You are in [Themes] [Fires and Firefighting] [Fires and Fire Insurance in 16th-18th century Hungerford]

This article is largely based on "Fires and Fire Insurance in Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, c.2007.

Take Care of your Fire and Candle:

In the early 1990s, Norman Hidden came across a 16th century collection of poems called "Urbes" (i.e. Cities or Towns) written in Latin by Daniel Rogers. In the poem about Hungerford Rogers mentioned that the town was almost totally destroyed by a great fire ("igne sed immodico pene perusta est"). The full details of his research were published in the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine Vol. 86, (1993).

This was the first indication of the "great fire of Hungerford" which destroyed much of the town from present-day Bridge Street south to The Three Swans hotel in 1566. A full account of this major fire can be found under "Great Fire of Hungerford, 1566".

But in the course of his research, Norman Hidden found reference to other significant fires. With candles and oil lamps to light houses, and open fires to heat and cook by, fire was an ever-constant risk. Timber frame houses covered by thatch easily caught fire.

The cry of London bellmen as they patrolled the streets at night was "Take care of your fire and candle; be charitable to the poor; and pray for the dead."

The fire of 1643:

Nothing is known of fires in Hungerford between 1573 and 1643, when we learn of a fire through a donation of 12 pence sent by the churchwardens at Cheddar in Somerset on behalf of Hungerford's fire victims, as recorded in H.M.C. 3rd. Report p.330.


Such donations to help the homeless and sometimes penniless victims of fire were organised through a system of 'briefs'. A brief was in effect a warrant authorising a collection, usually in a place of worship, for a specified charitable object. Since local collections were usually under the charge of the churchwardens, a note of monies distributed to other parishes in response to briefs was sometimes noted in the parish register, thus forming our main source of knowledge about the occurrence of fires at this time.

The fire of c1660:

No additional information is known about this fire in 1643, but a further conflagration occurred at Hungerford in or about 1660. So severe was the damage caused by this fire that a brief was issued for the relief of the sufferers, and collections were taken not only in churches within the diocese, but throughout the country. Thus in 1661 in the little village of Penton Mewsey near Andover in Hampshire the sum of 1d was raised; in Bampton, Oxfordshire, the parishioners contributed no less than 12 shillings "on behalf of ye inhabitants of Hungerford for a losse by fire;" and at fashionable St. Margaret's, Westminster. London, £1.3.0d.

In addition to information contained in 'briefs', details of other fires in Hungerford may be found in the Churchwardens' Accounts or in the Constable's Accounts. The latter from the date of their commencement in 1658 are our chief source of information concerning fires, since every fire involved the town in expenditure and every expenditure is recorded by the Constable in his Accounts. W.H.Summers states [p.153] that the Accounts reveal the large sum of £6.12.0d expended in refreshments and money given to those who "watered at it". Typically, he does not disclose which Accounts these were, but it is clear that he is referring to the Constable's Accounts for the year 1659-60 [Berks R.O. H/F Ac/l]. The full details are as follows:

- Paid to several poore men that watered and took paynes at the fire 24s 0d.
- Paid Thomas Oram for the two fire crooks, with bread, cheese, beer and other things £6 10s
- Paid for a lugg [= a long pole or shaft] for the ..... of the fire crooks 2s

The fire of 1660 is listed in "A Gazetteer of English Fire Disasters 1500- 1900" edited by E.L. Jones, S.Porter & M.Turner, published as no. 13 in Historical Geography Research Series. The Gazetteer editors date the fire as 1660, on the principle that the date of the brief is 1661, and they allow a year for the obtaining and issuing a brief. More precisely, the receipts page in the Hungerford Constable's Accounts records on 15th November 1660 the donation "received of Mr. William James in moneys when the fyre was, which he bestowed to help pay the poor men: that laboured at the fyre: 10 shillings". William James of Denford was a well-to-do local J.P. and his voluntary payment may almost certainly be regarded as immediate and thus indicating the exact date of the fire, even though some of the less urgent money payments were paid out a little later.

