Drifts Stop Firemen from Saving Country Mansion

Local Villages Jan 7, 2024

Godington Hall, a large country mansion near Stratton Audley, was gutted by fire in the early hours of Thursday 3rd January 1963 while firemen and their vehicles were stuck in 7ft snowdrifts only a mile away, during one of the harshest winters of the 20th century.

The occupants of Godington Hall, Anthony and Carol Meyrick, and their three children, Timothy, aged five, Isobel, aged three, and Joanna, aged two, had a lucky escape from the fire in which their pet dog, Sue, was burnt to death and all their possessions were lost.

In an interview with a local reporter Carol said that she had been woken at 5am by one of the children crying. She went downstairs and noticed the kitchen door was black, and as soon as she opened it the heat and flames hit her. She raced upstairs to wake her husband, they grabbed the children and made their way downstairs, through the dense yellow smoke, and out into the garden. They got into their car and tried to drive round to their neighbour, Richard Tew, at Grange Farm, but the car got stuck in the snow and so the whole family had to continue on foot.

The alarm was received at Oxfordshire County Fire Service headquarters in Woodstock at 5:30am, where Chief Officer Timothy White called out appliances from Bicester, Buckingham and Brackley, and Bicester RAF Station.

About a mile from the Hall four appliances got stuck in the 7ft snowdrifts. The firemen borrowed a council snow plough and used it in combination with shovels and tractors, but were unable to move the vehicles. Bicester RAF Station sent two heavy four-wheeled drive fire appliances and two of their big recovery vehicles to help, but one of the latter slipped into a ditch while trying to recover one of the marooned appliances.

Station Officer John Wadley, from Bicester, set out alone with light equipment. He wasn’t intending to fight the fire, but just to help anyone who might be injured. He walked into a snow-covered lake, but managed, wet through to the skin, to reach the Hall.

Wing-Commander D.K. Kempston, the Commanding Officer, who had driven behind his fire team, had brought a gallon of rum for the firemen. The conditions, he said later, were “absolutely terrible.”

The first fire engine to reach the fire was one from the RAF Station which had cut across fields towed by a six-wheeled vehicle. The RAF firemen, Station Officer Wadley, and Sub-Officer Palmer, who had also struggled through on foot, began fighting the flames with a single hose soon after 7am.

The convoy finally breaks through.
The convoy finally breaks through.

Bicester Fire Brigade were able to get through two hours later, after snow ploughs had been rushed to haul out the stranded appliances. The stranded firemen - some in an appliance at Stratton Audley crossroads four miles away - had been helplessly watching the fire.

By late morning more appliances from Bicester and Woodstock were able to get through and relieve the RAF and Bicester firemen who had been fighting the fire in the blinding snow storm and bitter wind for three hours.

As firemen probed the burning ruins a floor collapsed into the cellars below, which had not been known about. So the firemen were withdrawn from the building and concentrated on preventing the flames spreading to neighbouring buildings.

More help had to be sent to the Godington road later as it was once more blocked by drifting snow, trapping the fire appliances in the village. But one of the rescue vehicles itself got stuck and the firemen had to get busy with their shovels once again.