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Articles in the Stratford Herald

12 May 2022 Timber tests to give a picture of the past

28 September 2023 Following the fiery timeline

Best Foot Forward: research at 36 High Street reveals 1473 building

No. 36 High Street, one of the properties examined as part of the StratFire project, is an unassuming building. But behind the modern, three-storey structure with a brick façade (c.1758-1790s), lies a whole lot of history.

The StratFire (three-year) project aims to look at the effects of the fires of 1594, 1595 and 1614 on Stratford’s buildings, economy and people, using a combination of archival and building research and tree-ring dating (dendrochronology). The initial focus is on High Street and Chapel Street and No. 36, now ECCO® shoes, is one of the sites being studied.

Surprisingly, no evidence of historical fire damage or discolouration was found at No. 36. The building was clearly not burnt to the ground. But we have learnt a great deal.

Analysis of oak roof trusses on the second floor and oak beams on the ground floor passageway showed that the trees, locally sourced, were most likely felled between 1463 and 1477 (a 94.5% probability). This coincides with historical research, which found a 1473 lease to a wealthy textile dealer, Roget Paget, that required him to rebuild the property. The building was then was called the Clockhouse, and as well as being required to rebuild it, Paget was also obliged to put in place a warden to look after the bell and clock attached to the building – hence its name. Seven years later, the clock was removed to the market cross, which then stood at the corner of High Street and Wood Street. The building was still known as the Clockhouse in 1500-01, around which time Paget died.

This is not the building’s only claim to fame: it also has connections to Shakespeare. In 1616, the year of his death, Shakespeare’s youngest daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney (on 10th February). The couple lived just across the road, at no. 1 High Street, on the corner of Bridge St, the cellar of which was once part of an early town gaol, known as The Cage.

And at No. 36, just decades before, the lease was held (from 1561) by Adrian Quiney, Thomas’s grandfather. On Adrian’s death, the lease passed to his son Richard (from 1600-04) and then to Richard’s widow, Elizabeth. It was Elizabeth who, in 1612, arranged that the lease should go to her son Thomas – the same Thomas who, four years later, married Judith, and transferred his business across the road to No. 1.

The early history of the building has been traced back to when the freehold belonged to the Guild of the Holy Cross. After the Guild was suppressed, the site passed, along with others, to the recently incorporated (1553) Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon.

And what of the building now? It is Grade II listed, although sadly, much of its history, still in evidence in 1945, is now missing. This included a magnificent stone fireplace, and on the first floor, late 16th century panelling and some frieze panels from the 18th century. These may have been removed in the 1980s. But we can take heart in the fact that some of the old timbers remain, and that, if the demolition of the former Debenhams building to the south of No. 36 goes ahead, then more of the original frame may be revealed.

In the meantime, it’s interesting to reflect on another part of the property’s history. In 1910, No. 36 was owned by the Town Corporation, and occupied by the Public Benefit Boot Co. Not a public or charitable company, as you’d think from the name, the Public Benefit Boot Co. was effectively a shoe shop, with many branches, just like ECCO®.

Ellie Stevenson, December 2023

Stratford after the Fire(s)

Over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Stratford-upon-Avon suffered from a number of fires: in 1582, 1594, 1595, 1614 and 1641. Fire, ‘that most terrible and ruthless tyrant’ was not uncommon then, and didn’t only happen in Stratford. Now, centuries later, the StratFire project aims to use building records and tree-ring dating, combined with archival research to explore the impact of three of those fires (1594, 1595 and 1614) on the town’s buildings, economy and families, focusing initially on High Street and Chapel Street.

So what was the extent of the damage? The 1594 fire, which most likely took place on or around 13 May, damaged the western side of Chapel Street and parts of High Street, Wood Street and Henley Street. The 1595 fire (possibly around July) affected buildings in the heart of the town, in an area bounded by Bridge Street, High Street and Sheep Street. It was initially said that 200 buildings were destroyed in these two fires although a later estimate suggests around 120: c.100 in the first and fewer in 1595. It’s still a sizeable number though. The 1614 fire, on 9th July, cost the town 54 houses in less than two hours, along with barns, stables and stores holding corn, hay, straw and timber. Sheep Street, in particular, suffered badly (see map).

But why did such fires happen? There were three main issues:
Timber, readily available from the nearby forests of Arden and Feckenham, was the most common building material. Some stone was quarried locally but very little was used in building, and bricks were too expensive to make or to transport to be used, except for making chimneys. Most buildings were timber-framed with walls of wattle and daub (an example of which can be seen at Shakespeare’s Birthplace on Henley Street).
Thatch, which was in widespread use, was relatively cheap. While some of the ‘better’ houses were tiled, most poorer accommodation was thatched, along with barns, stables and workshops. Once fire took hold, fragments of burning straw would be caught by the wind and carried to nearby properties making it difficult to contain the fire.
Workshops attached to the houses, in which many tradesmen such as blacksmiths and maltsters used fire for their work, and also had to store combustible materials, such as wood, nearby. Lighting fires in buildings without brick or stone chimneys probably wasn’t uncommon.

Added to all this, warm weather and strong winds made the summer especially dangerous. Firefighting equipment was also primitive, consisting mainly of leather buckets, ladders and long firehooks to pull thatch off roofs. Towns were slow to adopt fire engines and the early ones were ineffective when faced with a large fire. One method was to demolish buildings in the fire’s path, thereby creating a fire-break, but this had to be done decisively, and fires spread fast. Owners would have resisted, and people didn’t always want to help fight the fire, being too preoccupied with saving their own property.

The effect of a fire was to make some people homeless and force them to shelter in the church or in barns or outhouses, sometimes turning these into permanent homes. This was not a good strategy. Some people became wary of future fires, and were reluctant to rebuild properly. The Corporation offered new leases to many of its tenants, to encourage rebuilding of its own property, sometimes requiring rebuilding to take place within a certain timeframe. Many of the gutted buildings (although not all) were rebuilt fairly quickly and some still exist today, and are being examined as part of the StratFire project. Examples include the Garrick Inn and Harvard House.

The risks of fire were evident to the Corporation, and there were attempts to enforce regulations to reduce the dangers from the 1550s onwards, such as forbidding the thatching of houses and, in 1583, requiring inhabitants to ensure that there were appropriate chimneys in residential accommodation. But it was not until much later (the 1600s) that stricter control on roofing materials and fire hazards was attempted. The effect must have been somewhat limited, even then, given that another fire followed in 1641.

Finally, in 1665, the ban on thatching was repeated, and it was ruled that all thatched buildings were to be tiled by 29 September 1665. Fines were increased, and there were fines for making a fire in a building without a stone or brick chimney. A requirement for keeping leather buckets was extended to those paying higher rents and in 1684 a fire engine was acquired. Such measures helped to prevent a recurrence of the earlier fires.

What didn’t happen, though, as part of the post-fire legislation, was an attempt to impose a uniformity of style or construction, or alter the layout of the town. Stratford retained its unique character, and much of that character is still visible today, or invisible, hidden behind ‘modern’ facades, such as with 36 High Street – a Grade II listed building. This hidden history is what the StratFire project aims to uncover.

Ellie Stevenson, October 2023