The story we all remember about John Wesley and Epworth is the fire that destroyed the Old Rectory in which the Wesley family was living. Samuel Wesley believes all of his family is out of the burning building and then from the second story window, John appears trapped in the flames. John Telford describes the story in his biography of Wesley:
On February 9th, 1709, the memorable fire at the Rectory took place. It broke out between eleven and twelve at night, when all the family were in bed. The roof of the corn-chamber was burnt through before any one was aware of the danger. Some of the fire fell upon Hetty Wesley’s bed, in a little room adjoining. She at once ran to call her father, who lay in the red chamber. He had heard some one crying “Fire !” in the street a little while before, but did not understand that his own house was in danger. He roused his family and told them to make baste, because the roof was falling fast, and only a thin wall or door kept the flames from the staircase. They bad not even time to put on their clothes. Mr. Wesley, with the nurse and two of the children, got downstairs into the garden; the servants and two others escaped through the window. After three fruitless attempts Mrs. Wesley waded through the fire, which scorched her legs and face. At last all were safe save John, then five and a half years old. He had been asleep in the nursery, with three of his sisters, his little brother Charles, and the nurse. When the alarm was given, the nurse snatched up Charles, the youngest child, and bade the rest follow her. John was left in bed fast asleep. In a few minutes he awoke, and, seeing how light the room was, called to the maid to take him up. As no one answered, he put his head out of the curtains and saw streaks of fire on the ceiling. The child jumped out of bed and went to the door, but found that all beyond was in a blaze. He then climbed on the chest which stood near the window. The Rector tried to rush through the flames, which enveloped the staircase, to rescue his boy; but though he made two attempts, holding his trousers above his head as a kind of shield, the fire beat him down. He then went into the garden; and, calling his family around him, all kneeled down whilst he commended the child to God A man below, however, had seen John, and would have run for a ladder; but another spectator said there was no time to lose, and suggested that a light man should be set on his shoulders, so as to lift the little fellow out of the window. The first time the man fell down, but he was helped up again, and was thus able to reach the child. Just as they rescued him the whole roof fell in. Fortunately, it fell inwards, or the boy and his brave deliverers would have been crushed by the weight.
When John was brought to his father by the brave men who had rescued him the Rector cried out, “Come, neighbours, let us kneel down; let us give thanks to God ! He has given me all my eight children; let the house go; I am rich enough.” Nothing was saved. In about fifteen minutes the building, with all its furniture, books, and papers, was utterly destroyed. John Wesley’s wonderful escape always filled him with gratitude. In one of his early prints a house in flames is represented below his own portrait, with the words, “Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire” • One interesting reference to the event is found in his journals. On Friday, February 9th, 1750, whilst holding a watchnight service in his West Street Chapel, London, “About eleven o’clock,” he says, “it came into my mind, that this was the very day and hour in which, forty years ago, I was taken out of the flames. I stopped, and gave a short account of that wonderful providence. The voice of praise and thanksgiving went up on high, and great was our rejoicing before the Lord.” Both he and the Methodist people knew by that time for what blessed work he had been spared.
The Old Rectory has several prints of famous paintings of the event displayed in the stairwell of the house.