The fire of 1668:

The Gazetteer of English Fire Disasters lists a fire at Hungerford in 1668, the details of which were presumably obtained from a brief. If so, St. Margaret's Westminster did not contribute to it, although it had contributed previously not only in respect of the Hungerford fire of 1660 but also that of neighbouring Kintbury in 1663. A Hungerford fire in 1668 is recorded vividly by the payments recorded in the Constable's Account book for the year 1668-9. These payments are not dated but occur in a late position among items of expenditure, suggesting that a fire had probably occurred towards the end of the year:

- Paid for a kinderkin of beer for the labourers about the fier: 6 shillings
- Paid four poor men for carrying the chests [?] and moving the goods: 4 shillings
- Paid to Roger Bray for work about the fier: 4d
- Paid to nine poor men that worked about the fire: 6d
- Paid to Thomas Manchester for strong water, candles and tobacco at the fire: 2s 6d
- Paid to Joseph Sare for 2 pounds of candles: 10d
- Paid to Thomas Hust and Daniell Boone for work about the the fier: 2 shillings
- [later: ]
- Paid to John Hellier for bread delivered at the fire: 1s 3d
- Paid to John Day and Thomas Pound for work at the fier:  1s 6d
- [later.]
- Paid to Joseph Sare for 2 pounds of candles for the fire [and for a lock for the pound]: 1s 6d
- [later: ]
- Paid for a pair of stockings for old Ball at the fier: 1s 6d

The fire of 1669:

In 1669 Sir Bulstrode Whitelocke, living at Chilton Lodge, looked down Eddington Hill and in the valley below could see Hungerford ablaze The next morning he enters into his diary "The Improbable Puritan" ed. Ruth Spalding [p.740]: "April 13 1669 : the last night was a great tire at Hungerford, which they [= he and his family] saw at the [Chilton] Lodge, and Whitelocke sent 5 men to help quench the fire, and went not to bed till he saw it almost out. The night being still there were but 2 houses burnt." The diary entry reveals both a close-knit community in which all who could give help did so, and how important the weather/wind conditions were in determining the extent of a disaster.

Trying to put out fires in the 1600s:

Equipment used by firemen at this time amounted to little more than ladders, leather buckets, and fire crooks. These were long poles with a hook at the end for pulling off burning thatch. It was hard. dangerous, and thirsty work. Hence the supply of beer and "strong water" (i.e. spirits). "Strong waters at the fire: 1s 3d." are mentioned again in the Constable's Accounts the following year. This fire was presumably another but smaller conflagration, as no other items of expenditure appear in connection with it. The account shows the names of those who "laboured" at the fire, those who were tradesmen supplying urgently necessary items, and those like "old Ball" who ruined his stockings, presumably as a result of his firefighting efforts. Joseph Sare who provided several pounds of candles for this fire, as well as a lock for the pound, was the local tallow chandler. Candles were needed for the lanterns, essential for all activities on dark nights and especially for use in filling the waterbuckets from the wells of nearby houses and then carrying the water to the scene of the fire. Hosepipes, made of leather, were first introduced into England in 1675 in London, where added impetus had been given to the development of fire fighting equipment and fire security measures as a result of the losses caused by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Rural areas, less well-equipped, continued to struggle throughout the seventeenth century much as they had done in the past. Houses and cottages in Hungerford still used flues made of readily available timber, preferably elm. (In London chimneys made of timber had been prohibited as early as 1467). Thatched roofs were common for all but the well-to-do, and most of the houses were built of timber frames with walls of wattle and daub covered inside with plaster. Rural fires were fought with human sweat and community spirit.

National appeals or "briefs":

Some effort was made to help the victims of a disaster through the system of national appeals or briefs. The church's role as a source of charity was traditional, and 'briefs' were one means which the churchwardens could usefully exploit to secure a greater fund for sufferers than could be obtained from local sources alone. The idea was taken up with enthusiasm and soon began to be exploited for all kinds of causes. Theoretically, briefs might be issued to as many as 10,000 parishes. They might seek relief for any of a variety of local disasters of which fire was unquestionably the most frequent. By the mid 17th century the system had expanded and was operated by various agents and factors. Their wholesale employment added not only to the costs of collection but also to much fraudulent abuse, so that an Act of Parliament was passed in 1706 prohibiting the issue of briefs for disasters where the damage amounted to less than £1000.

