Look Back With Little: Great fire of Banbury

William Whately, Vicar of Banbury and a leading Puritan.
William Whately, Vicar of Banbury and a leading Puritan.

The beginning of September saw the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666. Banbury also had a disastrous fire a few decades earlier in 1628. In today’s article I will be explaining how much is known about this and what was its impact on the town.

Much of what we know of the facts of the fire come from a sermon ‘Sinne no more’ preached by William Whately, Vicar of Banbury, on Tuesday, March 4, a few days after the fire. This was printed originally for George Edwards in Greene Arbour without Newgate 1628/30 and reprinted by J.G Rusher, the Banbury printer, in 1824. Whately’s text was 2 Peter 3. 12 ‘The heavens being on fire shall be dissolved and the elements shall melt with fervent heat’.

He states that the two hour sermon was preached upon ‘occasion of a most terrible fire that happened there on the Sabbath day immediately precedent, and within the space of four hours was carried from one end of the town to the other, with the fury, as continuing to burn all the night, and much of the next day, it consumed 103 dwelling houses, 20 kiln-houses, and other outhouses, to the number of 600 bayes and upwards, together with much malt and other grain and commodities, as amounted to at the least the value of £20,000.’

The fire broke out on a Sunday and at a time of day when many were worshipping. It was reported that the fire started in a malt house ‘by negligence of a mayde’. Ironically, the first alarm concerning the fire was given whilst William Whately was administering the holy sacrament. This led him to comment that ‘the fire came riding as it were in triumph through your streets…till it had passed from end to end of your towne, and could not be restrained’.

The damage caused by the fire is difficult to estimate. Writing in 1841, Beesley in his ‘History of Banbury’ states that in his day there was no account of which part of the town was destroyed by fire. His method of assessment was based on the character of the houses and other buildings he could observe over 200 years on from the fire.

On this basis, he worked out that the affected roads were West Bar Street, South Bar Street, Calthorpe Lane, Fish Street (George Street) and Broad Street. Each could be classed as a scene of desolation.

Beesley follows this by quoting from the Journals of the House of Lords. The entry states that shortly after the fire the word got around that a serious conflagration might occur in the part of Banbury not touched by flames in 1628. It appears that the source of this information was soldiers quartered in the town in order to maintain law and order amongst people made homeless by the fire.

Interestingly the Corporation Accounts (Banbury Corporation Records: Tudor and Stuart published by Banbury Historical Society 1977) make no mention of the fire or its aftermath. However this volume contains a copy of an Appeal for Help signed by the Mayor, the Minister, Justices of the Peace, Aldermen and Capital Burgesses attested to by Ministers of Parishes bordering Banbury.

A document survives in the City of Coventry Record Office showing a generous response and naming 65 persons of Banbury ‘to be relieved by the gift of Coventry, 23 October 1628’. £26 13s 4d was distributed in amounts ranging from £1 (5) down to 1/- (1).

Sometime in the wake of the fire an inscription was placed on the Bar Gate in West Bar Street following its re-erection in 1631.

The words would seem to be significant as they emphasised the need for vigilance. ‘Except the Lord Keepe the City the Watchman watcheth but in vain.’

Beesley goes on to state in a footnote that as late as 1754 ‘many inhabitants used to provide tubs of water on the anniversary of the fire. The aim was to prevent the recurrence of a similar calamity.’