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The Great Fire of Hungerford took place in 1566 during the reign of Elizabeth I. Buildings on both sides of the street from the river Dun in modern Bridge Street as far south as The Three Swans Hotel were damaged or destroyed.

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Great Fire 1566
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- 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?

This major event in Hungerford was totally unknown to local historians until it was discovered by Norman Hidden in the early 1980s. 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 fire started in (or near) Queen's Mill at present-day 7a Bridge Street, and spread south on both sides of the street as far as modern Three Swans Hotel.

It seems that the fire was caused by one of the mill-owner's neighbours.  A law case in 1570 involved the town miller, a young man named John Yowle. John was initially 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?

Four years after the fire (i.e. in 1574) a survey listed six properties belonging to the Chantry of the Blessed Virgin Mary that had been destroyed by the fire, and the survey mentioned the mill "which is now in good reparation".  The fairly swift 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 (and responsibility) to grind corn in the entire manor of Hungerford.  The mill was in the ownership of the Crown via the Duchy of Lancaster.

In all there were about twenty properties in Hungerford 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. The original draft lease, dated 8 Jul 1566 had a postscript added in a different hand, the Court Official's rather than the scribe's: "Memo: there is six of the tenements belonging to these chantries burnt". The lease made Henry Edes responsible for the rebuilding or repair, at his own cost, of the houses which were "of late burnt". We do not know whether he fulfilled this responsibility for them all.

We do not know for sure which six of the Chantry's twenty or so houses were those which were burnt, but we do know their respective positions, and they appear to be:

- Queen's Mill (and some adjacent properties)

- 1 High Street

- 7 & 8 High Street (now south end of W H Smith, and I.T. Repair Gurus)

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

- 115 High Street (now Jade Bailey Interiors)

- 117 High Street (now The Three Swans)

- 118 High Street (now TSB)

- 128 High Street "Faringdon House"

- 129 High Street (now Ashley Brow Bar and Hungerford Jewellers)

There is every reason to believe that the intervening properties were also consumed by the fire.  The buildings at the time would have been of timber-frame construction (like 85-86 High Street still is today - built in 1449). The roofs would have been thatch. The only was to try to prevent the spread of house fires was to pull off the thatch with fire-hooks, and to use ladders and fire-buckets of water.

Marlborough was consumed by a similar major fire in 1653 - and, of course, London in 1666. Only then did fire insurance begin, along with rules an building styles to reduce the risk of fire. Mechanical fire pumps became a requirement under the Parish Pump Act of 1708, althugh Hungerford had its first mechanical pump in 1702.

Following the fire of 1566, the main street of Hungerford would have looked a sorry sight for many years.

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 (the full text)

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

- Fires and Fire-fighting

- Watermills and Windmills