This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.
‘These are the notes used by Norman Hidden when he gave a talk on this subject to the Historical Association in October 1986’.
It is the earliest and perhaps the greatest, of the several known major fires in Hungerford which is the subject of my talk tonight. And I would like to present it to you as a detective story in historical research, achieved without assistance of anything at all previously published in print concerning it. What I have found has been in manuscripts scattered in England and in the USA a fragment here, a fragment there. These fragments pieced together, as carefully as an archaeologist may re-assemble minute fossilised remains, ultimately gave me an approximate date, a definite area, and a picture of the vast devastation which occurred.
It began accidentally when I was searching in London for records of some land transactions in Hungerford during the 14th Century, the original deeds of which had been sold to an American millionaire. Among the manuscripts the American millionaire purchased was a small volume of poems, written in Latin by an Elizabethan poet, named Daniel Rogers. I was lucky enough that the catalogue of his purchase listed in detail the contents of this manuscript volume of Latin poems. The volume included one section entitled Urbes, that is, cities or towns. There were 28 such cities or towns about each of which Daniel Rogers wrote a little poem. The 28 included London,
Bristol, Bath, Salisbury, Warwick, Coventry, Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Winchester, York, Colchester, Reading and other towns equally eminent. Among these 28 towns was Hungerford, Sensation!
I had discovered something terribly exciting. How could I now find out the contents of this Elizabeth Latin poem about Hungerford?
The American millionaire who had acquired this manuscript volume of poems with its surprise inclusion of Hungerford had donated it to an American Museum or Library. I wrote to the curator of MSS there and she responded magnificently by sending me a photocopy of the poem. It was entitled Hungerforda (Latin = Hungerford) and it was in
Latin and above all because the language was compressed into the Latin metrical system which made it quite different from prose, I found it of more than usual difficulty to read.
Before I could translate the Latin, I had to transcribe the handwriting into a typed version whose grammar and syntax I could then study at leisure. As soon as I did that one line of verse really grabbed me: ‘Hungerforda igne sed immodico pene perusta est’. This one line stood out clear and legible and easily translatable – ‘Hungerford was almost totally destroyed by a vast conflagration.’ Nowhere among all the hundred of manuscript documents I have read concerning the early history of the town, nowhere had there been any such statement as this before. With intense excitement I was driven to teasing out the handwriting, the meaning and the translation of this poem. The poem is only 10 lines in length; but it took me several weeks, on and off, to sort it all out and to satisfy myself how it could all be proved true.
Here is the Latin text together with my translation, the fruit of those several weeks of struggle and sometimes near despair – but it all came out in the end.
‘Bercia Vilugiis disterminat arva colonis
Hungerforda sui voce celebris heri
Quam mediam fluidis Cunetio dissecat undis
Navigero primis flumine nostris avis
Aede, schola, domibus, numeroso et cive decora
Igne sed immodico pene perusta fuit
Majoram et cladem domini de clade recepit
Corruit a civis crimine facta nocens
Urbibus exemplo reliquis, hos esse beatos
Quaram cives fides regibus usque colunt’
In the last line the word cives has been underlined and in the right hand margin the word dominus has been written in the same handwriting, suggesting that Rogers had toyed with the idea of substituting the one word for the other.
Translated the poem reads as follows:-
Hungerford, celebrated through the fame of its lord,
Separates Berkshire fields from the settlers of Wiltshire,
As the Kennet, whose waters bore the ships of our ancestors,
Divides the Town with its flowing stream,
Graces with church, school, houses and numerous townsmen,
It was almost utterly destroyed by a devastating fire,
Yet it received a greater blow by the downfall of its lord,
And it fell disgraced by the crime of its townsman,
It is an example to all surviving towns
That those citizens are blessed who remain faithful to their rulers.
This then was the gist of the poem. At first it seems quite clear: Hungerford whose name was renowned because of its lord – presumably a reference to the early Hungerford family and in particular perhaps to Sir Walter Hungerford. Clear enough – Separates Berkshire fields from the settlements of Wiltshire – clear, true and a familiar fact – just as the Kennet, whose waters bore the ships of our ancestors – true, it was up the Kennet valley that our Saxon forefathers made their way by boat and along whose waters downstream from Hungerford they traded.
As to the river’s flowing streams, we still know these today, despite modern irrigations and water workings of all kinds. One such stream which flows through the town is now called the river Dun; but in past times it was generally confused by outsiders as part of the Kennet amid a maze of channels and marsh where it divided Charnham Street from the rest of the town; and doubtless this was what the poet had in mind.
