Sopwell Nunnery Farm Fire 1931

What follows is the report from the Herts Advertiser of February 20th 1931 of a fire at Sopwell Nunnery Farm and the simple-minded chap who eventually confessed to starting it.

It must have caused a lot of excitement at the time. Does anyone remember it? It is very interesting from a historic point of view as it describes the farm and its location in detail so we can have an idea where it would be today.

Albert Evans, of 44 Watson’s Walk, was charged with “feloniously setting fire to a wheat stack at Kingsbury Farm on Jan 23rd and also feloniously setting fire to Sopwell Nunnery Farm on Jan 21st.

The Sopwell Nunnery farm was a mixed farm and described as “in a somewhat isolated spot”.  The lease was owned by Edgar Percy Pearce of Link House Cunningham Avenue. The farm building consisted of one long stone building divided into two sections, one used for stabling and livestock and the other half for storage purposes. Attached to the building was a large corrugated iron shed 60ft long, 24ft high and 14ft wide which was used for storage of waste paper. On Jan 21st there was about 400 tons of waste paper stored there.The fire lasted for four days. The contents of the shed were completely destroyed, and the whole of the building practically destroyed. The damages  amounted to approximately £1,500. Pearce said that the accused was not employed by him and had no right to be on the premises.

Henry Walter Javeleau of 41 Sopwell Lane who was employed by Mr Pearce as a paper baler gave evidence. He said that the shed was stacked with bales from floor to roof and that there were no divisions, no steps or ladders and no room for anyone to lie between the top of the stacks and the roof. He said he was the last to leave, and there was no sign of fire then.

Another witness was Alfred Willis, of 24 Longmire Road and a stockman employed by Mr Pearce. He said that on January 21st, he was sorting scrap metal in the cowshed. When the workmen left at 5pm, he secured the cowshed as well as the fowlhouses and that everything was in order when he left about 5.15pm. He returned at 7pm to feed the horse and the dog which were in the cowshed but there was no sign of a fire and he did not see anyone else there. He said there were about 30 head of poultry in the sheds.

At 9.05pm, because of what someone said when he was in Holywell Hill, he returned to the farm which was then on fire. The Fire Brigade had just arrived and was at work. The horse, the dog and the poultry had all been released when he got there.

The next witness was Albert Edward Simmons, a carpenter who lived at “Lympne” New Prospect Road. He said that at about 8.45pm on Wednesday January 21st, while he was walking along Cotton Mill-lane (sic) near the entrance to the farm, he saw what he thought to be a bonfire, and, after he passed the gate to the farm, he noticed a lad knocking at the door of a cottage at the corner of Prospect-road.

The lad, whom he did not recognise, went to Mr Simmons and said something. In consequence, Mr Simmons looked in the direction of Sopwell Nunnery Farm and saw flames coming through the roof of the farm buildings at the further end. Mr Simmons and the lad went towards “Mardale” New Prospect Road, to use the telephone, and met PC Lee. Mr Simmons spoke to the constable and then went back to the farm to render assistance in releasing the stock. While there, the same lad spoke to him again. After the stock had been released, he looked for the lad, but could not find him. The lad did not appear to be involved in any way.

Francis James Turvey, of 7 Longmire Road said he was walking along Cotton Mill-lane with a lady friend and when they turned into Prospect  Road, the accused, who they knew, pointed to Sopwell Nunnery farm and said; “Look at the fire”. After he had said that, Mr Simmons, who was with the accused, directed him to a house in Prospect Road where there was a telephone. Evans ran off in that direction.

Turvey said that he saw Evans speak to PC Lee, and then he and his lady friend and other people went to release the livestock at the farm. Evans did not appear excited when he first spoke to him. He then said that he saw Evans at about 6.40pm on the following day - January 22nd – standing on the bridge near the swimming bath when he was walking along Cotton Mill-lane. Evans said to him: “How did you get on last night? I have been here all night.” Turvey’s lady friend, Violet Balls aged 15, of Prospect Road corroborated his evidence.

Hubert Victor Thorpe, the Chief Engineer and Secretary of St Albans City Fire Brigade said at 9.02pm on Wednesday January 21st, he received an alarm from the City Police Station. He turned out with other officers and two pumps and went to Sopwell Nunnery Farm. The barn and a shed full of paper were on fire. The brigade were engaged at the scene of the fire for three and a half days, He examined the place and was of the opinion that the fire either started with the galvanised iron building or with a heap of paper on the South West side of it.

Hubert Leslie Thorpe, a member of the St Albans City Fire Brigade said that at about 1.30am on Thursday January 22nd he was engaged with the Brigade at Sopwell Nunnery Farm.

PC  L.W. Lee said that about 9pm on Wednesday January 21st he was patrolling near Prospect road in the direction of Cotton Mill-lane. When he was about 60 yards from the corner of St Julian’s Road, he saw fire and smoke coming from a small shed  at the further end of Sopwell Nunnery Farm. At that moment, Mr Simmons and the accused ran towards him. Accused said: “Look there is a fire over at Sopwell Farm.”  Witness (Simmons?) took steps to get in touch with the Fire Brigade using a telephone at “Mardale” Prospect Road owned by Mrs Gill. As the witness was leaving the front gate of Mardale, he said “Are there animals there?”……

The accused said he wanted to tell the truth about the fire at Pearce’s yard. “About 9.30 on Wednesday January 21st, I walked down Cotton Mill-lane across the allotments round a large shed in the allotments along the path to the ruins. I then climbed over the fence, had a look around Pearce’s hayrick to find a place to sleep. That night I had been in trouble with my father and I had told him I would go out. I suddenly thought of a big shed in the yard. When I got inside I found a lot of paper stored in a big heap. I got on top of it and lay down. It was warm and I lighted a cigarette. The lighted match dropped down a parting of the paper to the bottom. It was too narrow for me to get down to put it out and I saw the paper light. It flared up very quickly and to try to put it out, I threw a sack down to try to smother it but it did not do it. I ran from the shed into Cotton Mill-lane the same way as I went in and when I got into the lane, I saw Jim Turvey a lad, I believe he lives in Longmire Road. I said Pearce’s shed is all on fire and there are some cattle inside. I immediately ran along Prospect Road to find a telephone.  When half-way along I saw a policeman. I told him of the fire and went back with him to the stile near the allotments in Cotton Mill-lane. I told him there were some cattle in the shed. Later I helped him to get the animals out. I did not tell the policeman that I did it by accident because I was frightened. I did set light to the stack at Kingsbury wilfully but Pearce’s fire was an accident…..”

Evans was committed for trial at Central Criminal Court on both charges. No bail was granted.

Herts Advertiser March 6th 1931

Albert Evans was committed for 12 months. He was seen to be feeble minded under the Mental Deficiencies’ Act. The Judge wanted him to be sent to a mental institution but there wasn’t one! ??

Albert Evans was born in 1913. He attended Priory Park Infants School until he was eight, when he developed TB and peritonitis. He returned to school when he was better in 1925. His parents said they had a lot of trouble with him. He was sent to a home.