Rebuilding after the Fires in Stratford-upon-Avon 

A collaborative project between the Stratford Society and Historic England

March 2022 -- September 2025

StratFire project logo

The StratFire project will establish the chronology and extent of the reconstruction of buildings in the medieval town centre, following the town fires of 1594, 1595 and 1614. Post-fire documentary sources record damage to certain buildings, especially in High Street and Chapel Street, and architectural appraisal indicates that several timber-framed buildings surviving today date from the post-fire period. However, more needs to be established concerning the scale, nature and speed of this rebuilding, and the impact of the fires, both on the economic well-being of the town and the fortunes of the families most seriously affected.

The objective of the project is to establish, by combining building analysis and dendrochronological investigation with archival research, precisely which parts of the town’s main thoroughfare (High Street and Chapel Street) were affected by these town fires, the detailed chronology of the reconstruction work, the similarity (or not) in building design and layout, and the status of the families who were faced with the costs of rebuilding their premises... Read more The project is funded under Historic England’s Heritage Protection Commissions Programme, through contract 8452. The project duration is 42-months, commencing in March 2022.

 FIRES      BUILDINGS      DATING      DOCUMENTS 

Fires

Timber was the most common building material in the town during the period, as it had been throughout the Middle Ages. Almost all of the buildings were timber-framed with walls of wattle and daub. An equally serious fire hazard was thatch which was in widespread use as a relatively cheap method of roofing. The fires were blamed upon 'poore Tenements and Cottages .... Thatched with Strawe, of whiche sort very many have byn lately erected'. Most of the barns, stables, workshops and other outhouses were thatched. Thatched roofs made it very difficult to contain a fire which had taken hold since the sparks and fragments of burning straw were liable to be caught in the wind and carried to other thatched buildings some distance away. These conditions made it very difficult to establish an effective fire-break.

Moreover, the town contained the workshops of blacksmiths, bakers, cobblers, tallow chandlers and especially of maltsters. All of these tradesmen required fire and the need to keep stocks of wood and furze for fuel increased the danger. The practice of lighting fires in buildings without chimneys of brick or stone was also condemned. These already considerable hazards were increased by dry weather and strong winds. A warm and dry spell made both timber and thatch apt to catch fire so that the summer months were especially dangerous. The strength and direction of the wind was an important factor, which could turn a small outbreak of fire into a serious blaze and controlling to a considerable extent the area destroyed. The fire in July 1614 came during a run of dry summers and the extent of the damage was blamed upon the fact that the wind was 'sitting full upon the Towne'.

The fire on 22 September 1594 wrecked the western side of Chapel Street and parts of High Street, Wood Street and Henley Street. The blaze a year later on 21 September 1595 destroyed property in the heart of the town in the area bounded by Bridge Street, High Street and Sheep Street. Together these two fires 'consumed to the number of 200 dwellinge howses'. On Saturday 9 July 1614 a 'suddaine and terrible Fire' broke out and in less than two hours fifty four houses were lost In Sheep Street and indeed 'the whole Towne was in very great daunger to have been utterly consumed '. See an approximation of the areas affected by the fires on a street plan of Stratford.

Buildings

Each property (approximately 50 in all) will be assessed on the basis of:

  • surviving documentary evidence concerning fire damage in 1594, 1595 and 1614;
  • dendrochronological investigation of timber-framing, to establish which buildings escaped the fires and which had to be rebuilt, or partially rebuilt;
  • any other evidence (archaeological, architectural, pictorial etc.) which would imply rebuilding (or not) at the turn of the 16th century.

Provisional survey and assessment work of each building will be carried out by the project's two building recorders, who are expert in historical building techniques. They have special knowledge of timber-frame construction in Warwickshire and the region, and on the compilation and interpretation of documentary evidence for buildings. The focus will be primarily on Houses in High Street and Houses in Chapel Street, including the fine group of timber-framed buildings at the south end of High Street, Nos 17/18 (Grade II) and Nos 19/20/ 21 (Grade II*, Grade II), and, facing them, Nos 23/4 (Grade II*), No. 25 (Grade II*), No. 26 (Harvard House; Grade I), Nos 27/8 (Grade II), No. 29 (Grade II) No. 30 (Grade II*) and No. 31 (Grade II). The owners/tenants of all these properties have agreed in principle to allow the necessary work to take place. It is possible that the project could be extended to include other buildings in the immediate vicinity (the eastern ends of Ely Street and Wood Street, for example, and the western end of Sheep Street) where documentary evidence already indicates evidence of 1594/95 fire damage.

Dating

A key aspect of the project will be the accurate dating of the timbers in each building, to establish which parts may pre-date the fires and when damaged parts were constructed or new sections added. This work will be carried out by staff from Historic England, using the technique of dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating.

The Historic Spine project has already benefitted from independent dendrochronological work carried out on several buildings along this route: in Church Street, the former Guild Hall, the first Schoolmaster’s house and the Almshouses; in Old Town, Hall’s Croft; and in Chapel Street, the Falcon Hotel. However, these buildings (with the possible exception of the Falcon, dated to 1628) are not in the area known to have been affected by the 1590s fires. Documentary sources point instead to High Street and Chapel Street and their immediate environs as the centre of at least one of the fires. It is also here that a fine cluster of timber-framed buildings survives.

Documents

Documentary research will be carried out in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust whose Library and Archive Collections contain much of the relevant material. This work will involve a team of volunteers with an interest in the subject, conducted under the supervision of Dr Robert Bearman, former Head of Archives and Local Studies at the Trust, who has had many years of experience in tracing the history of buildings in the town. Themes to be researched include: the three fires, specific buildings in the town centre, the people who lived in them, rebuilding strategy, effect on the town (trade and occupations), and comparison with fires in other towns. The Birthplace Trust will offer ‘in-kind’ support in arranging for access to its collections and for making images available for reproduction in the final report. The volunteers will meet regularly for training in research techniques, discussion of working methods and other matters of mutual interest.

During the course of the project, on-site presentations will be arranged, specifically for the volunteers. These will be half-day events, led by two or three of the team leaders, possibly including the dendrochronologist, when volunteers will be able to visit buildings not only either under investigation or newly recorded and dated, but also buildings previously studied, such as Hall’s Croft and the Falcon. These will demonstrate both what has been achieved and how the methods described in the initial presentation have been applied.

Key articles previously published are:
Porter, Stephen (1976) Fires in Stratford-upon-Avon in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Warwickshire History, 3(3), 97-105.
Bearman, Robert (2000) Stratford's Fires of 1594 and 1595 Revisited. Midland History, 25(1), 180-190.
Bearman, Robert (2007) Stratford-upon-Avon: A History of its Streets and Buildings, 84pp, Stratford Society.