The town is said by the poet to have had a church (aede), a school (schola), houses (domibus), and to be a populous and seemly town (numeroso et cive decora). But then came the great fire. About which there seemed to be no records. When did it occur? How much of the town was destroyed?
And what do the last 4 lines mean? They suggest two even greater disasters than the fire itself – first it received a greater blow by the downfall of its lord – which lord? And secondly it fell disgraced by the crime of its own townsman – what crime this? And who was the townsman who brought such disgrace upon his own town?
My first reaction was to suppose that the lord’s downfall related to one or other of the Lord Hungerford family who were attained under different monarchs. My second was that it may have related to Lord Protector Somerset who was granted the manor by his nephew the young King Edward VI in 1548. Somerset was overthrown by his enemies in 1552 and beheaded; all his lands and honours were forfeited. And I supposed likewise that the townsman who committed a crime which brought disaster to the town could have been the man who was accused of having stolen the town’s charter in 1573, causing the townsmen to face loss of all their ancient borough rights and privileges. I believe these suppositions to be right.
But who was this Daniel Rogers who seemed to know so much about the history of Hungerford? He was a son of John Rogers, one of the Protestant martyrs under Queen Mary. Born overseas in the famous university town of Wittenburg, he was skilled in languages, and through an introduction to the court of Queen Elizabeth, he became
very useful to Elizabeth’s ministers who had to deal with European affairs and so he was employed in high ambassadorial and diplomatic activities on the Continent.
He was on close terms with leaders, at the court, of the dominant Protestant faction – Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, the Earl of Pembroke, among others. His poems are aimed at or dedicated to a wide range of Elizabethan court notabilities and the 28 ‘urbes’ he chose to write about seem to represent towns in which many of them had a special interest.
What great notable at Elizabeth’s court was interested in Hungerford? There can be only one – the Earl of Pembroke. His seat was at Wilton near Salisbury; but he was lord of the manor or Ramsbury and, most importantly, was the Crown’s High Steward of its Duchy of Lancaster manor of Hungerford. It was to the Earl of Pembroke that the townsmen of Hungerford turned when they faced the loss of their charter in 1573; they appealed to him as their High Steward to plead on their behalf to the Queen to restore their rights.
Pembroke found an opportunity to do this when the Queen visited him at Wilton in September 1574; and he was successful in eliciting from her the Delphic and diplomatic reply that ‘the inhabitants should have, use, and enjoy, without interruption, all such liberties, and profits, and benefits, as heretofore, time out of mind and remembrance of man, they had used and enjoyed’.
If Pembroke was to be the recipient of the poem, we may now see the significance of the line about the town’s downfall due to the crime of one of its own townsmen. This, and the other allusions with the poem, show clearly that Daniel Rogers must have known the town from personal acquaintance with it. As the town lay halfway on the
direct London route to Bristol, and also halfway on the direct route Oxford to Salisbury, travellers along either of these routes found it a convenient overnight stopping place. Thus, if Rogers needed to visit the Earl of Pembroke on business, an overnight stay in Hungerford would bring him within 30 miles of it. I like to think of him staying
at one of the town’s famous inns, then the next morning splashing across the ford over the flowing stream (which he thought of as an arm of the Kennet) which divided the town into two parts. And as his horse jogged and ambled its way up the main street and then over the hill on the road to Salisbury he could have been jotting down
lines for his poem, with its little moral which Pembroke would appreciate, that townsmen should be faithful to their rulers – and to the High Stewards whom those rulers had appointed!
Very well; but why am I not talking of the fire? I am not talking of the fire because I wanted first to find an approximate date for the poem. The main allusions in the poem which can be dated are to events in 1552 (that is, the downfall of Somerset) and 1573 (loss of the charter). Both these events were in Daniel Rogers’ own lifetime.
So perhaps the fire was in his lifetime too. Perhaps he even journeyed through the town on his way to the Earl of Pembroke’s estate at Wilton and rode through the blackened remnants that it had left behind?
The poem itself is not dated, but most poems in the volume that are dated were written between 1570 and 1579. Various circumstantial details suggest a composition date of 1574, the very time that the Earl of Pembroke was pondering how to approach the Queen to get the Hungerford citizens off the hook onto which the Queen’s own
Duchy of Lancaster had impaled them. A flight of fancy could even have us speculating whether Rogers had taken a loose -leaf version of the poem to Wilton with him for his patron and whether Pembroke might not have found the poem a useful little piece to present to a Queen, who was no mean Latin scholar, trained in literature, and
would certainly have approved of the poem’s endpiece moral. But this is speculation; and we must stick to history and in particular to just that single item of 1574 as a probable date for when the poem was written.
