Shropshire History

Great Fires of

Newport & Wem

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Great Fire of Newport 1665

 

 

On 19th May 1665, a fire destroyed many homes in Newport and left 162 families homeless. The Newport parish register made this observation :-

 

“… on the ffrydaye in the afternoone beeing the 19th daye of May Anno 1665 a suddon furious fire arose whiche began in the house of Richd Shotton, a smith, living at the Chetlop, whiche by Saturdaye noone followinge were burned out of habitation about 162 familyes besides the better of 10 more of houses pulled to pieces – and much prevented. Newport sin no more, lest a worse punyshment b’ fall thee. The loss to Newport was 30,000 pounds.”

T. Millington”

 

At that time, the streets of Newport were very narrow, with wooden houses built close together. A blacksmith called Richard Shotton was working in his smithy behind the Antelope Inn, located in the area of the present day Wellington Road.  This was a fashionable establishment where the king and his ministers stayed when visiting the area. Sparks from Shotton’s forge fell on the timbers of the smithy and set it alight. The flames quickly spread through his building to the Antelope Inn and then along the High Street, causing significant damage to most of the buildings at the upper end. The fire did not reach the church and the lower end of the High Street so these buildings were saved.  Soon Newport was filled with smoke and the sky was red with huge flames shooting up. By the middle of the following day, 163 people had lost their homes. Some of these had to be pulled down to create fire breaks to prevent the fire spreading further. Luckily no-one lost their life.

 

King Charles II wrote to the people of Newport and his other subjects, asking them to take pity on the people whose houses had been destroyed.

 

“Whereas upon the 19th day of May in the 17th year of our reign between the hours of 3 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon a most sudden, fearful and dismal fire happened in our market town in the County of Salop, which within the space of a few hours consumed and burnt to ashes above one hundred and fifty and six inhabitations, so that the whole loss sustained by the said fire doth amount in all to the sum of £23,948 and upwards to the ruin of most of the inhabitants of the said town, their wives and children, unless they be speedily supported and relieved by the Charitable Benevolence of well-disposed Christians. We do hereby recommend their sufferings to the charity of our loving subjects, that in this case their Bowels of Compassion will be the more enlarged, and their charity extended to those distressed inhabitants who at mid-day full and flourishing in good buildings, ample furniture, plentiful provisions and store of necessities and before midnight deprived of all, made empty and nothing, compelled to lodge in open air, and seek hospitality at the hand of others. Give a portion to seven, and also to eight for thou knowest not what evil may be upon the Earth. In witness of this we have caused these our letters to be made Patent for the space of six whole years next after the date hereof to endure no longer. Witness ourselves at Westminster the fifteenth day of October in the eighteenth year of our reign. God Save the King Charles the Second by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith etc”

 

It is not known how successful this appeal for financial assistance was. After the fire, when houses were rebuilt, the streets of Newport were widened to prevent any future fire spreading so quickly. The 17th Century map of the rebuilt town shows the main street and the area around the Church to be very wide.

 

 

 

 

 

Great Fire of Wem 1677

 

 

On 3rd March 1677 a fire destroyed many homes in Wem.  A contemporary description states :-

 

“It began between seven and eight o'clock, at a small house near the upper end of Leek Lane where Mr Phillips's brew house now stands. It was occasioned by the carelessness of a girl, about fourteen years of age, called, Jane Churm, who went upstairs to fetch some fuel kept under a bed, in order to make a good fire against the return of her sister, Catharine Morris, of New Street, who was washing linen at Oliver's Well, The inconsiderate girl whilst she was gathering the sticks together, stuck her candle in a twig that encompassed a spar, when catching the thatch, it set the house in flames; which being agitated by a violent tempestuous wind, soon defied all human means to extinguish them. It was a very dry season, and the houses were covered with straw, or shingles, so that the fire spread into several streets, and with such rapidity seized house after house, that in a short time the conflagration became general. A strong easterly wind blew the burning thatch and shingles to a vast distance, and the devouring flames ran along the High Street, Cripple Street and the Horse Fair, consuming every edifice, the free school only excepted, as far as Burton's Pit, or the house of George Groom, when on a sudden the wind turned to the south-west, and carried the raging fire through Noble Street as far as the Draw Well House. A great number of country people were now come in, who offered to assist Mr Higginson in carrying out his goods, but he would not suffer any to be removed, being intent on the preservation of his house.

 

 

His barns and out-buildings were on fire, and the flames caught the pinnacle, the weather boards, and the shingles of his house, but by the care, and activity of the people in pouring out water, and casting off the shingles, an entire stop was put to the fire on that side, but on the other it ran the full length of the street. In the High Street the fire spread eastwards to the same point on the north side; on the opposite no farther than the same place where it began. In Mill Street it extended to the Rector's barns; in Leek Lane to the house of William Smith, late of John Hales. The church, the steeple, the market house, and seven score dwelling houses, besides treble the number of out-houses and buildings were burnt. In the space of one hour they were all on fire, and the blaze was so great, that at the distance of eight or nine miles it seemed very near, and gave almost as great a light as the moon in full. In the town was a scene of the greatest confusion, and horror. The wind blustered, the flames roared, women and children shrieked. People ran at the cry of fire, to the place where it began, and at their return found their own dwellings burning. In the streets they were scorched with excessive heat, in the fields they were ready to perish with cold. Some striving to save their houses, with them lost all their goods, others despairing to extinguish the flames, attempted to carry off their most valuable effects, and many lost by thieves what they had saved from the fire; one man, and several cattle were consumed in the flames. The man was Richard Sherratt, a shoemaker, who lived on that ground where Sarah Jones now does. Having fetched a parcel of shoes out of his shop, he was seen to go under the market house, which is supposed to have fallen on him”.

 

It was estimated that the cost of the buildings and goods consumed by fire was £14,760. 10s. and the household goods £8,916. 13s. 1d, so that the whole loss amounted to £23,677. 3s. 1d. The intense heat partly melted the church bells, which had to be recast. The church was destroyed by the fire and rebuilt in 1679. In the preceding year there had been two fires in Wem. At the beginning of May 1676 one small house was burnt and at the end of September another fire broke out in the heart of the town, which did little harm. Some people looked on these events as warnings and, when their homes were destroyed, thought it was a judgment on them for neglecting repeated calls to take precautions.

 

There was also a major fire in Market Drayton in 1651. It was started at a bakery and quickly spread through the timber buildings, destroying about 70% of the town. The Buttercross in the centre of the town still has a bell at the top for people to ring if there was ever another fire.