One of the many forces for destruction of English towns over the centuries has been fire (see also Great Floods of the English Towns). The following were catastrophic examples:
Great Fire of Rochester (1137): In 1130 Rochester cathedral was consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by thirteen bishops in the presence of Henry I, but the occasion was marred by a great fire which nearly destroyed the whole city and damaged the new cathedral. It was badly damaged by fires again in 1137 and 1179.
Great Fire of Luton (1336): much of the town was destroyed – but the town was soon rebuilt.
Great Fire of Tamworth (1345): much of the town burned.
Great Fire of Leatherhead (1392): destroyed most of the town.
Great Fire of Retford (1528): destroyed most of the town.
Great Fire of Chard (1577): destroyed most of the town.
Great Fire of Nantwich (1583): destroyed most of the town to the east of the Weaver in 1583. Elizabeth I personally contributed to the town’s rebuilding, which occurred rapidly and followed the plan of the destroyed town. Beam Street, one of the main streets of Nantwich, was re-named to reflect the fact that the timber to rebuild the town was transported along it.
Great Fire of Wolverhampton (1590), started in today’s Salop Street. The first fire lasted for five days and left nearly 700 people homeless., whilst the second destroyed 60 homes in the first five hours.
Great Fire of Tiverton (1596): allegedly started in a frying pan, the fire destroyed most of the town. Another major fire in 1612, was known as the “dog fight fire” because a dog fight had distracted people who were supposed to be looking after a furnace.
Great Fire of North Walsham (1600): The devastating fire destroyed 118 homes, 70 shops, the Market Cross, and market stalls. Although the church caught fire in five places it remained mostly unharmed and provided shelter for the people whilst the town was rebuilt. The owner of the house where the fire started fled, but was captured and jailed.
Great Fire of Dorchester (1613): destroyed large parts of the town.
Great Fire of Wymondham (1615): Two areas of the town were affected implying there were two separate fires. One area was in Vicar Street and Middleton Street and the other in the Market Place, including Bridewell Street and Fairland Street. About 300 properties were destroyed in the fire. Important buildings destroyed included the Market Cross, dating from 1286; the vicarage in Vicar Street; the ‘Town Hall’ and the schoolhouse. The register of St Andrew’s Church in Norwich records that John Flodder and others were executed for arson.
Great Fire of Bridgnorth (1646): In 1646 Cromwell’s roundheads arrived with orders to take Bridgnorth for the Parliamentarians. The Royalist troops retreated to the castle and set fire to a stable in Bridgnorth High Street in the hope it would hinder the progress of the roundheads. The fire spread quickly to the surrounding buildings and eventually took St Leonard’s Church which was being used as Cromwell’s gunpowder store. The engulfing explosion reduced most of Bridgnorth’s High Town to burnt cinders. On the 26th April 1646 the town was surrendered to Parliament.
Great Fire of Drayton (1651): started in a bakery; destroyed 70% of the town. There is still a bell on the buttercross, in case of another fire.
Great Fire of Marlborough (1653): started in a tanner’s yard and spread quickly, eventually, after four hours, destroying almost the entire town including the Guildhall, St Mary’s Church the County Armoury, and 244 houses. The rebuilt High Street was one of the widest in England. Fire swept through the Town again in 1679 and again in 1690. This time, an Act of Parliament was passed “to prohibit the covering of houses and other buildings with thatch in the Town of Marlborough“.
Great Fire of Willenhall (1659): most of the town centre was devastated. Most common homes at this time were still made of wattle and daub with glassless wind-eyes (windows), properties easily razed by fire. Re-building where money allowed was in brick; The Bell Public House being a good surviving example from 1660, although now closed for business.
Great Fire of Newport (Salop) (1665): destroyed most of the High St. The church was damaged but provided shelter for displaced people.
Great Fire of London (1666): gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman City Wall, consuming 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, most of the buildings of the City authorities and the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants.The death toll is unknown. The fire started at the bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane, where a monument stands to this day, and spread rapidly west. The creation of firebreaks, was critically delayed and, by the time large-scale demolitions were ordered, the wind had fanned the flames into a firestorm. As the fire pushed north into the heart of the City, order in the streets broke down as rumours arose of French and Dutchmen setting fires and immigrants became victims of lynchings. On the second day, the fire spread over most of the City, destroying St. Paul’s Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II’s court at Whitehall. The fire was defeated as the east winds died down, and the Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to create effective firebreaks. Although the disaster is credited with eliminating the Plague, the social and economic problems it created were overwhelming, and evacuation from London was strongly encouraged by Charles II, who feared rebellion. Despite numerous radical proposals, London was reconstructed on essentially the same street plan used before the fire.
Great Fire of Northampton (1675): The blaze was caused by sparks from an open fire in St. Mary’s Street near Northampton castle, and devastated the town centre, destroying about 600 buildings including All Saints church, in 6 hours. Three quarters of the town was destroyed, 11 people died and about 700 families were made homeless. Streets were widened to help prevent a re-occurrence. King Charles II donated 1,000 tons of timber from Salcey Forest for the re-building. A commemorative statue of the king (dressed in Roman toga) stands on the portico of the re-built All Saints church.
Great Fire of Bungay (1688): nearly destroyed the town.
Great Fire of Warwick (1694): a major conflagration that swept through the small town of lasting for six hours.The fire started from a spark from a torch that was being carried up High Street.The town’s small population, close-packed nature of the environment, and the amount of combustible building material all lead to the fire’s start and spread, and the limited fire-fighting methods of the time, helped transform the small torch fire into a catastrophic event. As a consequence, the Fire Act of 1694 established new rules and regulations on architecture, including that public streets should be made a certain width. It also provided regulations for a standard house design: two storeys of 10 feet in height each with cellars and garrets. This gave the town of Warwick symmetry, uniformity, and a new flair. The post-fire homes in Warwick also got rid of the jetted façades and timber-framed construction in which floors of buildings overhung each other.
