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In 1594 and 1595, when William Shakespeare was 31 years old, fires tore through his hometown of Stratford Upon Avon, causing such destruction that this natural disaster is one of the few major events in Stratford Upon Avon that was recorded for posterity. The fires were known as The Great Fires and in the aftermath of the devastation the town gathered together to rebuild the timbers of their homes and businesses. Many of these rebuilt structures survive through to today, and with the help of a recently awarded research grant from Historic England, the Stratford Society lead by historian Bob Bearman, look to investigate how the timber frame buildings were rebuilt following the fires in 1594, 1595, and another one that occurred later in 1614. Dr. Bob Bearman joins us today to tell us about the history of the fires and to share a look inside the Stratfire Project.   

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Bob Bearman was the Head of Archives at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust from 1970-2007, and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Honorary Fellow of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of History at University of Birmingham, General Editor for the Publications of the Dugdale Society, Editor of the Warwickshire History, and a Member of Editorial Board of Midland History. Bob is the author of several books on Shakespeare including Shakespeare’s Money: How much did he make and what did this mean? which was published in 2016 and features John Shakespeare, which is the topic Bob joins us to discuss today. Find a list of Bob’s books and publications as well as more information and resources in the show notes for today’s episode. 

I’ll be asking Bob Bearman about:

  • What caused the fires of 1594 and 1595?  
  • There must have been considerable damage to the town from these fires. Can you share with us specific structures that were destroyed or what the records say about which streets or even whose homes were impacted? 
  • The Stratfire Project intends to use specifically dendrochronology to examine wood samples from the time period. Bob, how does the study of the growth rings in wood help the Stratfire Project better understand this historical event?  
  • …and more!

Resources You Can Use to Learn More

Stratford Fire 1614, Warwickshire History by Bob Bearman 

The earlier fires of 1594 and 1595, article in Midland History about those.  

Minutes and Accounts of Stratford corporation –transcripts of fire documents of 1614, and out later this year and follow that up.  

Additional Links That May Be Of Interest:

Researching Stratford’s historic buildings (The Stratford Observer)

Shakespeare and the destructiveness of fire (The Shakespeare Blog)

Stratford Upon Avon’s Fire of 1614 by Robert Bearman (The Stratford Society)

Timber tests to give a picture of the past in Stratford (The Stratford Herald)

1589 Woodcut showing a town on fire, people with ladders and buckets trying to put the fire out. From a ballad about a fire in Beccles, Suffolk, 1589. British Library.
Screenshot of “A briefe sonet declaring the lamentation of Beckles, a Market Towne in Suffolke which was in the great winde vpon S. Andrewes eue pitifully burned with fire to the value by estimation of tweentie thousande pounde. And to the number of foure score dwelling houses besides a great number of other houses. 1586.” This is a ballad describing how a fire destroyed much of Beccles, Suffolk on St Andrew’s Day Eve 1589. The screenshot above is of the image showing the fire and people trying to put it out. You can read more of the ballad and see more history here: Source | British Library.

The Cause of the Fires Remains Shrouded in Rumor

The official explanation was that the original fire came from the negligence of an old woman put in trust of a brew fire at an ale house and she fell asleep. That was a good example of what was in the popular imagination. It was a time of mass movement of migrant poor. As the population grew, in Stratford, new arrivals were squeezed into backyard vetements, in the popular imagination it was thought they were responsible for the fires and this story is one example of that. A good example of the concern the authorities had towards the poor, if you came into Stratford, you would need to have two people to sign what we called an indemnity certificate so if you fell on hard times in need of poor relief, your two sureities would have to pay up. They appointed “headboroughs”, who were employed to watch out for newcomers and report them to the aldermen and mayor. This situation was a reflection of the general concern. One of the reasons that they feared the migrant poor, was that they were afraid to be squeezed into backland developments and light fires for businesses or to keep warm adn they could become more serious. There was a third theory, and one cleric writing at the time, ASK argued because Stratford was hit by fire in two successive years and on the same day both times it was a punishment by God for abuse of the Sabbath.  

Shakespeare’s Birthplace on Henley Street, taken 18 August 2010, by Repton1x. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Source

Documentary Evidence for Damage Caused by Fires

There must have been considerable damage to the town from these fires. Bob’s research explores specific structures that were destroyed and what the records say about which streets or even whose homes were impacted.

The main documentary evidence we have for the extent of these fires is from the corporations property portfolio, they owned many buildings in the town. If you look at the leases, rentals, and surveys, you can get some idea of where the fire broke out. In 1594 and 1595, we know that there was a certain amount of damage or high degree of damage in HIgh Street, Henley Street… rebuilding these properties was made a condition of a new lease. You can have the lease at a reduced rental if you rebuild the property. By Sept 1598, in a petition for remission of taxes the number of houses said to be affected by fires of 1594 and 1595, was about 200 houses, estimated amount of 12000 pounds. A third fire in 1614, affected the block between cheap street and water street which was supposed to take up 54 houses, so a total damage of 8000 pounds, included many barns, stables, and other buildings containing “great store of corn…and timber.” The buildings weren’t valuable, but the contents.  