It is not known how much assistance Hungerford may have received from the brief of 1661, but with such widespread collections throughout the country the total collected could be considerable. The sum total collected was not, however, the sum received by those whose properties had been destroyed or damaged. For the system of collection by brief was costly. In the case of an appeal by St Mary's Church, Colchester (see Morant's History of Colchester) the sum of £1595. 13s. 6d. was collected betwen 1709 and 1713 to repair fire damage. But the initial expenditure on the brief of £144. 4s. 4d. and the charges of collecting came to £398. 9s. 6d. A total of £546. 19s. 10d. or over a third of the sum collected.

The 1708 Parish Pump Act:

In 1708 Parliament further enacted, in a more positive approach, that each parish should keep a water pump for use in extinguishing fires. Indeed it stipulated that there should be large [fire] engine as well as a smaller 'hand' engine and a "leathern pipe" or hose. The responsibility for this fell upon the churchwardens. Such large engines had been developed in the capital and their powerful jet force proved an important techological development in the war against fire losses. Whereas a hand engine was small enough to be worked by one man, its jet was relatively small both in quantity and in the height which it might obtain. Larger manual engines, however, had been developed which might require five men to move and to operate them. Their large size, however, enabled them to store much larger quantities of water, so that they needed re-filling less often and the muscle power of their five-man crew enabled their jet to reach heights far beyond the old-fashioned squirts used previously.

Hungerford's first fire pumps:

The first reference to 'engines' in Hungerford occurs in the Constable's Accounts for 1706-7:

- "gave ye young men for using the ingin £2.5.0d."

The reference to young men suggests that good physical attributes were required both to move and to pump this particular machine so as to raise a high spray of water. A subsequent entry in the same Accounts records a payment" for mending ye engin '', which suggests that the engine must have experienced hard usage. In Accounts of later years it is almost the rule after each fire the engine has had to be re-furbished in some way or other.

Fire engines involved maintenance, as the following entry in 1707-8 (one of many) shows: "paid for oylen [oiling] and grasing [greasing] the ingin and gut". The 'gut' of the engine was its innermost coil of hose or piping -- in modem colloquial terms its 'guts'. Like other equipment such as fire buckets and the exterior hose, the gut was made of leather, and leather requires oiling to keep it supple and fresh. Other entries add to our ability to visualise the early 18th century fireman's equipment:

1714-15 "paid Thomas Sare for oyling the leather belonging to the ingin".

1715-16 "paid Richard Bird for 2 quarts of oil and work."

1716-17 "paid Mr. Ryman for 4 leathers and 4 suckers for the ingen and for work and solder for the brass pipe and cleansing of the same."

"paid Thomas Lewis for mending the ingen and for altering the fier crooks."

1717 -18 "paid for oyle for the leather buckets and the gut of the ingin."

As well as the items already mentioned, ladders were also an essential part of the fireman's equipment. Thus, in 1700-01 "paid for 4 men for bringing the ladder out of the Church Croft" and "paid for oill and for collering the ladders."

In 1706-07 "paid old Kimber for 4 days work in making ye ladders: 6s.8d.

"paid his son Hosophatt for 4 days 6s.8d

"paid Richard Heath for timber to make rongs [rungs] for the ladders: 4s.0d."

The "Engine House":

Fire engines, as well as other equipment need a storage place and there is evidence in the Accounts of an "engine house." One possibility is that it was situated in Church Croft, from whence the ladder was brought out in 1700. In 1717-18 work took place either erecting or enlarging or repairing an engine house, for a sum was paid in that year to William Nalder and his son "for two days work each about the engin house." In addition to William Nalder and his son, other tradesmen who did some work there included Joseph Povey; "Mr. Thomas Butler for hinges and a lock and nails for the ingin house"; and Robert Tuck's payment which follows, of 15 shillings 1d. for timber, seems likely to have been for the same purpose. Daniel Hasell continues the list with 12 shillings 10d. "for boards and work done and used about the engin house." In the same year money was spent on "mending the leather buckets." also on the purchase of "12 new leather buckets" and "for the carriage of them." Work done in this same year included "oyling the buckets and ingin gut" as well as payment for "6 pins to hang the ingin gutt on."

