The Great Fire of London (1666)

A contemporary painting of the Great Fire by an unknown artist

The last-but-one in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

On the evening of Saturday 1st September, 1666, the King’s baker Thomas Farriner, whose premises were on Pudding Lane, went to bed evidently leaving the fire that heated his oven still burning, in contravention of the curfew law passed six hundred  years previously  by William I (the word curfew deriving from the Norman French “couvre-feu”, meaning, literally, “cover fire”).  In the early hours of the following morning, Sunday 2nd September, a spark from the fire settled on a pile of firewood stacked nearby for use on the following working day, and set it  alight.  Flames soon engulfed  the house,  and although  Farriner  and his family were able to  escape by climbing through an upstairs window and along the outside of the building to a neighbouring one, his unfortunate maid-servant, being afraid of heights, stayed put, and burned to death, becoming the first of – reportedly – mercifully few to die in what was about  to become the Great Fire.  According to some sources, her name was Rose.

The fire soon spread from Farriner’s bakery to nearby Fish Street Hill, burning down the “Star Inn”, where flammable faggots and straw were stacked up in the yard, and the church of St Margaret  Fish Street Hill; and thence on to Thames Street, where wood, cloth sails, rope, tar and coal were stacked up on the river-front.  It  went on to take a firm hold of the City, largely built of wooden houses, weatherproofed with pitch; and separated by only a few feet at ground level, and even less at roof level, on account of the”jettying”  of successive storeys, allowing flames to  leap from one to another with ease. The  spread of the fire was further facilitated by the weather, with the strong easterly wind that had been creaking and rattling shop signs on their hinges now fanning it and carrying it towards the heart of the City; everything in its path tinder dry from the preceding exceptionally long, hot, dry summer, which also meant that the supply of water with which to fight it was short.  (Note, incidentally, that most of the old signs of London were destroyed during the Great Fire, and the few that remained had to be taken down after a Proclamation of 1667 ordered that they not hang across the street, as had been the fashion, but instead that they be fixed to buildings.)

We are fortunate to have a number of vivid contemporary eye-witness accounts of what followed, the best-known being those of the aforementioned John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys.  We also have a number of more or less contemporary paintings of the fire at its height.  One of these, attributed to Waggoner, now hangs in the Guildhall Art Gallery; and another, by an anonymous artist, in the Museum of London.  Other  paintings of the fire and its aftermath also survive, although mainly outside London.  A significant proportion are by foreign artists, one of whom entitled his work “Sic Punit”, or “Thus He Punishes”  –  remember that England was at war with the Netherlands and France at the time of the fire.

Evelyn

John Evelyn wrote of the spread of the fire, on September 2nd:  “[W]ith my Wife and Son, took Coach & went to the bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal speectaccle, the whole Citty in dreadful flames neere the Water side, & … consumed … from the bridge … towards Cheape side … ”.  On September 3rd:   “The fire having continud all this night (if I may call that night, which was as light as day for 10 miles round …) when conspiring with a fierce Eastern Wind, in a very drie season, I went on foote to the same place, when I saw the whole of the … Citty burning … to Bainard Castle, and … taking hold of St Paule’s Church, to which the Scaffalds contributed exceedingly.  The Conflagration was so universal,  & the people so astonish’d, that from the beginning … they hardly stirr’d to quench it, so … there was nothing heard or scene but crying out & lamentation, & running about like distracted creatures … as it burned … , … leaping after a prodigious manner from house to house … at great distance one from the other, for the heate … had even ignited the aire, & … devoured after an incredible manner houses, furniture, & everything: Here we saw the Thames coverd with goods floating, … barges & boates laden with what some had time & courage to save … [and] Cartes &c. carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with movables of all sorts, & Tents … to shelter both people & what goods they could get away.  O … miserable & calamitous spectacle … : God grant mine eyes never behold the like [again], who now saw ten thousand houses all in one flame, … the fall of houses, towers & churches … .  Thus I left it … burning, a resemblance of Sodome … : London was, but is no more … ”.  And on September 4th: “The burning still rages; now gotten as far as the Inner Temple, al Fleetestreete, old baily, Ludgate Hil, Warwick Lane, Newgate, Paules Chaine, Wattling-streete now flaming & … the stones of Paules flew lie Granados, the Lead melting down the streets in a stream, & the very pavements … glowing with a fiery rednesse, so as nor horse nor man was able to tread on them, … : the … Wind still more impetuously driving the flames forewards: nothing but the almighty power of God … able to stop them, for vaine was the help of man”.  Fortunately,  the spread of the fire across the river to Southwark was halted at a gap in the buildings on London Bridge that formed a natural firebreak  – ironically,  the result of another fire some thirty years previously. 

