Monday, September 5, 2016

The Great Fire of London - 350 years ago

The Great Fire of London burned for four days, from September 2-5, 1666.  It destroyed almost the entire medieval City of London and rendered homeless the vast majority of its inhabitants.

(Click the image for a larger view)

The Telegraph has produced from historical sources a long eyewitness narrative to the fire, as a commemoration of its 350th anniversary.  Here's a sample.

As the clocks tick over into Sunday 2 September, 1666, London is resting. The city is in a state of tension: England is at war with the Dutch, and rumours of plots by Catholics or unrepentant Republican loyalists swirl through the streets. It is just six years since the Restoration and less than one year since a devastating plague which killed or drove away one sixth of the city’s population. And it’s been a long, dry summer.

In Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane everything is quiet. Farriner earns his crust making ships’ biscuit for the Navy’s nearby Victualing Office. He lives above the bakery with his daughter Hanna, a maid, and his manservant. At midnight that maid briefly comes downstairs to check that everything is well, then goes back to bed. Farriner has loaded his oven with faggots ready for the morning, along with some flitches of bacon. Later, he will swear that he didn’t leave anything amiss in his bakery – that the fire which is about to break out could only be the work of deliberate arsonists. All evidence suggests that it was simply an accident.

. . .


Farriner’s manservant wakes to find the house clogged with smoke. Quickly he rouses everyone else and they try to leave via the bakery – only to find their path blocked by fire.

Instead they climb out of the window, edge along the gutters, and climb back in through a neighbour’s window – first Farriner, then Hanna (who is badly burned), then the manservant. As they go they all shout out in alarm. But Farriner’s maid refuses to follow, and although we don’t know her name, she becomes the fire’s first casualty.

. . .


A few streets away from Pudding Lane, Samuel Pepys, Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, loyal servant of King Charles II, and keeper of an extensive diary which survives to this day, is woken up by his maid Jane. The serving staff are up late preparing for a banquet and have seen the fire across the rooftops.

Pepys rises in his nightgown and goes to Jane’s window to observe. But the fire doesn’t worry him especially. In a time when candles provide the only illumination and hearth fires the only heat (excepting, in both cases, the sun), small accidents are not uncommon. Pepys goes back to bed.


The Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Bloodworth, arrives at Pudding Lane. Only he has the power to order emergency demolitions.

In 1666 there are only two real ways to fight fire. One is water, usually delivered slowly and inefficiently by bucket chains, but sometimes delivered by “squirts” (basically huge syringes). The other is to pull down the houses surrounding the fire in order to deny it the ability to spread. “Pull down” is literal: every parish is supposed to keep a “fire hook”, which citizens should use to latch onto the top of a house and then literally heave it down.

Right now the fire is unnervingly close to the riverside warehouses, where timber, oil, coal, hay, and other flammable goods lie in the open air. If it hits them it will gain the ability to spread much further. But Bloodworth owes his position to loyalty, not competence, and he’s nervous about pulling down the surrounding houses without the owners’ consent. Most of them are rented, meaning the owners could be anywhere.

And so Bloodworth utters the phrase which will earn his place in history: “Pish! A woman could piss it out.”


Samuel Pepys rises. He checks the fire idly from his window, and in daylight it doesn’t look bad. But Jane tells him over 300 houses have burned down. So he dresses and walks to the Tower of London. What he sees alarms him: “an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the end of [London] bridge.”

The wharfside warehouses are ablaze, as is the pre-Norman church of St Magnus the Martyr. The houses built on London Bridge are also on fire – flames licking at the necks of the traitors’ heads on their pikes. Pepys, his “heart full of trouble”, heads for the river.

There's much more at the link.  Highly recommended reading.  It's an extraordinary account of an event that forever changed England, and with it the entire British nation - and, probably, the course of history.  Few disasters in history have had so great an impact.


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