In 1722-3 we find a payment to Joseph Pavey "for two new buckets for the two ingins." This, if correct, is the first reference to two engines in use at Hungerford, consisting probably of the large engine as well the small hand pump. As we have sees, there are frequent references during this period to 'mending' and 'cleaning", as well as 'oiling', the equipment. These often occur in the same year as a fire has been noted. On other occasions when a fire perhaps has been too minor an incident to involve any special payments, such mending and cleansing may nevertheless indicate that the engine has been used in a minor incident and that a regulatory overhaul has- followed. The connection between fire and overhaul is seen in such entries (1718-19) as "paid Morice for clensing the buckets of the ingen after the fire." and "paid Thomas Lewis for cleaning and mending the ingin after the fire in Charnham Street."

There are several entries which involve men 'watching' at a fire. (see 1701, 1721-2, 1727-8).

In 1730-1 a dry spell seems to have occurred, which resulted in an unusual entry: "paid for filling the engine with water, and keeping the same full during the dry weather." While it may be assumed that in the event of fire buckets might be filled from any nearby household wells or pumps, a fuller supply would undoubtedly be needed for the large engine. The source of such a supply is likely to have been the town pond. Situated in the High Street expenses in connection with its upkeep appear frequently in the Account, notably in 1715-16 , "paid John Povey for mending the
Pond ... and for mending the pond after ye fier." As this repair involved nails, it may have been the palings around the pond which were damaged in the course of filling water buckets or engine.

As the eighteenth century progressed Hungerford experienced a period of moderate trading prosperity and mild growth. This reflected itself in a good deal of rebuilding of the High Street houses which were owned by prosperous local merchants. In this re-building the change-over from timber frame to stone and brick was accelerated and, perhaps even more so, the change from thatch to tile. Such 'improvements' helped to reduce fire risks.

Fire Insurance:

Equally effective in bringing about greater fire security was the development of fire insurance. One of the effects of the Great Fire of London in 1666 was that it stimulated the development of fire insurance schemes. The first fire insurance, office opened in London in 1680 and within a very short period fire insurance companies were in full swing. Notable among these was the Sun Fire Insurance Company which opened in 1710 and was the first office which systematically insured goods and merchandise including household furniture and stock in trade. [C. Walford, Insurance Cyclopedia, London, 1876].  Originally its operations covered the area of the metropolis, but they quickly spread to the provinces, the company appointing local agents and often establishing and retaining a local group of firemen.

Fire Insurance in Hungerford:

The earliest instance I have discovered of fire insurance in Hungerford is a policy taken out in 1716 by Alexander Thistlethwayte, a local attorney. Thistlethwayte owned 2 houses on the east side of the High Street, and it is not certain which of these the policy may have referred to, but it was probably the building on the site of the later 111 High Street, occupied by Roger King Antiques. Another fire insurance in the same year was taken out on the Three Swans Inn. At least eleven houses in the High Street are known to have been covered by fire insurance in that one year. There maywell have been others.

I have compiled and indexed the Sun Fire Assurance Company records relating to Hungerford from 1716-50, for part of 1753 and from 1777-85; and the Royal Exchange Fire Insurance records from 1774-1786.

The Sun placed Hungerford within the Newbury district. Their agent in this district was Thomas Woodrooffe and in 1717-18 he was paid five shillings by the Constable for mending the fire engine; and a similar sum in 1730-31. In 1735-6 a sum was paid "for drawing the ingine to Mr. Woodroffe and for mending and cleaning the same." At this date it is believed Mr. Woodroffe may have moved a short distance out of tOVvTI. Hence the need to draw or drag the machine to him for his inspection. Woodroffe's connection with the local fire service suggests the close control exercised by the Sun through its local agents over fire services within their area.

One interesting 18th century external reference to a fire in Hungerford is to be found in the registers of Magdalen College, Oxford. [W.D.Macray, Register of Magdalen College, vol.5, p.16]. The registrar records a donation given by the College of £1.1s.0d. in respect of "damnum pass is incendio apud Hungerford." ['the loss caused by a widespread fire at Hungerford.'

See also:

Royal Exchange Insurance Policies, 1774-1786

- Sun Fire Insurance Policies for Hungerford, 1716-1784

Fire Service, fires and fire-marks