Great Fire of Wareham...
Wareham’s prospects improved in the Georgian period (towards the middle of the 18th and early 19th century). Local merchants benefited from a contract to supply fruit, vegetables and other commodities to the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. Another successful local industry was the mining of ball clay, a rare clay valued for its whiteness and prized by the pottery industries including Josiah Wedgwood.
However, on a hot summer’s afternoon on Sunday July 25th 1762, a fire started to burn on a rubbish tip at the back of ‘The Bulls Head’ Inn on South street (now occupied by Lloyds Bank in South Street). Earlier, a servant from the Inn had thoughtlessly tipped out hot ashes onto the rubbish, and in the warm summer wind the fire quickly spread through the old timber framed medieval thatched buildings in the town. Firefighting was limited to carrying buckets of water to dowse the flames or the use of large hooks to drag the thatch from the roofs of the buildings and much of the fire was left to burn itself out. By the evening over 140 buildings were destroyed (amounting to two thirds of the town) had been destroyed, although miraculously nobody was killed.
St Martin’s church was used as a temporary refuge for people who had lost their homes, and some stayed in the church for over a year. Neighbouring towns sent aid in the form of carts of food to help those who were now homeless. It was estimated that the fire damage amount to £10,000 pounds.
After the fire a public meeting was held, and an act of Parliament was sought and passed to rebuild the town. A country wide appeal fund was launched which raised £7,400 including £500 from King George III. Wareham’s Mayor insisted on strict rules for the rebuilding of Wareham. The old timber buildings of North Street were not to be rebuilt, and the street was widened to provide an adequate fire break. Thatched roofs were also prohibited for new builds. It is said that the roofs that you can see today that are thatched, effectively mark the boundary of where the great fire spread to.
For a lucky few householders, thanks to being covered by Sun Fire Assurance Company, firemen had gone straight to their properties. Thus it was also agreed that all new properties should have fire insurance and that this insurance company should provide a fire engine. If you walk around Wareham today you will see that many of the houses from that period still bear the maroon discs outside their front doors.
The new houses were built in the typical charming Georgian style of the period, a characteristic the town retains today.
What a 'Rotten Borough'... !
According to a survey made by the the Calcrafts of Rempstone in 1753 there were around 500 tenements in Wareham which belonged to a few local landowners: the Calcrafts, Pitts and Draxes. In 1763 John Calcraft started buying out small land owners in Wareham, and eventually the Pitts and Drax also sold their Wareham estates to him. The borough thus passed into John Calcraft’s hands giving him a huge influence over who would be elected as the Member of Parliament.
In 1767 John Calcraft wrote to Lord Loudoun that Wareham would choose whomever he recommended, saying ‘let vacancies happen when they will’, and the borough became known as one of the 140 pocket or ‘Rotten Borough’s. These were borough’s with a small electorate which could used by a patron to exert an unrepresentative influence on the House of Commons. In this way, the Calcraft family was elected to parliament ten times from 1800 to 1831!
In defence of having undue influence Calcraft commented that Wareham electors: ‘had the power, if they had the inclination, to throw me out; and, if they kept me in, it is not from any power I have over them or any influence more than that which is acquired by kind service, long acquaintance and neighbourhood.’
In reply, Smith Stanley the Irish secretary, said that Wareham was: ‘A decayed borough, not strictly representing the voice of the people. I certainly have heard … that it is the custom of the candidate to go there, take off his hat, make a civil bow and propose himself to the electors.’
In order to stop this undemocratic practice, Parliament introduced the Reform Act of 1832 which increased the electorate and also, as in Wareham’s case, reduced the representation to just one member of Parliament. In the hand-coloured etching from 1831 above we can see the pro and anti-reformers arguing over the need for Parliamentary reform. On the column in the centre is a list of the names of the rotten boroughs ending with ‘Wareham &c &c &c’.
To be fair to the Calcraft family, John Calcraft the Younger (1765 – 1831), who was the MP for Wareham four times between 1790 and 1831, played a crucial part in the Reform Bill by switching to the Whigs from the Tories resulting in its passing by just the 1 vote. However, this was the second time he had changed political parties and in the cartoon above right he is being lampooned as the man eating his own words written on a roll of paper!
Let's continue our travel through Wareham's history...!
Useful links / Further reading…
- The History of Parliament: Includes a history of Wareham and interesting details of the administration of the town from 1386 – 1868.
- Located at the Town Hall in East Street, the museum has an interesting display of finds.
- Lymington and District Historical Society report of a talk on Wareham’s fire.
- Read more about the history of Purbeck Ball Clay.