From the Stratford Society Files (Here), Used by Bob Bearman’s Permission.

Using Dendrochronology to date the timber frame houses

The Stratfire Project intends to use specifically dendrochronology to examine wood samples from the time period. Bob explains how does the study of the growth rings in wood help the Stratfire Project better understand this historical event.

At the moment, we are dependent on the documentary sources, in a lease or other documents. Also of course you can look at someone who knows something about timber frame. Buildings and they can have a look at the building and know what time it comes from out of a knowledge of archeology. What we don’t know is exactly when the buildings were constructed. We can’t tell how quickly the building was rebuilt, and above all, you can’t etll the effects on the families involved. What dendrochronology can do, they bore a sample out of a timber that the experts know are original to the building, and they can tell form the tree rings in that sample, approximately when the timber was felled to build that house. They have a master of the people who run this scheme, have a master set of dates, and rings and they can know the differences, so their analysis can tell them what date the timber was felled.  

Example of a timber frame structure on High Street in Stratford Upon Avon. Picture from Stratford Society Files, Used by Bob Bearman’s Permission. Source

Witness Accounts of the Fires from the 16th Century

The Great Fires were visible from far away and there are some surviving records of what people saw and their reaction to the event.

We’ve got an account of the 1594 fire from surprisingly, a chronology that was kept my someone who lives in Shrewsbury, not far away, but not local. He wrote that this year and the 13th day of may in Stratford Upon Avon there was burnt by chance of misfire, over 100 houses, besides 2000 pounds worth of….ask him for this quote.  

After over 100 houses were destroyed in 1594, another 20 houses were taken out in 1595. Many of the structures we know were damaged came very close to Henley Street where Shakespeare’s Birthplace was located.

We know that Henley street houses were damaged, but we don’t know if Shakespear’s house was one of them or not. The coincidence of the dates between 1594 and 1595, and his purchase of new place in 1597, could have been a result of removing themselves from Henley street to Chapel Street because of some sort of fire damage.  

Example of a leather fire bucket. This one is from the 1880s. Photo by Joe Mabel of an object at Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), Seattle, Washington. | Museum allows photography except in temporary exhibits. Photo released under GFDL. | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Source

Responding to the Fire’s Aftermath

The town took measures to try and prevent further fires, but ultimately the changes they made were insufficient, and lacking in authority.

One of the large kindling for the fires was the thatch that was used as a roof for the houses, the straw could be carried easily from one house to another when on fire, which can result in gaps in the fire damage, and we know that one house was damaged while the one next door was not, and that could be from the straw not catching fire on that particular house. The precautions that the local authorities took would be to reduce the amount of thatch that was in use. At least for their own properties they could control the amount of thatch that was used, so if they were granting a new lease, they would require that it be finished with slate and tile rather than thatch and they tried to persuade other people in the town who owned property to do the same. There was pushback on this because they didn’t have the powers (the authority) to enforce that action. They had to go to the Privy Council in London to get the powers necessary to make sure all the houses in the town were slated in tile rather than thatch, but even that was not entire successful. Because another in 1614, and And a fourth one in 1641. And there were people who are doing thatch roofs into the 1620s and 30s, so they weren’t able to enforce this.  

“The Burning of Tiverton” Firehooks are used to help tear down buildings to stop fires from spreading as seen during a fire at Tiverton in Devon, England, 1612. The image was scanned from Adrian Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London (London: Jonathan Cape, 2003), pp. 76–77. Per this source the image was originally published on page 72 of ‘The Chronicles of Twyford. Being a new and popular history of the town of Tiverton in Devonshire: with some account of Blundell’s School, founded A.D. 1604’. | Public Domain| Source

Some of the suggestions for change to protect against fire were incredibly practical, but in hindsight wholly insufficient. The town required the aldermen of the town (equivalent to the town council members for those in the US), to keep leather buckets of water outside their homes in readiness to defend the town against a fire outbreak.

Leather buckets kept by the aldermen, and not all the aldermen did this…. Later there is some expenditure for fire hooks and ladders, so they can pull the burning thatch off the house and there’s some references to lead spouts which suggests they were using water from the wells to get water above the ground and onto burning houses.  

Get a full size printable version of the street map of Stratford and the locations of the fires as a Studio Insider on Patreon.

Shakespeare could have witnessed the fire in 1614

Obviously, since there was at least a third fire in 1614, all of the measures didn’t work completely. Interestingly for Shakespeare historians, the fire in 1614 was highly likely to have been witnessed by William Shakespeare himself. Not only was Shakespeare believed to have been retired to Stratford by this time, and therefore likely to have been in the town when the fire broke out, but a map of the fire’s location overlaid on a general map of the town (provided by Bob Bearman and overlain and colorized by me, Cassidy Cash), shows that the fire of 1614, in particular, came incredibly close to Shakespeare’s New Place, where the bard was living at the time.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!