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THE GREAT FIRE 1583

Leaving the brine pit, returning to the crossroads and then crossing over, we can keep alongside the river. In a few yards there is a place to stand, or sit, and look at the river more closely. There may be a fisherman or boy, with a huge umbrella against the rain or wind.

Here is a plinth with a large plaque attached. In brief it summarises the events of the night of December 1583 and after. The wording reads “near this spot...” So we must start by imagining that the road(Water Lode), the traffic and the people nearby, do not exist. Instead we are looking back towards the crossroads and can see the righthand traffic light. This, roughly, is where the fire began. In place of the tall buildings we must imagine a row of single storey cottages, timber-framed and thatched.

Since there exist first hand accounts of what happened we can find them: “Nicholas Brown was brewing ale” (the common drink then) and somehow set his kitchen on fire. With so much wood in the building: furniture, kindling, utensils, beams, walls and roof, plus thatch, the fire soon spread. It was pushed by a strong westerly wind, taking the flames up High Street, through Oat and Swine Markets to Beam Street and along Pepper Street. The other way, it travelled along all of High Street, into Pillory Street, a bit, and along Hospital Street until it reached fields near to Sweet Briar Hall. The parish register recorded:

“...fire consumed in 15 hours, 600 bays of buildings” A bay was the common width of one house among its neighbours.

The people were helpless in trying to put the fire out. Women fetched pitiful quantities of water from the river in little leather buckets, until they heard that the landlord of the Bear Inn, nearby, had released the four bears which he kept for bear-baiting. The women were obviously afraid and refused to get any more water unless they were protected from the bears. Bear baiting was a form of entertainment in which huge brown or black bears, on a chain, were either teased by dogs or otherwise made to stand up on their hind legs.

The Wilbraham diary account says 150 buildings were destroyed, 30 shops, 2 barns,etc. Seven inns disappeared.

The riverside plaque says “almost all buildings were destroyed” This is an exaggeration. Nobody or building on the other side of the river was harmed. Others in Hospital Street and Beam Street were also unaffected.

To see impressions of the fire, go into the post office in Pepper Street and at the far end is a fine mural of many of the major buildings in the town. You will find the four bears, the women and their buckets and their protectors with muskets!

Upstairs in the Museum is a fine woven tapestry. This tells some of the history in symbolic form. The central feature is the Great Fire. In the Library and in the Museum can be found a full description in J.J.Lake`s Great Fire 1583 (1983) or in James Hall`s History of Nantwich (1883).

In 1983 a week`s events took place to mark, as does the plaque by the river, the 400th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1583.

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