October 2011

The Great Fire of Wareham 1762
– October 2011

The speaker at the October meeting of the Society was Anne King who gave a most interesting, detailed talk supported with a slide presentation on the subject of ‘The Great Fire of Wareham 1762’ Introducing the talk, the audience was reminded that Wareham had a long and rich history stretching back many centuries, to the time when Saxons built the earthen ramparts on three sides as a defence of their settlement. It was one of Alfred’s major ‘burhs’ on the South Coast and continued its importance as a trading port during the Norman occupation. Primarily due to the silting of the river, Wareham’s prominence, over the centuries slowly declined.

The speaker moved to the main topic of the talk saying that the afternoon of 25th July 1762 was dry, sunny and hot, thus continuing the pattern of the previous weeks. The people of Wareham were either lazing in the sun or in the church taking part in divine service. Apparently some people admitted to the smell of burning but ignored it – ultimately to their peril.

It is said that a maid servant from The Bull’s Head had thoughtlessly thrown hot ashes onto a rubbish heap so starting the conflagration which swept through the town during the next four hours. Most of the houses were timber framed with thatched roofs and fanned by the wind the fire quickly spread, through West and South Streets.

Fire fighting was totally inadequate, limited mainly to the use of large hooks to drag the thatch from roofs of buildings and hand carrying buckets of water to try and dowse the flames. The streets became impassable due to collapsing houses and fallen thatch barring the way. As a consequence the fire for the most part just burned itself out. After the fire Wareham presented a sorry sight. Some two thirds of the town (133 dwelling houses and other buildings) were destroyed Fortunately no resident was hurt but many people lost all their possessions, which was a disaster as less than half the population was insured. It was estimated that the cost of the damage amounted to £10,000 – a huge amount of money.

But support quickly came to the aid of the unfortunate townspeople. The day after the fire, two cart loads of bread and cheese was sent from Blandford. Immediate offers of help were given by Poole and Bere Regis. Perhaps this response was not surprising as fire was a major hazard in most towns and the affects on the lives of the community was well understood. Blandford itself had suffered a major disaster as a result of a major fire in 1731, when 480 families lost their homes. In Wareham all manner of shelter was made available to reduce the suffering of the inhabitants and the Saxon Church of St. Martin’s was turned into a hostel for families who had lost all their property.

Following a public meeting on 10th August 1762 a Special Act of Parliament was sought and passed for the rebuilding of Wareham and resulted in an Appeal Fund being launched (with a Board of 45 Trustees!) to raise funds. The Appeal was country-wide and ultimately raised some £7,400. King George III himself sent £500.

Rules for rebuilding the town were stringent. Wherever possible non-combustible materials were to be used and new thatching was prohibited. The rebuilt properties were generally in the Georgian vernacular style and today, 250 years after the fire, Wareham still gives the feel of an eighteenth century market town.

This was most interesting and professional talk much enjoyed by the audience.

The 2011 AGM of the Society was held prior to the talk under the chairmanship of Caroline Birch all the current members of the committee were re-elected. However one important vacancy to be filled is that of Speakers’ Secretary, the present holder having left the area.