thatched cottages in Philcote Street, and the house of Mr. J. Callow, haulier, was the one most seriously involved. Mr. Callow awoke and saw flames from his bedroom window. The roof was then well alight, and as much of the furniture as possible was moved to a place of safety.

The extent of the damage cannot be ascertained for some time, but Mr. P. W. Johnson, a member of the firm of Johnson and Co., told our representative that it would be very considerable. The members of the firm are Mr. W.M. Johnson, the principal, and his two sons, Mr. R. R. Johnson and Mr. P. W. Johnson. The last named was on the scene at 12.10 a.m. and was much distressed at the extent of the fire which had completely destroyed the premises and the valuable contents.

The garden of Mr. W. J. French, which adjoins the timber yard, was considerably damaged. It had just been planted, and some glass frames were destroyed.

The whole of the property is insured the Guardian Insurance Company. The Banbury Brigade worked under the command of Chief Officer F. Anker, and members attending were Second Officer F. Cobbett, Engineer Thornitt, Firemen Anker, Boswell, Braggins, Cheney Davies, Dawson, Harris, B. Hayden, Humphries, Sanderson and Wilkinson. Members of the Auxiliary Fire Service worked under the command of Section Officer C.K. Gardiner.

Dr. and Mrs. Hodges wish to express their grateful thanks to the many people who so efficiently helped to save and store their household effects on Monday night. They particularly desire to thank the Deddington and Banbury Fire Brigades, to whose prompt measures the saving of the house was largely due.




Disastrous Deddington Fire

Timber Yard Gutted in All-Night Blaze



An RAF plane, diving low over Deddington, was the first warning inhabitants had of the disastrous fire which broke-out in Johnson's timber yard shortly before midnight on Monday. Hearing the roar of the aeroplane and alarmed by the glow of the fire, several people at first thought there had been an enemy air raid.

Mrs. Hodges, wife of Dr. Hodges, whose property abuts on to the timber yard was awakened by the roar of the flames and gave the first alarm. Banbury Fire Brigade received the call about 11.42 p.m., and within twenty minutes were on the scene and at work. As they crossed the Oxford Road they could see the glow of the fire, which lit up the whole countryside. Deddington Fire Brigade had just arrived and with the aid of hydrants concentrated on preventing the fire from spreading to the roofs of thatched cottages in the vicinity.

Burning embers, however, carried by the wind, placed these buildings in constant danger, and in spite of the efforts of the Brigade the roof of a cottage owned by Mr. Callow became ignited, and the thatch had to be stripped. In Philcote Street inhabitants were warned to leave their houses, and this they did, taking their furniture and belongings with them. The heat from the fire was so intense that two wings of Dr. Hodges’ house became ignited.

Fanned by the wind, the flames travelled through the roof of the house and into an area at the back. The front of the house was badly burned and a dispensary and the contents on the ground floor destroyed.

Had it not been for the prompt action of Banbury firemen, who played three jets on the blaze from an underground tank in the Market Square, the whole property would have been destroyed. Valuable assistance came from the villagers, who helped carry the contents of the house to safety in the Wesleyan Chapel. With their first engine in action, Banbury firemen spent a tremendous amount of time in safeguarding the adjoining property.

A call was put through to the Borough Auxiliary Fire Service, and in a short space of time they were on the scene with further equipment and a trailer pump. This was set in motion, and from a pond in the grounds of Castle House, Deddington, water was pumped to replenish the underground tank in the Market Square.

Later, in response to a further message, an additional squad of Auxiliary Firemen with another pump arrived. Within one hour of their arrival the Fire Brigade had arrested the flames.


Daylight broke to reveal a scene of utter devastation. Nothing in the yard had escaped the flames, and steel girders lay twisted by the intense heat into grotesque shapes.

The fire is believed to have started in a timber store, for it was from this direction that the wind carried the flames. This building, in which were found the remains of a motor lorry, was used as a store for a considerable quantity of timber and other builders' materials. Nothing was left standing and the steel stanchions used in its construction were reduced to a pile of twisted metal among the debris. Aided by the wind, the flames then attacked a two-storey building used as an office and hardware store, and all that was left were the charred and twisted remains of the safes.

Dr. Hodges’ house became endangered when the machine shop, containing electrically driven saw benches and stores, became ignited. The Brigade's efforts to safeguard the house and localise the blaze were assisted, however, by the thick wall which separates the property. Against this wall was a 500 gallon underground petrol tank and fortunately, owing to the prompt action of the Brigade, this did not explode.

After calling Banbury Fire Brigade Mrs. Hodges got in touch with Deddington Police. Shortly before receiving the call Banbury Fire Brigade had returned

to the station from a drill at Heyford and on their return journey passed through Deddington.

Their equipment included a Dennis fire engine and Morris tender and a trailer pump. As stated above, they were later reinforced by two squads of auxiliary firemen, who attended with pumps.

Chief Officer F. Anker was in charge of the operations assisted by Second Officer F. G. Cobbett, Engineer E. A. Thornitt, and Firemen F.H. Anker, W. Boswell, G.D. Braggins, W. G. Cheney, J.H. Davies, G. H. Dawson, B. Hayden, G. Humphries, H.R. Sanderson and O. Wilkinson.

Deddington Fire Brigade fought the blaze with a manual attached to a motor lorry. Eight men on either side worked the pump handles, and water was sucked from a dam filled by a street hydrant.

It was not until between 8 and 9 o’clock on Tuesday morning that the flames had sufficiently diminished to enable the personnel to examine the wreckage. Their 12-hour fire-fighting spell ended at just before 12 o'clock, when they returned to the station.

Very little of the adjacent property entirely escaped from the conflagration, and in Mr. French's garden, which abuts on to the timber store, several fruit trees were scorched. Although the exact figure is not known, the amount of damage done will run into a considerable figure.