Pepys

And Samuel Pepys wrote, on September 2nd:   “ … I down to the waterside, … and there saw a lamentable fire. … Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods … into the river or …  into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another”.    And: “Having stayed, and in an hours time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, … to Whitehall and there up to the King’s closet in the Chapel, where I did give them an account that dismayed them all, and the word was carried to the King.  So I was called for, and did tell the King … what I saw; and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.  … [T]he King commanded me to go to my Mayor from him, and command him spare no houses”.  And at the King’s behest, he returned to the scene, and:  “At last met my Mayor in Canning Streete … with a hankercher about his neck.  To the King’s message, he cried like a fainting woman, ‘Lord, what can I do?  I am spent!  People will not obey me.  I have been pull[ing] down houses.  But fire overtakes us faster than we can do it’”.    Famously, Pepys went on to write, on September 4th: “Sir W. Pen[n] and I did dig … [a pit] …  , and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese”. 

Pulling down or even blowing up buildings to create firebreaks eventually proved a partially successful strategy in fighting the fire.  Evelyn again, on September 4th:  “[T]he blowing up of … houses, as might make a [wider] gap than any yeat made by the ordinary method of pulling them downe with Engines: This some stout Seamen proposed … : … was … commanded to be practised, & my concern being particularly for the Hospital of st. Bartholemeus neere Smithfield, … made me al the more diligent to promote it … : So as it pleased Almighty God by abating of the Wind, & the industrie of people, now when all was lost, infusing a new Spirit into them … the furie of it began sensibly  to abate, … so as it came no farther than the Temple West-ward, nor than the enterance of Smithfield North … ; … It … brake out again in the Temple: but the courage of the multitude persisting, & innumerable houses blown up with Gunpowder, such gaps & desolations were soone made, … as the back fire did not so vehemently urge upon the rest, as formerly”.  And Pepys again, also on September 4th: “Now begins the practice of blowing up of houses in Tower Street, … which at first did frighten people more than any thing; but it stopped the fire when it was done … ”.  And on September 5th: “[G]oing to the fire, I find, by the blowing up of houses … by Sir W. Pen, there is a good stop given to it … ; it having only burned the dyall of Barking Church, and part of the porch, and … was there quenched”.  Unfortunately the strategy was also one that was implemented too late to make much of a difference to the outcome (probably for fear of law-suits from “avaratious” property owners). 

The fire eventually essentially halted in its own tracks, spent, after the wind dropped, on the fourth day, September 5th, although in places there were also some fresh outbreaks on  the fifth day, September 6th, when Pepys wrote: “Up about five o’clock … , … to go out, … to see how the fire is, to … Bishop’s-gate, where no fire had been near, and now there is one broke out: which did give great grounds to people, and to me too, to think that there is some kind of plot in this, … but … we did put it out in a little time; so that all was well again”.    

In  the immediate aftermath of the fire, on September 7th, Pepys went on to write: “Up by five o’clock; and, blessed be God! find all well; and by water to [Paul’s] Wharfe.  Walked thence, and saw all the towne burned, and a miserable sight of Paul’s church, with all the roofs fallen, and the body of the quire fallen into St Fayth’s; Paul’s school also, Ludgate, and Fleet Street. My father’s house, and the church, and a good part of the Temple the like”.  And, equally if not more fretfully:  “I home late to Sir W. Pen’s, who did give me a bed … ; … but still both sleeping and waking had a fear of fire in my heart, that I took little rest.  People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity of my Lord Mayor in … this business of the fire, laying it all upon him.  A proclamation is come out for markets to be kept at Leadenhall and … several other places about the town; and Tower Hill, and all churches to be set open to receive poor people”.  Also on September 7th, Evelyn wrote, almost elegiacally: “I wente this morning on foote … thro the Late fleete streete, Ludgate hill, by St Paules, Cheape side, Exchange, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate, & out to Morefields, thence thro Cornehill, &c; with extraordinary difficulty, clambring over mountains of yet smoking rubbish, & frequently mistaking where I was … : in the meane time his Majestie got to the Tower by Water, to demolish the houses about … which …  had they taken fire, & attaq’d the white Towre, where the Magazines of Powder lay, would undoubtedly have … renderd … demolition …  even …  at many miles distance:  At my returne I was infinitely concerned to find that goodly Church of St Paules now a sad ruine, & that beautiful Portico (for structure comparable to any in Europe, as not long before repaird by the late King) now rent in pieces, flakes of vast Stone Split in sunder, & nothing remaining intire … .   … It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heat had in a manner Calcin’d, so as all the ornaments, Columns, freezes, Capitels & projectures of massie Portland stone flew off, even to the very roofe, where a Sheete of Leade covering no lesse than 6 akers by measure, being totally mealted, the ruines of the Vaulted roof, falling brake into St Faithes, which being filled with …  books … belonging to the Stationers … carried thither for safty, they were all consumed burning for a week following … .  … Thus lay in ashes that most venerable Church, one of the antientest Pieces of early Piety in the Christian world, beside neere 100 more: The lead, yronworke, bells, plate &c all mealted: the exquisitely wrought Mercers Chapell, the Sumptuous Exchange, the august fabrique of Christ church, all the rest of the Companies Halls, sumptuous buildings, Arches, Enteries, all in dust.  The fountains dried up & ruind, whilst the very waters remained boiling; the Voragos of subterranean Cellars, Wells & Dungeons, formerly Warehouses, still burning in stench & dark clouds of smoke like hell, so as in five or six miles traversing about, I did not see one load of timber unconsum’d, nor many stones but were calcind white as snow, so as the people who now walked about the ruines, appeard like men in some dismal desart, or rather in some greate City, lay’d waste by an impetuous & cruel Enemy … ” .

