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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.

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