The suggested date 1574 put into my mind a recollection that in a town survey of 1573 there had been some reference to houses affected by fire. This town survey had listed nearly 100 burgage tenements or house sites which are situated on the East or West side of present day Bridge Street and High Street. Of these tenements no less than 6 were said to be ‘decayed by fire’, or ‘one ovoid plot of ground late burned’, or ‘a decayed piece of ground late burned’. ‘Decayed’ means ‘destroyed’ or ‘in need of major repair’,‘late burned’ if repeated in subsequent surveys could mean anything from 1-25 years.
Six properties recorded as burned, out of nearly 100, may not seem a great number, but the nature of the entries suggests that they refer to buildings completely gutted, and the figures become more impressive when the concentrated location of the burnt down dwellings also is taken into account. A diagrammatic sketch may help to show this.
Reading the town survey of 1573 without a sketch map or chart such as this, it would not be easy to spot that the same fire had caused the destruction of all these 6 properties. Was my guess wrong? I didn’t think so. But how could I prove it?
I turned next to the rent rolls of the Hungerford family estate. In 1583 they drew up a survey of their property holdings in Hungerford. And in this survey I found 2 more references to houses that had been ‘lately burned’. In one of the two cases rebuilding seems to have taken place, for it reads: ‘1 cottage lately burned’, and a backside garden ‘whereon is now a dwelling house’. We must therefore now add 2 more burned dwellings to our original list; and it is interesting to see how the ‘fit in’ with the area of the fire shown by the 1573 survey.
It should be said that, with both the town survey of 1573 and the Hungerford family survey of 1583, there was not any necessity for either survey to refer to burned dwellings, for both surveys were intended primarily to show how much rent was due –and rent was not on buildings but on the site. Whether it was used for dwellings
or business or agriculture was not really material: the same rent or quit rent would be payable on it whatever its use.
With these 2 extra entries it was encouraging to find evidence for the great fire continuing to build up. And another kind of evidence came to light with some other records of the Hungerford family estate which revealed a sharp tightening up of fire regulations to be observed by tenants. These court rolls do not exist unfortunately for the period of date I have suggested for the fire, but in a court held in April 1593 it was presented that Thomas Curr lit fires in his house without a chimney or ‘flewe’. For this, he was threatened with loss of his customary tenancy in the premises. In the following year it was presented that William Parre should not make a fire in his tenement called ‘le bakehouse’ without a chimney or flue on pain of his loss of the tenancy. George Burrow was likewise warned to make himself a chimney or flue, the lord granting him an elm tree for this purpose.
In the next court roll it is reported that George Burrowe still has not made a chimney in his house nor in a portion of the house which he had sub-let to his mother-in-law. accordingly he was adjudged to have forfeited his tenancy.
Since no similar cases occur in the other court rolls, neither earlier in that century, nor in those of the mid-17th century which survive, it may be assumed that their incidence was the result of the great fire and that memory of it was very vivid, even some twenty odd years after it had occurred.
The reference to the absence of chimneys or flues shows perhaps how susceptible were these early houses to the perils of fire. With walls made of timber and roofs thatched with straw or reed they presented the maximum possible fire risk. Even the chimneys were to be made of elm! In London at that date the authorities had gone
so far as to ban wooden chimneys in new constructions; but brick chimneys did not become in any way general until the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the cost of brick being prohibitive to all but the well-to-do.
In some towns during the period we are discussing, a night watchman was hired to go round the streets with the cry ‘Take care of your fire and your candle; be charitable to the poor; and pray for the dead’. For if you did not take care of your fire you too might be plunged into poverty and even death. The cost of rebuilding was enormous and whole families might be ruined by one disastrous blaze. Later, a system of voluntary national collections called ‘briefs’ was devised to assist in alleviating some of the distress caused by fires. And it was only in a later century still that insurance was devised. The earliest ‘brief’ or collection for fire victims in Hungerford of which I have heard was in 1640 and it is doubtful if there was any such system in the previous century.