Second Great Fire of Wolverhampton (1696), also started in today’s Salop Street. The fire led to the purchase of the city’s first fire engine in September 1703.
Great Fire of Holt (1708): most of the medieval town was destroyed within three hours. The fire started at Shirehall Plain and quickly spread through the timber houses of the town. The church was also badly damaged with its thatched chancel destroyed and the lead melted from the windows with the flames spreading up the steeple. The fire spread so swiftly that the butchers did not have time to rescue their meat from their market stalls. Damage was some £11,000.
Second Great Fire of Dorchester (1725): destroyed large parts of the town but some of the mediaeval buildings, including Judge Jeffreys’ lodgings, and the Tudor almshouse survive in the town centre, amongst the replacement Georgian buildings, many of which are built in Portland limestone.
Great Fire of Southam (1741): destroyed most of the town.
Great Fire of Crediton (1743): on 14 August (a Sunday morning), a great fire started, completely destroying High Street and buildings in the “West Town”. At that period of time it was the second largest fire in the country, second only to the Great Fire of London. Sixteen people lost their lives, with over 2,000 made homeless and 450 houses destroyed. Other large fires occurred in 1766, 1769 and 1772.
Great Fire of Kettering (1744)
Great Fire of Honiton (1756): destroyed most of the town, and left the lace-making industry in distress. Another large fire, perhaps even more destructive, occurred in 1767. Some of the town’s Georgian character can be attributed to rebuilding after the fire.
Second Great Fire of Kettering (1766)
Great Fire of Potton (1783): started in a stack of clover in a field in the area of what is now Spencer Close. King Street, half the Market Square and some of the Brook End area were destroyed, and the fire burned for a day. Providing temporary accommodation in nearby fields alone cost £25,000. Rebuilding after the fire has left the town with a number of Georgian buildings.
Great Fire of Biggleswade (1785): started at the Crown Inn and spread rapidly through the neighbouring streets. By the time the fire had been brought under control, nearly one-third of the town had been destroyed, including 103 houses leaving 332 people homeless. A national appeal was launched to raise funds for the many people who had lost their homes and their livelihoods.
Great Fire of Brandon (1789): On 14 May, while all the young men were away at a fair day in nearby Thetford, a fire caused by a lightning strike set fire to the surgeon’s house which quickly spread to the surrounding properties. Eleven houses were damaged and 8 of them were completely destroyed. The hardest hit was Francis Diggon, the saddler, who lost all of his property and possessions, costing a total of 381 pounds, 2 shillings.
Great Fire of Chudleigh (1807): only seven houses and the church were left standing after fire swept through the thatched roofs from a bakery, where dry furze, stacked alongside the ovens, had ignited with explosive force.
Great Fire of Cullompton (1839): on 7 July, a severe fire destroyed many houses in Cullompton. About two thirds of the town burnt with 145 houses and other buildings being destroyed. A subscription for rebuilding was set and donations of £5 were made by Barne and Son, tanners of Tiverton, and Cullompton tanners Mortimore and Selwood.
Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead (1854): a splendid new worsted yarn factory, built to replace an earlier mill destroyed in a previous blaze caught fire, and the blaze spread to a neighbouring warehouse where sulphur was stored. The whole riverbank was bathed in a lurid purple glow, and lava flow of molten sulphur poured from the warehouse. As frantic efforts were made to tackle the blaze, and thousands of spectators had gathered on the bridges and river banks, a massive explosion destroyed the warehouse and much of the vicinity – including the parish church. A 12m deep crater was created, and huge blocks of granite were thrown hundreds of metres, with lighter debris thrown for up to six miles. A pillar of black smoke rose from the warehouse and burning sulphur was spread widely. The explosion was heard 20 miles away, and the flames could be seen for 50 miles. The lower and middle parts of both towns were largely destroyed by the fire and explosion, and damage of at least half a million pounds was caused. Over 50 people were killed, and hundreds were injured or made homeless. Thousands of spectators arrived, some by special train!
Great Fire of Ottery St Mary (1866): was started by a woman burning rubbish in her cottage fireplace . The fire eventually burned through the wall to the school next door and then spread very rapidly. Within hours a hundred houses had been destroyed, and 500 people (10% of the population) rendered homeless. A great part of the town extending westwards from the school to the silk factory in Mill Street was reduced to a heap of smouldering ruins.
Great Fire of Whitstable (Kent)(1869): the fire swept through the closely built area along The Wall, west of the town’s harbour. The population of the town was a little under 2,000, yet the fire drew a crowd of 10,000 spectators. 71 buildings were destroyed, of which 25 were houses, the remainder being stores and workshops along the seawall and in Marine Street. Damage is estimated to have been more than £10,000.
Great Fire of Ilfracombe (1896): started at 12:40 am on the night of 28 July 1896 in the basement of Mr William Cole’s ironmongers and furniture shop on the corner of Portland Street and Fore Street. The local volunteer fire brigade had it under control by the following morning. The fire brigade’s entire equipment was a manual Merryweather engine, a hose-reel cart and one telescopic ladder on wheels. In total thirty five houses and business premises and their contents were destroyed. Later that year the fire brigade crew were presented with medals and £2 each at a dinner in their honour at the Royal Clarence Hotel. The damage was estimated at the times at between £80,000 and £100,000.