Day the 'great fire' devastated Buckingham

Ed Grimsdale's gripping new monthly local history column

Friday, 6th August 2021, 11:31 am
Updated Friday, 6th August 2021, 11:32 am
Contemporary depiction of the firefighters

What an uncertain start to a new monthly series!

It’s true, check out history books and they all agree about the month – March – but they agree to differ over the year.

More confusingly both the 1724 camp and those that prefer 1725 can claim to be correct.

Buckingham inns in 1725

“Pull the other one, Ed,” I hear you saying.

The following notice of the great fire in Buckingham was based on newspaper accounts by Browne Willis, Buckingham’s first and, possibly, greatest historian :—

“London, March 18, 1724. On Monday last, 15th. March, about seven in the evening, a dreadful fire broke out near the Unicorn Inn in Buckingham, which burnt with such vehemency that it soon consumed 138 dwelling houses.”

It’s an informative paragraph which, potentially, misleads us on the year of the fire. Why did Browne Willis call the year 1724?

End of the Red Buildings

From 1155 until 1752, Britain used the Julian calendar which dictated that the ‘new year’ didn’t occur on the 1st January as the ‘old year’ stayed around until 24th March with Lady Day, 25th March, being the start of the following year.

Incidentally, Lady Day, one quarter on from Christmas Day, was the day on which the church decreed that the Angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce that she would become the Mother of God after three further quarters had passed.

So, to a contemporary like Browne Willis, the Great Fire of Buckingham occurred nine days before the end of 1724. We 21st century folk look back and put the same event in 1725 to maintain consistency with ‘our’ calendar. You pays your money an…

Here are two further pieces of written evidence:

Bristle Hill in 1971

27th March Newcastle Courant

“Buckingham, March 16. Last Night the greatest Misfortune happened to this Place that has been known: A Fire broke out by 7 a Clock and, all being very dry, and the Wind pretty strong, it raged with great Fury, and no Engine could be had till one was sent from Windsor [!], which did great Service.: However, about 100 Houses are destroyed, chiefly in the very Heart of the Town, and, …”

This is an extract of a letter sent from Buckingham to several newspapers on March 26th: it tries to paint a picture of the Great Fire:

“I want [need] Words to tell you the Consternation we were in here on the 15th Instant at Night, on Account of the Fire which happen’d in our Town; ‘this much better imagin’d than express’d. The dry Weather we then had, a strong Gale of Wind, and the want of Engines contributed very much to its Fury, which was so great that upwards of 100 Houses have been destroyed, and those chiefly in the middle of the Town.

“The Distresses of the poor Sufferers was great, and the Cries of Women and Children afforded so melancholy a Scene, and affected me in such a manner, that I could wish to banish the Thoughts of it from my Mind: Excuse; it me therefore if I add no more.”

Let’s quarry those two gobbets [Historian-speak for text extracts.]

It confirms the weather and the time. It’s appalling that Buckingham had no fire engine, so the initial fight would have been with chain gangs delivering water in pails plus men armed with long fire rakes who would tear thatch from roofs creating fire breaks by removing combustible material.

That the Windsor Engine did great Service shows how long the fire raged. It’s a sixty mile trip between the towns and at an average of 4mph, the Windsor machine would not have arrived for service before a day had passed. The second is ‘at a loss for words’ .

Stamford Mercury 25th March

“On Monday last, a terrible fire broke out at the Town of Buckingham, which destroyed upwards of 140 Houses; it began in a Yard belonging to one Mr. Hederton [a.k.a. Mr. Egerton who gowned the Unicorn Inn] was occasioned by a Maid and two boys putting a lighted Coal to a Stack of Furze [from Old English fyres (“furze”) which related to Old English fȳr (“fire”); these days we call it Gorse and if dry, it catches fire very easily.]. There were two Horses and five or six Hogs burnt.”

Poor Mr Egerton was among 11 publicans ruined by the flames. With matches yet to be invented and ‘striking a light’ with a flint and steel laborious it was normal, if unsanctioned practice, to transfer hot coals on a shovel from a lighted fire to act as firelighters in a fresh fire.

What a shame the maid met some naughty boys near a pile of dry gorse in an outhouse between the pub. and the river Great Ouse. A tiny bit of fun was magnified through sparks, thatched roofs and an easterly Gale into the greatest loss of property in over a 1,000 years of Buckingham history.

The Burgesses if Buckingham lacked ‘nous’; they, too, were devastated and as traumatised by the loss of one third of their ‘ancient and loyal’ Borough as the sufferer in the fire.

Unlike the civic leaders in Warwick, after its Great Fire of 1694, they made no appeal to Parliament, so Buckingham lack the wits, Writ, and financial support to create a master restoration plan. Buckingham folk had a ‘D.I.Y.’, piecemeal approach. No sweeping away of tightly packed homes on twisting, narrow Mediaeval streets. Progress was slow but there were occasional examples of ‘helping hands’.

This support from the highest quarter has been ignored by most commentators: Ipswich Journal 26th June, 1725

“We hear that his Majesty [King George I] before his departure to Hanover, was pleased to order £500 in money and £500 in Timber to be given to the Town of Buckingham, towards repairing the Losses sustained by the late dreadful Fire there.”

I suspect it was the King who underpinned the erection of the Red buildings rather than Lord Cobham who generally gets the plaudits.

The next document has been transcribed from an original Circular Letter, from the liberal Bishop Richard Reynolds to the Clergy, of his Diocese”

“Fire at Buckingham, 1726.[!Better late than never!] “Good Brother, —You will with this receive his Majesty’s most gracious letters patent for making a charitable collection in favour of the poor sufferers by fire at Buckingham. The loss is very great!

More than an hundred and thirty families there being reduced to the last extremities! These poor people stand commended to the rest of the kingdom, as they have been an ancient Corporation, living up to the ends of their institution, fair traders, faithful subjects, helpful to such as wanted, and, to other great towns, a very good example.

[…]

I pray God to have you and your parish under his most gracious protection, and remain your truly loving Brother.”

R. Lincoln, Park Street, Westminster, April 28, 1726

Modern Summary:

In March 1725, a fire that started accidentally in outhouses behind the Unicorn Inn on the High Street destroyed 138 houses, containing 507 people; almost a third of the town at that time.

Although a few people received about £7,000 through having fire insurance, the loss of assets amounted to more than £32,000. The poorhouse tenements next to the Bull Inn on Well Street were used to shelter some made homeless by the fire whilst the Red Buildings in Northeast End were quickly constructed to house more of them.

The fire affected much of the central part of Buckingham including Bourtonhold around what became the Parish Church later in the century. The Crown Inn in Bristle Hill was the most remote building to be razed by the westward drive of the flames.

In a later article, I shall write about the impact of the Great Fire on Buckingham’s people and economy: effects that lasted for around 100 years. For now, I’ll finish by saying that the Suffering and Resilience shown by our predecessors so many years ago must not be forgotten.

The tercentenary of the catastrophe comes in 2025. How will we remember the homeless and those whose lives were changed irreversibly? We have three years to plan fitting tributes...