THE current hot dry spell has brought the danger of fire sharply into focus.

Today we simply dial 999 for Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue but in the early borough of Abingdon most fires were extinguished by chains of people passing leather buckets to dowse the flames.

Two of the first laws and ordinances codified by the council in 1599 related to the danger of fire and its prevention.

Most of Abingdon’s buildings would have been timber-framed – many still are though this is concealed by later frontages – and the roofs thatched.

The Mayor, Bayliffs and Principal Burgesses were given the power to enter any house to view all ‘thatched houses and ricks of straw, fern and other fuel’ and to check whether straw, fern and furze was safely stored in oasts and brewhouses.

It was further enacted that Principal Burgesses should have four leather buckets and a long ladder and that Secondary Burgesses were expected to have two buckets and a long ladder kept in readiness at their house.

Later measures involved householders keeping watch at night between 8pm and 5am.

In the early 17th century the chamberlain was ordered to provide two great hooks to remove thatch, twenty leather buckets, and two ‘very long and strong ladders of fir wood’.

The buckets were kept under lock and key, counted out and counted on return if lent out. They were also kept in a good state of repair.

The Great Fire of London influenced the covenants included in the property leases granted by the Borough and Christ’s Hospital. 'No thatching’ was a common condition, as was the new requirement to build a stone chimney and replace wooden flues.

Fire insurance companies also date from this time. Their signs were displayed on the buildings of those insured.

There is an Imperial fire sign on a house in East St Helen Street.

Towards the end of the 17th century, Thomas Piccard, an Abingdon goldsmith, devised a scheme to pipe river water to all homes in the borough to prevent the spread of fire. An engine house was erected on the east side of Abingdon Bridge beyond the Nag’s Head where the current was faster.

The water was channelled through pipes under the roadway to a cistern erected on a site now occupied by Old Station Yard.

His partner in this venture was Henry Knapp, the town clerk but nothing is known of the success of the endeavour.

Certain industrial practices were more prone to the potential for fires breaking out. Many were caused by an increasing number of workers spinning, weaving or dressing hemp and flax by candlelight or rush light.

This was banned in 1722 and repeated in 1761. In 1733 the Corporation acquired its first fire engine but this didn’t prevent spinning shops in Back St Helen’s ie West St Helen Street, and Ock Street suffering a complete loss of stock and working tools in 1765.

John Prince, a sacking manufacturer in the Vineyard lost everything in a fire started by a negligent employee in 1812.

Agricultural unrest in this period also led to many rick fires. A particularly devastating malicious fire occurred at Rye Farm in 1766 when ricks of barley and hay plus five horses were destroyed.

The Abingdon Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed in 1871. At that time the brigade had access to three engines, all horse drawn: one it had purchased which was normally kept at the Eagle Brewery in Ock Street, and two others provided by insurance companies, the Sun Fire Office and the County Fire Insurance.

It was, however, often necessary to call on reinforcements from Oxford. A study of the brigade members is like a roll call of the town’s business and professional classes: Coxeter, Morland, Challoner, D’Almaine and Ballard to name but a few.

One member had good cause to be grateful to the brigade in 1879 when stray sparks from a fire in Bath Street set his tannery in Ock Street alight.

Kendall’s tannery stood opposite the Clock House. A badly charred door in the old stone outbuilding fronting Stratton Way remains testament to this fire.

In 1884 a major fire in The Narrows in the High Street led to the demolition of property estimated then at £10,000 and the eventual widening of the roadway.

It was not until 1923 that the brigade’s first motorised fire engine displayed its versatility in a display on Nag’s Head Island.