Warwickshire’s great fire of 1694, houses and building materials

This blog is the third of three blogs written by Anne Cripps, Anne Foster and Anne M Thomas, three University of the Third Age (U3A) researchers working on the Shared Learning Project on the Restoration hearth tax and early modern history. The work was undertaken at the Warwick Record Office, following training provided by the members of the Centre for Hearth Tax Research. It will be followed by a blog looking at the great fire in Warwick in the 1690s and one on the administrative background. The Centre for Hearth Tax Research is grateful for the opportunity to publish this research. 

The 1694 Great Fire destroyed many of the mainly medieval vernacular buildings in the centre of Warwick: timber-framed. These properties were characterised by wattle and daub walls, jettied upper stories, gables and thatched roofs.

The materials for these were largely obtained locally due to high transport costs.  Timber came from nearby in the river valleys, with more substantial timbers from the oaks of the Forest of Arden nearby, though these were becoming depleted by the demand for fuel by developing industry in Birmingham.  The clay, lime and laths for the walls all came from nearby, as did thatching grass. All were highly flammable materials.

 Bricks and tiles were coming into use for gentry houses and substantial farms, made nearby where there were deposits of suitable clay.  For rebuilding after the Great Fire these deposits were in St Mary’s common; the commoners reluctantly agreed as it was for the public good, but there were disputes about the disturbance to the commoners’ cattle and the brickmakers straying from the agreed trackway for removing the bricks.  Heat for firing was obtained by burning furze, but coal is also mentioned, from the coalfields in north Warwickshire.

The stone buildings of the town: the castle, St Mary’s church, the town gates, or for foundations and ornament, were built from quarrying the surface outcrop of Warwickshire sandstone on the spot, in the castle grounds, in the churchyard and so on.  The handsome market hall in Market Place, built in 1670, the year of this Hearth Tax return, was also built of Warwickshire sandstone. 

Chimney stacks were of brick, occasionally stone, and most houses seem to have fireplaces only on the ground floor; a second hearth might be in the kitchen.  Hearths in upstairs rooms are thought to have been rare at this time, though probably less so in gentry houses.  Wood as a fuel was beginning to be replaced, or supplemented, by coal in the later seventeenth century, in areas of Warwickshire where transport costs from the North Warwickshire coal fields were not too high.  Some probate inventories list the grates necessary for coal burning.  

The 1610 map of Warwick appears to show houses packed close together and double-storied. It seems likely in an urban situation that the ground floor was occupied by a shop or workroom, with the family living upstairs.  The houses front on to the street, but from the Great Fire records of structures retaining thatched roofs there was a substantial area behind the houses filled by barns, stables, malthouses, brewhouses, hovels, lean-tos, slaughterous houses of office, and pig sties.

1610 map by John Speed

Even before the Great Fire houses of brick, tile and stone were beginning to be built in the new fashionable classical style with flat-plane facades, a central front door between symmetrical windows, but the reconstruction regulations afterwards reinforced this with a uniform frontage and height along the main streets, making for an elegant and urbane townscape, which has been maintained to the present.  This did not extend to the rest of the town, however, increasing the gap between rich and poor in the seventeenth century.

From M W Farr The Great Fire of Warwick 1694, based on the 1710 map of Warwick

The rebuilding after the Great Fire launched the career of Francis Smith, who has been described as one of the most successful master-builders in English history.  He was a mason who, together with his brother William, a bricklayer (master builders had only one trade themselves: bricklayer, mason, carpenter or joiner, and engaged sub-contractors for other work), set up an extensive workshop and business with stores of marble, stone, and timber in Marble House, bought from Mrs Margaret Yardley, a 10-hearth house in Saltisford in the 1670 Hearth Tax return.  He built many of the new houses in Warwick, and, until his death in 1738, many of the country houses within a 50-mile radius of Warwick.


The first fair was in 1261, eight days round 1 August, another in 1268 of seven days at Michaelmas (moved in 1413 to 23-25 August), and in 1290 of fifteen days around 29June.  After this flurry in the thirteenth century, no more were granted until 1479 when two three-day fairs were granted round 28 October & 1 May. By 1683 there were seven fairs.  Markets and fairs were controlled through the bailiff who was ex officio clerk of the market.  By 1611 the court leet appointed bread weighers, flesh tasters, leather sealers and ale tasters, but the corporation retained control of the general administration of the market and collected the market dues. The first reference to markets was in the twelfth century and Market days were Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The centre of trading activity was in the Market Place, but the sale of specific goods had spilled out to a variety of nearby sites.   Butter and cheese were sold at High Cross, wheat in Castle street, barley in Church street and beef in Jury street, but on Saturdays the market was in Market Place.  There were shops under the Wool Hall and a Butter House, as well as Booth Hall, which had stalls on the northern and southern sides of the hall and overflowing into the street. The corporation enjoyed the rents from about 45 stallholders of between five shillings and £2 a year.

The inadequacies of stalls in Booth Hall and the rising volume of trade in the mid-seventeenth century led to the building by public subscription in 1670 of a stone-build fine classical Market House in Market Place. It contained an arcaded ground floor for the sale of produce and an upper floor meeting room.  It currently houses the  Warwick Museum, and is still used for meetings

By 1683 there were seven fairs held in the town, like the markets particular places were allocated to individual commodities: cloth in the High Street between the braziers and shoemakers stalls, and grain in Castle street.  Certain commodities came to be associated with particular fairs: fish was a speciality of the March fair; cheese & cattle in May; wool & cattle in August; cheese, cattle & hops in November; horses were sold at every fair, but particularly in May. The corporation receiving fourpence for each sale, and eightpence for each exchange.

As well as the Swan, the Bell and the King’s Head catering for the gentry, as a market town and site of fairs there were other inns and alehouses to cope with the demand for accommodation, food and drink.  The area around the market in 1694 had the Bird in Hand, the Black Raven, the Green Dragon and the Crown, the White Horse, the Bull, the Peacock, the Black Swan, the George and the Blue Bell As well as the Swan the High Street housed the White Lion, and the Bear; and Swan Lane crossing it had the King and Queen’s Head and the Red Lion.

Open air markets and fairs spilling out on to the streets were subject to bad weather and municipal oversight, and this period saw a growth of individual shops selling a wide variety of goods, stimulated by the rising demand.  The growth of retail, with shops no longer limited to the days of markets and fairs, paralleled the decline of trade companies’ restrictions. No grocers as such are mentioned in late seventeenth century Warwick; groceries were stocked by other retailers such as mercers, drapers, apothecaries, and ironmongers.

The 1670 Hearth Tax returns show Warwick on the cusp of change, leaving the medieval world behind and quickening into the very different economy of the eighteenth century, with the Great Fire acting as a pivotal turning point in this transformation.

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