By local historian Lilian Ladle
July 1762 had been very hot and dry, Sunday 25th was no different, but was relieved by a strong breeze. About three o’clock in the afternoon at the back of the Bull’s Head Inn (now Lloyds Bank), hot ashes were thrown onto a rubbish heap which quickly caught alight. The blustery wind blew burning rubbish onto the thatched roof which quickly caught fire.
The flames spread alarmingly, fanned by the wind, and wreaked havoc for the next four hours, resulting in the loss of 133 houses, business premises and outhouses, most of which were timber-framed and thatched.
The Town Hall, Dissenter’s Meeting House in Church Lane and the Rectory in Pound Lane were damaged beyond repair.
The devastated area included both sides of West Street as far as Trinity Lane, North Street to Howard’s Lane, the west side of South Street, the Quays, Church Lane and the south side of St John’s Hill. Due to the vagaries of the wind, properties south of the Bull’s Head Inn survived. Two thirds of the town was destroyed and damages were estimated at £10,000.
There was no loss of life as most townspeople were worshipping at the Dissenter’s Meeting House or the parish church of Lady St Mary. The call of Fire!, and an all-pervading smoke abruptly ended the services.
The towns’ two flimsy fire engines were woefully inadequate to quench the flames. Surviving buildings including the churches of Lady St Mary, Holy Trinity and St Martins, the Manor House in South Street, the Almshouses in East Street and the barn on St John’s Hill, stood out starkly against the blackened rubble.
Most properties were not insured and many people lost everything they owned. A nationwide appeal resulted in financial and material aid which then as now, was often patchily and unequally distributed.
Rebuilding commenced a year later resulting in the pleasing Georgian architecture which is still apparent today.
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