A Contemporary Account of the Great Fire at Wem, March 3rd. 1677

This dreadful fire began on Saturday, between seven and eight o'clock, at a small house near the upper end of Leek-lane, which stood on the same ground which Mr. Phillips's brewhouse now stands. It was occasioned by the carelessness of a girl, about fourteen years of age, called, Jane Churm, who went up stairs to fetch some fuel kept under a bed, in order to make a good fire against the return of her sister, Catharine Morris, of the New-street, who was washing linen at Oliver's well, The inconsiderate girl whilst she was gathering the sticks together, stuck her candle in a twig that encompassed a spar, when catching the thatch, it set the house in flames; which being agitated by a violent tempestuous wind, soon defied all human means to extinguish them. It was a very dry season, and the houses were covered with straw, or shingles, so that the fire spread into several streets, and with such rapidity seized house after house, that in a short time the conflagration became general. A strong easterly wind blew the burning thatch and shingles to a vast distance, and the devouring flames ran along the High-street, Cripple-street, and the Horse Fair, consuming every edifice, the free school only excepted, as far as Burton's pit, or the house of George Groom, when on a sudden the wind turned to the south-west, and carried the raging fire through the Noble-street as far as the Draw-well house. A great number of country people were now come in, who offered to assist Mr. Higginson in carrying out his goods, but he would not suffer any to be removed, being intent on the preservation of his house.

His barns and out-buildings were on fire, and the flames caught the pinnacle, the weather boards, and the shingles of his house, but by the care, and activity of the people in pouring out water, and casting off the shingles, an entire stop was put to time fire on that side, but on the other it ran the full length of the street. In the High-street the fire spread eastwards to the same point on the north side; on the opposite no farther than the same place where it began. In the Mill-street it extended to the Rector's barns; in Leek-lane to the house of William Smith, late of John Hales. The church, the steeple, the market house, and seven score dwelling houses, besides treble the number of out-houses and buildings were burnt. In the space of one hour they were all on fire, and the blaze was so great, that at the distance of eight or nine miles it seemed very near, and gave almost as great a light as the moon in full. In the town was a scene of the greatest confusion, and horror. The wind blustered, time flames roared, women and children shrieked. People ran at the cry of fire, to the place where it began, and at their return found their own dwellings burning. In the streets they were scorched with excessive heat, in the fields they were ready to perish with cold. Some striving to save their houses, with them lost all their goods, others despairing to extinguish the flames, attempted to carry off their most valuable effects, and many lost by thieves what they had saved from the fire; one man, and several cattle were consumed in the flames. The man was Richard Sherratt, a shoemaker, who lived on that ground where Sarah Jones now does. Having fetched a parcel of shoes out of his shop, he was seen to go under the market house, which is supposed to have fallen on him.

An estimate being taken of the buildings, and the value of the goods consumed by fire, it was computed that the buildings were worth £14,760. l0s. and the household goods £8,916. 13s. 1d, so that the whole loss amounted to about £23,677. 3s. 1d. for which a brief was obtained, dated the 31st of May, 1677.

In the preceding year there had been two fires in Wem. In the beginning of May, 1676, one small house was burnt. In the latter end of September, another fire broke out in the heart of the town, which did little hurt. At that time considerate people looked on these events as warnings to the impenitent, and when their habitations were laid in ashes, thought it was a judgment on them for neglecting repeated calls to reformation.