How the Great Fire of Holt had a silver lining

Holt Market Place: the town's 1708 fire led to its Georgian rebuilding, the products of which are ad

Holt Market Place: the town's 1708 fire led to its Georgian rebuilding, the products of which are admired to this day. - Credit: Archant

In May 1708 the town of Holt was devastated by fire. In this archive essay from 1960, Jane Hales considered the blaze and its legacy.

Fire, the great comfort of mankind, must have been a terror also to bygone generations, with their naked candles and rush-lights, lack of extinguishing implements, and scarcity of water. Several towns in Norfolk have suffered grievous fires in the last 400 years - Attleborough and Dereham in the reign of Elizabeth (the latter again in Charles II's time), Wymondham in 1615, North Walsham in 1600, Watton 1674, Holt 1708, Foulsham 1770.

Holt fire is the earliest event in the history of the town known to the present generation through direct tradition. It must have made a great impression upon those who witnessed it more than 250 years ago. What a dreadful calamity it was, just as a Golden Age of freedom from civil strife was dawning, with an increase in prosperity.

Even the summers were lovely and the harvests good in the early years of Queen Anne's reign. It was a Saturday, Market Day in Holt - May 1 Old Style (which is May 12 by modern reckoning). The Market Place was crowded. People had come in from the villages, fishermen to stock the stalls on Fish Hill, women with baskets of eggs, and many others with their produce.

There was much shouting and good humour, for the comfortless winter was over, the miry roads were drying in the wind and sun, so that pack horses could get on with comparative ease. The ragged hawthorn was breaking into flower, and the smell of gorse drifted into the town from the heaths, to mingle with the less savoury smells which abounded in the streets. True, there was a 'mucky old wind' which was a bit stingy, and it blew up eddies of dust and filth.

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How and where the fire started nobody knows. Tradition says that it spread so quickly that the butchers could scarcely snatch the meat from their stalls. All was dismayed confusion. There was little available water apart from the spring which gushed out of the hillside upon the Spout Common, and that was too far away to be of use.

The manor house to the east of the Market Place, which Sir Thomas Gresham had converted into a Free Grammar School in Tudor times, escaped much damage, but sparks were carried beyond it to the church, and set light to the thatched chancel. Soon the building was ablaze. The lead which roofed the aisles melted, and fell on to the stone walls, cracking them to pieces. The steeple caught fire, and the bells crashed from their frames. 'This sudden and lamentable fire in the Space of Three Hours burnt down to the ground almost the whole Town, and the Parish Church standing therein.'

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That was a dreadful day in Holt. Men and women searched miserably for anything that might be saved from the gutted ruins of their homes. The 'Holt Know-Alls,' probably so called because of superior airs adopted by dwellers in a market town, had had their pride reduced, and were certainly in a very bad way. People from the villages returned to spread the news about the countryside. The next day, Sunday, there was no church for the inhabitants of Holt to congregate within.

Charity was not lacking. In less than a week the Rector, Thomas Burlingham, wrote, 'Received of the Churchwardens of North Walsham the sume of Thirty and two pounds thirteen shillings and sixpence collected there amongst the well-disposed inhabitants towards the Relief of the poor Sufferers by fire in Holt-market. I say thankfully received by me.' There was also a sovereign for Thomas Brown 'late of Holt, shoemaker,' probably one of those who were especially hard hit.

Later, a royal brief was granted to collect aid for the stricken town. Pulham St Mary sent 3s. 3½d., and Hingham £10 11s. Evidently the latter town had a fellow feeling for Holt, for it had suffered from a fire in 1685, when the loss was estimated at £4000. The Holt damage was reckoned at £11,258, a large sum for those days.

Soon after, the chancel of the Church was repaired, so that it would hold about a quarter of the congregation. A few years later, a new bell was hung in the tower (2/10 provided for the workmen's beer).

Fourteen years after the fire the Rector died, and his successor, Henry Briggs, finished the restoration of the church, but not without difficulty. Another royal brief was procured, 'the Petitioners being all Tenants, and likewise burdened with a Numerous Poor which have greatly increased by the Losses most of them have suffered by the said Fire . . .'

A sum of £1229 was estimated as the least required for 'Rebuilding the said Church in as plain a manner as is consistent with decency.' Trustees and Receivers were appointed, and 'undertakers' or collectors.

The result was not satisfactory. The undertakers' commission was £419, the patent fees £95, and the trustees seem to have received less than £700 for the church.

However, more money was raised in Holt, much of the restoration was done by local tradesmen, so that nineteen years after the fire the new box pews were allotted to various inhabitants, the men sitting on the north side, women in the south and Grammar and Charity School children and apprentices in the west gallery.

George, Prince of Wales, gave £100 and a silver flagon to the church, Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, £50 and a silver plate, Charles, Viscount Townshend the same, and the Rector a silver chalice.

Dreadful as it must have seemed at the time, the fire of Holt was perhaps not an unmitigated evil. Many squalid and highly combustible hovels were probably destroyed, leaving room for the seemly Georgian houses through which the High Street flows today.

The roofs of red and blue tiles are pitched so pleasantly against the sky. They typify the serene countryside of the builders, and gable ends show a rich mixture of flint and brick. The midday sun floods into the opening of Fish Hill, where tall old houses are clustered, apart from the traffic of the high Street. Only modern shop fronts necessarily detract from the original perfection of design.

It is well that the local Chamber of Trade, the first in the county to do so, has decided to further a plan to bring into prominence the architectural beauties of Holt. May it encourage other Norfolk towns and villages to do likewise.

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