HISTORIC England has awarded a grant of £40,000 towards new research into historic buildings in Stratford’s town centre.
The four-year project, led by the Stratford Society, will investigate how the timber-framed buildings were rebuilt following the disastrous fires of 1594, 1595 and 1614.
Historian Dr Robert Bearman, a leading authority on the history of the town, proposed the project, which will give insight into how the town would look today had areas not been destroyed by the flames.
The initial focus will be on houses in High Street and Chapel Street, following permission from building owners, but the investigation may be extended to include Wood Street, Ely Street and Sheep Street.
The research will include expert examination of the structures of the buildings, and sampling of the wooden beams for analysis by dendrochronology*.
A team of volunteers will gather documentary evidence from the town archives held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
In May 1594 a great fire occurred, which burned more than 100 houses and barns in the centre of the town. At the time blacksmiths, bakers, cobblers, tallow chandlers, maltsters and brewers all needed fire in their normal operations. The danger this posed was made worse by the need to stockpile fuel, wood and furze.
According to accounts in the archive, the strength of the wind that day whipped up a large blaze amongst buildings of timber and thatch, leading a witness to report that “the flame and smoake thereof is soe greate, and violent that noe man is able to come neere those howses or to stand in the wynd to defend the fayer tyled howses”.
Another fire in July 1595 destroyed a further 20 houses. Fortunately, the fires did not reach the great house at New Place, which Shakespeare purchased in 1597.
In 1612, a by-law was introduced that forbade thatched roofs in the town centre and required that buildings used for brewing, baking, dressing meat and drink or washing should have fires lit only in chimneys, ‘sufficiently walled with stone or brick’.
But this did not prevent a third fire breaking out in 1614, the year that Shakespeare retired to his hometown. The bard may well have watched the flames as they ripped through 54 houses as well as many barns and outbuildings.
Nick Molyneux, historic buildings inspector from Historic England, said: “This is an exciting opportunity to research the history of Stratford-upon-Avon, and to discover more about the place which nurtured one of England’s greatest literary figures.
“Using all the available evidence, including the buildings which he knew, it will provide a detailed understanding of how the people of the town recovered from the devastating fires they suffered. We will have a much better idea as to what the town would have looked like at the time.”
Dr Lindsay MacDonald, Chairman of the Stratford Society, added: “This is a brilliant opportunity for us to learn more about this important phase of the town’s development. We are very fortunate that so much of the historical fabric of the architecture has been preserved.”
Cathy Tyers, dendrochronologist in the National Specialist Services Department of Historic England, said: “We are delighted to be collaborating with the Stratford Society. The opportunity to understand more about the extent of these devastating fires and the subsequent rebuilding should prove fascinating and will hopefully only add to the appeal of such an important historic town.”
Stratford MP Nadhim Zahawi, said: “This funding will support research about our community and could generate further knowledge about Stratford-upon-Avon’s remarkable past. I look forward to the project getting underway.”