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Woburn Fires

The first of the recorded major fires in Woburn took place on 13th September 1595. There is an account of it by Thomas Wilcocks is held in the Fowler Library which is now in the custody of Northampton University. In 1831 J. D. Parry published his History and Description of Woburn and its Abbey. His account of the fire read thus: "The fire began in a house at the end of the town nearest Brickhill, and was caused by a silly old woman placing a quantity of straw in a chimney corner, not knowing or observing that there was any fire near at the time. The house being thatched, facilitated the spread of the fire to others adjoining it; and in an incredibly short space of time, "one hundred and thirty houses and bayes of buildings" were consumed, together with the household furniture, merchandize, articles of trade, provisions, corn, hay &c. &c. What, as the author observes, increased the pitifulness of the spectacle was, that the property which was brought out into the streets to save it, by the afflicted inhabitants, was partly destroyed by the flames, and partly (shame on that generation!) purloined and embezzled. The country people, he [Wilcocks] observes, came in very lovingly, and the farmers gave the services of their men, paying them at the same time for their labour, and the greater part of the multitude worked with zeal and honest ardour; but, from inexperience, confusion and agitation, they "increased rather the desolation and waste, than in any manner of way lessened the same". A large flake of burning thatch was carried by the wind, - which set most unfortunately for the spread of the flames, from a house near the church, over the chancel, the school house, and several houses on that side of the road, - on to the east side of the street, where it set fire to and consumed sixteen houses and buildings. This fact he asserts on the testimony of several credible eye witnesses. Great store of provisions had been laid in by many persons for the Fair, which was till lately held on the 23rd September. No account has been handed down of the mode or time of rebuilding the town after this lamentable accident; but it was probably rather speedily effected".

During the English Civil War between King Charles I (1625-1649) and Parliament Woburn was staunchly Parliamentarian in its sympathies. In November 1645 a sharp skirmish took place at Woburn between the townsfolk and a party of Royal Horse. Though the loss on both sides was slight, considerable damage resulted to the town, as under cover of the confusion of the fight “some desperate fellows of the neighbourhood” pillaged the north end of the town and burnt some twenty seven houses and the inhabitants were forced to apply to Parliament for help in their distress.

A third fire in June 1724 destroyed thirty-nine dwelling-houses and damaged others, and such distress was caused that petitions for help signed by the justices, churchwardens and overseers of Woburn were sent to neighbouring parishes”. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a facsimile of one of these [Fac72/22], on the rear is annotated: “Second Letter of Request for Wooburn Suffrers by Fire 19 June 1724” which heads as follows

To all Charitable and Well-disposed persons to whom these Presents shall come

It is humbly represented that on Friday the Nineteenth Day of June, 1724, about Five of the clock in the Afternoon, there happened a most dreadful Fire in the Town of Wooburne, in the County of Bedford, which, in a very short time, burnt down, and utterly consumed no less than Thirty Nine Dwelling Houses, with the ware-houses, Out-houses, one Malt-house, Barns, Stables &c. thereunto belonging; together with many Out-houses, Barns, Stables, &c. belonging to dwelling-houses now standing: As also a great Quantity of Household Goods, with Corn, Malt, Hay and the Stocks of tradesmen and Victuallers. There were also seventeen or eighteen Houses, with their Out-houses, &c. very much damaged by the irresistible Flames, besides those which were entirely consumed. The Loss which the poor distressed Inhabitants have sustained thereby is so very great, that it cannot at present be computed. Their most pressing Necessities have obliged them to be speedy in asking Relief by way of Letters of Request.

It is humbly desired that the Calamitous Condition of these Unfortunate Persons will be looked upon with an Eye of Pity and Compassion, and excite that Charity which their profound Misfortunes loudly call for. As it was very unhappy for them to be involved in these Calamities, so it will be a great Comfort for them to meet with suitable relief from their Neighbours and their Neighbouring Counties, on whose Charity the poor Sufferers do entirely depend, resolving not to apply for any Brief.

Their Misery is acknowledged by all who see the dreadful Ruins, to be beyond Expression or Imagination. And as these unhappy Sufferers, many of whom have often readily contributed to the Relief of others in the like deplorable Condition, can have no Hope of Subsistance, but from the Beneficence of Charitable Persons, so will they be ready to acknowledge themselves greatly obliged to every one who shall contribute to their Relief in this their inexpressible Distress. And we whose names are hereunto subscribed, shall be always ready to relieve you under the like Misfortune

The document is annotated at the side: “The Truth of the Premises hath been made appear to us two of his Majesties Justices of the Peace for the County of Bedford, at our Petty Sessions held at the Town of Wooburne in the County aforesaid, upon the oaths of the Parish Officers, and other of the Principal Inhabitants, and also our own View, the First Day of July, 1724 Thomas Armstrong, Thomas Huxley”. In pen is added: “Loss now computed excluding items that ensured and others who do not come in is near six thousand pound”.

The names signed at the bottom and side are as follows: John Bristed, Curate of Woburn; John Selwyne and John Iredale, churchwardens; Henry Hatton and John Ripon, overseers; James Franks; James Revell; Fen Cutting; John Grimbs[?]; W. Durant; William Turvey; Roger Brooks; Richard Smith; Edward Elybick[?]; Francis Turney; John Marshall; Charles Romer[?]Simon Taylor; Simon Taylor junior; William Turner; Henry Clarke; Edmund Green; Jeremiah Roobard; George Dewnis.

The example held by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service was sent to Yaxley in Huntingdonshire by William Turvey. The good people of Yaxley raised fourteen shillings at the bidding of their vicar Robert Newcome and churchwardens John Bishop and Thomas Bowker. The document does not tell us exactly where the fire was but no doubt accounts for the largely Georgian appearance of Bedford Street and the Market Place today. Stephen Dodd, writing a century later, noted: “The town soon rose, like a Phoenix from its ashes, with additional lustre; proving in this, as in many other instances, that misfortune, instead of a curse, frequently turns out a blessing”.