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Somerset Church Fire Mystery

Western Daily Press

FEB. 24, 1934

Police searching for unknown man. Rector’s mother-in-law collapses and dies.
Car dash from Portishead!

Mystery and tragedy are closely linked with the outbreak of fire in Weston-in-Gordano church yesterday which completely destroyed a 17th century screen. A woman is dead as a sequel to the fire and the Somerset police are making inquiries into the report that an unknown man was seen in the church shortly before the outbreak was discovered. The tragedy is in the death of the rector’s mother-in-law Mrs Rose Quartly-Carter who collapsed and died after rushing to Weston-in-Gordano from Portishead to give what assistance she could.
A “Press and Mirror” reporter was told by the rector (the Rev. P. I. Lach-Szyrma), that Mrs Quartly-Carter was 80 years of age and suffered from heart trouble. As soon as she heard of the fire, she ran to catch a train at Portishead station and on arrival at Weston-in-Gordano she collapsed and died.
The rector was also in Portishead with the news of the outbreak reached him and he was fetched from a service in which he was taking part. He rushed to Weston-in-Gordano by car.
The mystery is provided by an unknown man, who was seen by the caretaker Mrs Symes, sitting in the church shortly before the fire was discovered. When Mrs Symes saw him he had his hat on and was singing. Occasionally his singing gave place to incoherent muttering. Mrs Symes who was cleaning the church left the building for a few minutes to return to her house but becoming suspicious of the stranger’s actions went back to the church. It was then that she made the startling discovery that the vestry was in flames and smoke was pouring into the church.
There was no sign of the unknown man. Mrs Symes immediately gave the alarm and later provided the police with the description of the stranger. Portishead fire brigade through their promptness were able to save the church from serious damage and the fire was soon got under control by means of extinguishers and the water carried on the engine.
Damage was done, however, to the belfry, a quantity of cassocks and surplices, bell ropes and books while the screen, which separated the belfry from the nave, was completely destroyed.
Excluding the value of the screen, the rector said that he estimated the amount of the other damage at about £30. The screen, he said, was not part of the present church which dates from the 14th century having been rebuilt on Norman foundations. The screen which dates from 1633 was brought to England from Belgium by a former rector of Weston-in-Gordano and placed in the church about 50 years ago. Mr Lach-Szyrme said he anticipated that it would be possible to hold the services in the church tomorrow as usual.