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The Great Fire of Hungerford took place in 1566.

This major event in Hungerford was totally unknown to local historians until it was discovered by Norman Hidden in the early 1980s. We are again indebted to him for his careful and painstaking research.

Photo Gallery:

Fire-fighting, ...
Fire-fighting, 1598 Fire-fighting, 1598
Great Fire 1566
Great Fire 1566 Great Fire 1566

- Drawing of c1598 showing fire-hooks, ladders and buckets in use.

- Plan showing properties known to have been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1566 (by John Brooks)

How was the history of the fire discovered?

In summary, whilst researching 14th century records of Hungerford, Norman Hidden came across a set of 28 Latin poems written by Daniel Rogers. They had been acquired by an American millionaire, who had then donated them to an American museum.

One of the set was called "Urbes", and included the text "Hungerforda igne sed immodico pene perusta est", translated as "Hungerford was almost totally destroyed by a vast conflagration".

The poem was not dated, but further detailed research unearthed various local records referring to properties "decayed by fire", or "one void plot of ground late burned", or "a decayed piece of ground late burned". Norman Hidden was eventually able to pin the date to 1566. A court case of 1569 required the leaseholder "to build, make-up, and re-edify certain burnt and decayed houses and tenements". A postscript to an earlier 1566 draft had added "there is six of the tenements belonging to these chantries burnt".

How did the fire start?

The great fire started in (or near) Queen's Mill in present-day Bridge Street, and spread south on both sides of the street as far as modern Three Swans Hotel.

A law case in 1570 involved the town miller. A young man named John Yowle was employed by the widow of the mill owner and then, to put the story in the words of his court defence he "took to wife the said Joan" [that is, the widow] "and so became possessed of the mills and, being so possessed, by misfortune and the negligence of his neighbours the said mills were burned and utterly consumed with fire".

What was the extent of the fire?

By 1574 a survey listed six properties belonging to the Chantry of the Blessed Virgin Mary destroyed by fire, and the mill "which is now in good reparation". The rebuilding had cost John Yowle £100 "or very near thereabout". £100 was a vast sum of money in those days; his annual rent was £9 6s 8d and he had a legally guaranteed monopoly to grind corn in the entire manor of Hungerford. Also the mills were in the ownership of the Crown via the Duchy of Lancaster. For all these reasons rebuilding would have to be swift.

There were in Hungerford a number of properties called Chantry properties and these had been leased by the Crown to one Henry Edes. A court case in 1569 revealed that he had covenanted in his lease " to build, make up, and re-edify certain burnt and decayed houses and tenements" among the chantry properties. "Decayed" as always means in need of rebuilding or repair, from whatever cause ~ in this case by burning. After much search I was able to find the original draft lease, dated 8th July 1566; and to it had been added, in a different hand, — the Court Official's rather than the scribe's — the following postscript: "Memo: there is six of the tenements belonging to these chantries burnt". And the lease made Henry Edes responsible for the rebuilding or repair, at his own cost, of the houses which were "of late burnt."

The effect of this is to alter our chart somewhat, for although I do not know which six of the chantry's twenty odd stock of houses were those which were burnt, I do know their respective positions or situations. Clearly those affected by fire were most likely to be in the northern half of the town, that is, above present day Church Street and Park Street. In fact on the west side of the High Street there were only three such properties, and two of them were right in the path of the fire. The next chantry property on the west side is - or was - about 9 or 10 doors up, roughly the site of present day no. 13/14 High Street.

On the east side of High Street there were no chantry properties at all until you come to the site of present day nos. l18 (Lloyds Bank), 117 (The Three Swans), 115 (Emma Jane Boutique). Of these, we suspected already from the court case to which I referred earlier that the property on the site of the present Three Swans had been a fire victim. That being so, it is likely that the chantry houses on either side of it also were consumed. We now have, therefore, our six probable burnt chantry houses, which Henry Edes ought to have rebuilt, or repaired (but probably didn't).

A large number of properties between Queen's Mill and the Three Swans were completely destroyed by the fire, and no doubt many others were partly damaged. The key buildings known to have been destroyed by the fire include:

- Queen's Mill (and some adjacent properties)

- 1 High Street

- 7 & 8 High Street (now south end of Martin the Newsagent, and Kitchenmonger)

- 14 High Street (north end of Co-op Stores)

- 115 High Street (now vacant)

- 117 High Street (now The Three Swans)

- 118 High Street (now TSB)

- 128 High Street

- 129 High Street

The main street of Hungerford would have looked a sorry sight for many years after 1566.

What do we know about the re-building?

Rebuilding took a variable amount of time. Queen's Mill had been rebuilt at least by 1574, but others took longer. 1 High Street was still "decayed by fire" in 1591, although it was probably rebuilt by 1609.

See also:

- Great Fire, 1566 - Norman Hidden

- "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford", by Norman Hidden

- "The Great Fire of Hungerford", the full text of Norman Hidden's talk to the Hungerford Historical Association on 29 Oct 1986

- Fires and Fire-fighting

- Watermills and Windmills