Dr Gillian White’s talk on the Great Fire of Warwick last night was another tour de force – hugely entertaining but also very instructive.
The fire started near the Lord Leicester Hospital on the afternoon of 5th September 1694 and in the space of just six hours had raged up the High Street, Church Street, Northgate and the Market Square, consuming almost everything in its path including most of St Mary’s Church. More than 250 houses were destroyed – perhaps a quarter of the properties in the town.
As well as describing how the fire started and developed, Dr White also described the aftermath and the rebuilding of the town.
The town’s wealthy leaders were quick to dip into their pockets to provide short term relief to those who had lost everything, but perhaps more remarkable was the Fire Act of 1694 which was passed by parliament shortly afterwards and not only raised national funding for the rebuilding of the town, but also laid down rules for the way in which the rebuilding must be done, specifying design rules for the new buildings and a new wide street design for the town which we can still see today. This was perhaps one of the earliest examples of regulated town planning.
Something equivalent to an insurance scheme was established giving affected residents nine days to claim for what they had lost and these claims, which survive in the County Records Office, provide a fascinating insight into who was living in Warwick at the time, their trades and possessions. Even the Royal harpist was caught in the fire and lost – or at least claimed to have lost – nearly £4,000 in gold coin at today’s value as well as his two harps and some very fancy clothing.
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