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Great fire of Warwick in 1694

Background of the great fire of Warwick in 1694 

 

The long hot summer of 1694, was to prove disastrous for the town of Warwick, built as it was, of narrowly spaced timber framed houses with thatched roofs, now tinder-box dry.

Historians tell us that the conflagration, soon to devour most of Warwick's wonderful old buildings, started around 2.00pm. on the 5th. September 1694. It is thought to have been started by a stray spark, from a kindling torch, being carried from one house to another. This is said to have set alight a thatched roof of a out-house, at the rear of the Friends Meeting House, adjacent to the High Street.

Winds, approaching gale force at the time, ensured the speedy spread of the fire. According to an eyewitness:

"Within the space of half an hour, several places, and far distant from each other, were all in flames at one, so that all endeavours that could be used to binder the fierceness of its progress were vain and ineffectual".

The fire storm lasted six hours, during which most of the towns population of 3,500 souls had to flee for their lives, 250 of them were left homeless, and 150 buildings were destroyed. Many of the volunteer firemen were busy trying to save their own homes, but in view of the fact that their complete stock of leather water buckets, and their water-engine, had been destroyed when the storage in Sheep Street was burned down, it is doubtful if they could have been very effective, in any efforts to save the town.

The houses now known as 12-14 Jury Street, are but a few of those that survived in this area. Many of the houses in Jury Street were sacrificed to create fire-breaks, in an attempt to halt the relentless advance of the blaze. Indeed one Dr. William Johnson (no relation) paid a group of people to pull down the house of a neighbour, Nathaniel Gilstrop who lived two doors away, in an attempt to save his own. However, half way down Jury Street, stood the Archer Mansion, a brick building with tiled roof, and the fire's progress stopped at that point. Thus the demolition proved to be unnecessary. Needless to say, Dr. Johnson was sued for the damage caused to the Gilstrop building.

 

12-14 Jury Street

12-14 Jury Street

 

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary's Church which had stood for exactly 300 years, having been completed in 1394,was severely damaged by the fire, whose intensity was so great, that the lead off the roof, and even the bells, melted in the heat. The Tower, Nave and Transepts were destroyed. Only the Chancel and the Beauchamp Chapel survived, thanks mainly to the heroic efforts of Parish clerk James Fish, and four parishioners, who fought the blaze. It is recorded that smouldering belongings, from those fleeing the surrounding blazing streets, set fire to the inside of the Church. It is ironic that those poor panic stricken people, should set fire to the very place from which they had sought safety. The cost of restoration was to exceed £25,000. A vast amount at the time.

St. Mary's Church

A most fortunate group of buildings, is that of the Lord Leycester Hospital.

From the start of the fire behind the Quakers Meeting House, it rapidly spread down the south side of the High Street, then, perhaps due to the vagaries of the high wind, leapt across to the north side, just missing the half timbered buildings of the Hospital.

Lord Leycester Hospital

Lord Leycester Hospital

The damages were estimated as being over £100,000, but not a single home in Warwick carried insurance, so those unfortunates lost everything they possessed, and did not have the means to replace them. Lord Brooke and a number of magistrates, donated £300 to The Warwick Fire Relief Fund, set up to "Help those who have lost all they have, and have neither bread to eat, tools to work with, nor beds to lie on". Gifts of food flooded in from neighbouring towns and villages, in an attempt to ease the terrible plight of those made homeless, and penniless.

Those lucky enough to have been spared by the fire, returned to their homes to discover that their possessions had been stolen by the gangs of Looters, who rampaged through the town, under cover of the fire. Search warrants were issued by Warwick magistrates, against a number of premises in nearby districts, but it is not known if any recoveries were made.

Because of the rapidity, and ferocity of the blaze, the cell doors in Warwick Goal were opened , to spare the prisoners from being burnt alive. These prisoners, many violent and dangerous, promptly disappeared.

One of the most remarkable facts is, that not a single person was recorded as being killed by the fire.

 

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