Blunsdon St Andrew is a village dating back to the Iron Age, where the earliest ancestors fortified and built a settlement. Blunsdon is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as 'Bluntesdone', at which time the settlement had a population of only two or three adult males. In 1281, there was also a reference to 'Bluntesdon Seynt Andreu'. Additionally in recent years, archaeologists discovered a Roman travellers' resting place on the site of the present-day Cold Harbour pub a mile or so away from Blunsdon Abbey Park.
Originally, Blunsdon Abbey was known to be outpost of Godstow Nunnery near Oxford. The Abbey was a prominent landmark in the area and later inspired the naming of the nearby Abbey Meads housing development, the local Jovial Monk public house and the Priory Vale northern expansion. Following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the land passed to the Brydges family, prompting Sir John Brydges to build a spacious home that was described in the 17th Century as a “faire Gothique house with a great hall after the old fashion.”
That’s exactly what it was - old fashioned - when it was acquired in 1860 by a wealthy sportsman, Joseph Clayton de Windt who demolished the lot and commissioned Swindon builder Thomas Barrett to create ”one of the finest homes in the West of England” following designs by E.Mantell of London.
The builder created an imposing residence with 12 principal bed and dressing rooms, grand interiors, an impressive entrance hall, a billiards room and lavish furnishings.
There was a children's school room and sleeping accomodation for more than 12 servants, while a large lake and a boathouse were created within the estate’s 80 acre estate.
Sadly, Joseph de Windt never saw the results of his grand designs, as he was killed when his horse fell on him in a riding accident in 1863 – a year before his Barrett home was completed.
Blunsdon Abbey was considered at the time to be one of the choicest properties in the county. A man called John Lyall swiftly purchased the home and after his death in Guernsey in 1881, Blunsdon Abbey was advertised by Swindon solicitors, Kinneir and Tombs in The Times, "To be sold or let, furnished."
It was purchased by Miss Louisa Thomas. She dined there on the evening of Thursday, April 21, 1904 - before departing for her London home.
In the early hours of April 22, 1904 a fire broke out in the dining room, caused by an electrical fuse igniting the curtains. Three men on their way to work spoted the fire raised the alarm at 4.40am and by 5.30am members of the Swindon Fire Brigade were on the scene. The estate's gardener, Mr Dorward and his wife, and a visitor by the name of Miss White and a little girl were all rescued from the blaze. The little girl leapt from the building into a blanket while the adults climbed down an improvised ladder.
The fire brigade pumped countless gallons of water onto the blaze from the man-made lake. A photograph exists - later turned into a postcard by George Cox of Gorse Hill Post Office - of the brigade’s steam powered appliance almost at bursting point as it relayed water to the mansion.
For 15 hours the brigade, led by Captain Pritchard and Deputy-Captain Munday, fought to save the property but couldn’t prevent it from being reduced “well-nigh to cinders with nothing scarcely but the black walls standing.”
With the house lost, fire fighters turned their attention to saving the abbey's valuables. Despite their efforts, many treasures were lost, including lace once owned by Marie Antoinette, a silver candelabra said to have belonged to Napoleon, some unique china and several “priceless” works of art, including paintings by the celebrated Dutch school and Turner’s Grand Canal Venice. The estimated cost of Blunsdon Abbey’s devastation was put at £30,000 - nearly £3.5 million today.
As news of the fire spread, sightseers began arriving from Swindon in traps and on bicycles and a large police presence was required to control the crowds. “Nearly the whole day vehicle traffic, traps, bicycles and motors” passed along bumpy rural lanes to Blunsdon St Andrew three or four miles away, reported the Swindon Advertiser. However most of them – including the Advertiser’s correspondent – walked.
While Blunsdon residents helped fight the blaze, five men were found looting the well-stocked wine cellars. Police noticed bottles of wine circulating among the onlookers and promptly arrested Alfred Godwin, Sidney Titcombe, Albert Frank Willier, Nelson harvey and George Peapell, all of Hayden Wick.
Members of the Swindon Fire Brigade remained at the property until 8pm on Friday - more than 15 hours after they were called out. The Blunsdon Abbey inferno, which reduced the once palatial house to the skeletal ruins it remains today, was considered 'the great Swindon disaster of the Edwardian era'.
Although insured, it was decided not to reconstruct the abbey around its fire scarred shell. Around half-a-century later the ruined site became home to Blunsdon Abbey Caravans.
Sources and our sincere thanks to:
"Blaze Destroyed Abbey Home" by Frances Bevan, Swindon Advertiser, January 2011.
"Sunday blazing Sunday brings down Blunsdon Abbey" by Barry Leighton, The York Press, March 2016.
Pictures courtesy of the Richard S Radway Collection, Swindon Local Studies
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