A terrible tragedy has struck near Distington, U.K. On Sept. 8, 2018, a barn fire robbed Paul Johnston of his family’s horses and dog, as well as most of his farriery equipment. Johnston, 67, had brought the horses in that night to protect them from the elements. Among them were a mare and her 4-week-old foal.
Johnston, a farrier and an undertaker for the coroner, had set up his farm as a serene place for his seven grandchildren to gather and play, reports the Times & Star. He’d lived on that land for 30 years and has shod horses in England, Ireland and Spain.
“This is the go-to place for my grandkids,” says Johnston. “They’re always up here. We’ve got plenty of little jockeys. It’s paradise for them, but the kids’ paradise has turned to hell.”
His 14-year-old granddaughter Georgina is a member of Cumberland Foxhounds Pony Club. She lost her horse, Red, in the fire.
“Showjumping is what she loves,” says Johnston. “I’ve competed throughout my life, her mother Hannah competed and was a member of the same club. Her auntie Emma was also in the pony club.”
They’d had Red for about 18 months, and he was to be a replacement for when another horse went into retirement. The other horses were Sparky, who was looked after by Georgina’s eight-year-old sister Rebecca, Marley, Johnston’s stallion, Tilly and Jilly, the mare and foal who belonged to Emma Hall’s son, 8-year-old Lorcan. Lorcan had named the foal after his grandmother Gillian, Johnston’s wife. Bruno, Johnston’s 7-year-old Rottweiler, was also in the barn with the horses.
Johnston was the first on the scene. “I arrived when it was well ablaze and in a state of semi collapse. It was basically a timber construction, and with a fairly high wind, it went in no time,” he says.
Earlier, he had brought two horses into the building to put waterproof rugs on them and turned them back out. He wishes he had put rugs on them all and turned them out, but “the foal looked so cold and wet,” he says. He’d been looking after them, trying to give them the best care, when the building caught fire later that night. Two men aged 43 and 17 were arrested on suspicion of arson following the fire, but they’ve been released under investigation.
Johnston lost the barn, the horses, his dog and all his tack and equipment in the fire.
“I’ve lost everything, I mean I have no equine equipment whatsoever. I had a tack room full of saddles, bridles, harnesses — thousands of pounds worth of equipment has gone up in smoke,” he says. The only thing left is his anvil from his farrier shop.
“The tack is a collection of a lifetime. If it was just the barn I'd be saying look it doesn't matter, I couldn't care less about a lifetime's collection,” he says. But the horses meant more than any amount of equipment. “It's the way they suffered; fire is a horrible, horrible thing.”
“We've done the clean-up, all we're left with is a big, bare concrete pad,” says Johnston. “I would like to point out that I have had the most fantastic help from my son-in-law Mark Donaughee. Even though he’s my son-in-law, he’s my best friend.”
If the fire wasn’t bad enough, stolen donations make it even worse. British Farriers and Blacksmiths Association (BFBA) were collecting donations for Johnston’s family at the 2018 Farrier Focus event when the tools, toolbox and BFBA merchandise were stolen. The merchandise sales were also going to be donated to the family. The BFBA is asking for the items to be returned, and for farriers to keep an eye out for sale of the stolen tools. Among the donations was a pair of 3/8 Bates Tongs with P.JOHNSTON stamped in the rein.
There have been donations of horse equipment, and more than £4,000 has been raised for the family. People as far away as America have been helping. Johnston thanked everyone for their support. You can donate to the GoFundMe page set up by the Cumberland Foxhounds Pony Club here.
Johnston also thanked John Elliot Ltd, Craig Stamper, Trevor Brough, Phillip Carruthers, of Groundworks, and Jason Postlethwaite for their help with the clean-up and funeral directors John Yeowart and Andrew Sandelands, who took over the role of coroner while Johnston dealt with the aftermath of the fire.
If you have any information regarding the incident, please report it to officers in Distington, UK, quoting incident number 268 of September 8. Alternatively, contact independent charity Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.