Slowness in rebuilding is illustrated by a landlord and tenant court case in Hungerford in 1610, which I discovered in the Public Records Office in London. The landlord complains that his lessee had agreed to repair the building, if the landlord would provide the timber. This the landlord says he did ‘to the amount of 20 tons at least’. The tenant then proceeded to work on the timber on what we would nowadays call a do-it-yourself basis, making a frame or fabric of the timber. He pulled down the greater part of the roof which was at that time covered with tiles, together with one double chimney, ‘intending to re-edify the house ’, but suddenly all work was stopped.
The landlord complains the tenant ‘has kept the frame un-set up and has made havoc and spoil of the timber, allowing the frame to be ‘withoutdoors’ and uncovered and so subject to rain and weather for these many years . . . the several rooms where the building did formerly stand do yet lie open and uncovered for 8 or 9 years and [the tenant] has prepared and made fit only a little room for his trade and kept it thatched, to the hazard and danger of all other the inhabitants and neighbours their habitations, being once theretofore as he [the landlord] hath credibly heard, set on fire and in great danger of consuming by means therefore.’
The landlord would not himself have experienced this fire since he came from out of town, but he had apparently heard of it and if the reference is indeed to the great fire then this is one more house that was so affected. It would be the southernmost of the houses affected on the east side of the High Street, and on the approximate site of
the present day Three Swans Inn.
This discovery of a reference to the fire in an apparently, at first sight, unrelated lawsuit led me to investigate other lawsuits and so I searched a great number of legal documents in the Public Record Office and I will tell you about two of them.
In 1576 there was an enquiry into the lands of the priory of St. John in Hungerford. The priory site was just about where the bridge now stands which crosses the river Dun in Bridge Street. And the enquiry refers to three tenements, one of them ‘lately burned’. It didn’t indicate which one of the three, however, so I can’t work it into the sketch chart.
The second law case involved the town miller whose mill house was on the bank of the Dun just south of the present day bridge. 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. After which time the said defendant . . . hoping to have some recompense did re-edify the said mills which cost him £100 or very near thereabout’. £100 was a vast sum of money in those days; his annual rent was £9.6.8 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.
As this latest court case had occurred in 1570, I went back to the survey of 1573 again to see if there was any reference to the state of the mill in it which I had missed. Well, there was indeed. It was not in the rental list of houses, but in a separate section of the report which read: ‘there is one watermill demised to John Yowle which is now in good reparation’. Which is now in good reparation – the force of that word ‘now’ had not previously struck me until I read of the great fire and of John Yowle ’s complaint about ‘the negligence of his neighbours.’
We now have a starting point for the fire – in or neighbouring the mill. Also we may now block in two more properties affected.The blaze probably began on the banks of the Dun stream – there was a brew house and a dye house next to the mill and these both used furnaces or cauldrons for their operations. It could be that the fire started from these and was carried by a strong northerly wind right up the street as far as the site of the Three Swans if not further. Although there Great Fire - houses in black were those affected by the fire. as no specific references to more houses that the eleven that I have positively discovered, it is unlikely that few escaped without some
scar in the northern half of the High Street that is, from river to Church Street. It merely means that no documents survive which might tell us one way or the other. One day perhaps yet another document will turn up which will enable a few more blanks to be filled in.
Well, I was about to make this the conclusion to my talk tonight when I suddenly remembered another possible source of information. 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
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 the present day no. 13/14 High Street.
On the east side of the High Street there were no chantry properties at all until you come to the site of the present day nos. 118 (Lloyds Bank), 117 (the Three Swans), 115 (Emma Jane Boutique, now Fare Wise Travel). Of these, we suspected already from the court case to 256which 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 rebuild, or repaired (but probably didn’t).
I suspect that the wind carried the flames up the hill from the river on the west side almost to Church Street or Church Lane as it was then called. Because the street bends a little in a westerly direction it is possible that the flames were swept across from the West side to the East side also somewhere about or just below the old Post Office and that they roared up that side as far as Park Street (then called Cow Lane).
The odd house or two may have been leapfrogged in the windswept inferno and perhaps escaped destruction due to luck in whether the sparks fell onto the thatched roof or not, or due to the possibility of a house being built of stone or brick or having a tiled roof. But there would be not many of these. Destruction must have been nearly
When Daniel Rogers rode through the town in the early 1570’s what he saw could well have been what some of us in our lifetime have seen in town and city bomb sites at the end of the last War and for some years afterwards. Thus, Hungerford. igne sed immodico, pene perustafuit by a vast conflagration was almost wiped out.
The story has taken a long time to tell, but a new historical ‘fact’ now has been born. Local history books will reduce it quite simply to an entry that ‘In the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, there was a large fire in Hungerford which destroyed much of the northern end of the town’.