The Great Fire

The Great Fire of Beccles

Beccles has been subject to a number of fires, but the fire of November 1586 is the one that is referred to as the Great Fire of Beccles. The date of the fire is thought to be the 29th November but there is some uncertainty and the 26th and 30th are also possible. The location where the fire started is unrecorded, but it affected properties in Northgate, Old Market, Saltgate and New Market as well as St Michael’s and the Bell Tower. A total of 80 houses are recorded as being destroyed.

Buildings in Beccles, typical of the time, were largely timber framed, thatched and heated by open fires. Weather conditions also contributed to the severity of the fire. Britain between 1560 and 1690 was recorded as having a mini ice age, with very cold, windy and dry weather. The River Waveney is recorded as being frozen during November 1586. The buildings being made of easily combustible material, the difficulty in obtaining water in the freezing temperatures and the strong winds contributed to the spread of the fire.

There are two recorded ballads, reproduced in the booklet Beccles Ablaze (edited by Anne Frith, Dorothy Smith and Anne Bauers), which detail the town, the causes of the fire and its effects. The ballads allude to a period of trouble over the fen, and its disputed ownership and the disharmony between different factions of the town. One of the ballads refers to the fire being a punishment for the sins of the town. The ballad by Thomas Delone records the fire as starting at 9am and burning until 4pm, with 80 houses destroyed and £20,000 of damage, a huge sum for that time.

Book - Beccles Ablaze
Available for the museum shop

The fire is believed to have started in a chimney of one of the smaller houses and then spread with it reaching its most intense stage in the area of New Market. St Michael's Church was badly affected with all the roof, which was thatched, seats and wood work being consumed. Only the walls and stone work of the windows remained and that was smoke blackened. The lower part of the Bell Tower was also discoloured by smoke.

The fire would have had a serious effect on the livelihood of the town and efforts were quickly put in hand to rebuild and recover from the disaster. The Corporation permitted the extraction of clay from the fen for the making of bricks. The rebuilding and repair of St Michael’s was put in hand but a much more simpler decorated church resulted. The renovations of the mid 19th century created the church interior we see today.

Concern for the town and its residents brought help from across Norfolk and Suffolk, and even further afield. The funds donated were chiefly for the rebuilding of the Church.

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