Recriminations rapidly followed, with  the Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth singled out for criticism over his initial complacency and subsequent indecisiveness (when first informed of the fire, he is reported to have remarked that a woman might have pissed it out, which indeed she might, if she had acted promptly, but he did not, and must soon have come to rue his rash words).  The rudimentary fire brigade was also criticised, for acting in an un-coordinated fashion, and,  in its desperation, digging up roads and cutting pipes to get at the water to fill its  buckets, in so doing cutting off the supply to others.  This was a little unfair, given the chaotic situation they found themselves confronted with, and the tools at their disposal with which to deal with it, including primitive fire engines that looked and likely  handled more like tea trolleys, and extinguishers or “squirts” that looked like ear syringes!   Eventually, the Great Fire was ascribed  to an act of God, albeit one that the wit and hand of man would attempt to ensure was never repeated.  At  the time, though, many   falsely believed it  to have been deliberately set by a fanatical Papist or Saboteur.  And, sadly,   a Frenchman, Robert Hubert, was executed for having set it, after having confessed, probably under duress, and been convicted  in a court of law – in part on the evidence of  members of Farriner’s family, who had their own reasons to attach  the blame to  such a convenient scapegoat.   Evidence came to light shortly after his execution that Hubert had not even been in the country at the time of the fire.

Map of London showing extent of damage caused by Great Fire

The  stark fact remained that the fire had largely destroyed the City that had witnessed so much history in the making.  Eighty percent of the area within the walls was more or less completely burned out, and only the extreme north and east had survived substantially  intact (the walls had essentially confined the fire to the City within, although some areas without to the west had also been affected). 

St Paul’s gutted by the fire

St Paul’s Cathedral was gutted by the fire, although, somewhat miraculously,  some of its many memorials survived, …

Stone’s funeral effigy of Donne

… including Nicholas Stone’s funeral effigy of the cleric and metaphysical poet John Donne – albeit with   supposed scorch-marks around its base.  (Stone, incidentally, studied under Bernini.)   

A total of 86 churches were also lost  – 84   within the walls and 2 immediately without (St Andrew Holborn and St Bride Fleet Street).  So were 45  Livery Company Halls, Baynard’s Castle, the Custom House, the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange, and the Royal Wardrobe, not to mention an  estimated  13,200 residences and places  of business.  One Thomas Vincent wrote vividly thus of the loss of the Royal Exchange: “The Royal Exchange itself, the glory of the merchants [was] invaded with much violence.  And when once the fire was entered, how quickly did it spread round the galleries, filling them with flames [and] giving forth flaming volleys … .  By and by, down fell all the [statues of] Kings [in the alcoves] upon their faces, and the greatest  part of the building after them, with such a noise as was dreadful and astonishing”.  Damage to property and trade was on an entirely unprecedented scale, as was associated homelessness and loss of livelihood.  The cost of the fire damage was  estimated at around ten million pounds  by John Strype in 1720.  In modern terms, this equates to anywhere between  one billion pounds  (according to  the National Archives “Currency Convertor”) and tens of billions  (according to the Association of British Insurers).  None of the cost of the fire damage was covered by insurance.  The fire insurance business only came into being after, and indeed at least arguably in response to,  the Great Fire (the first fire insurance company, founded by Nicholas –  “If-Jesus-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned” – Barbon in 1680, was the Fire Office, later, in 1705, renamed the Phoenix).  Insured properties came to be identified by  plaques known as “fire-marks”, surviving examples of which may still be seen on some  houses in London,  notably in Spitalfields.   Around  100,000 persons were made homeless by the fire, and had to be temporarily rehoused in camps, for example in  Moorfields, or in those – still substantial – parts of what we might think of as Greater London that were  not affected by the fire.  There would appear to have been a certain amount of profiteering by landlords at this time, and a little later, as rebuilding work began, by builders’ merchants, although the general mood would appear to have been  one of shared hardship and public-spiritedness, somewhat akin to that of the Blitz of the Second World War.

Loss of life in the fire appears to have been comparatively low, although it may have been higher than reported, given that the fire had evidently been sufficiently hot as to have been able bodies to ash within as little as an hour or two (hot enough to melt not only the lead on the rooves of the churches, and  the iron bells within, but also glass and even pottery).  The schoolboy William Taswell described encountering the body of  one of the victims after the fire, as follows: “Soon after sunrising I endeavoured to reach St Paul’s.  The ground was so hot as almost to scorch my shoes; and the air so intensely warm that unless I had stopped some time upon the Fleet Bridge to rest myself, I must have fainted … .  … And now … I perceived the metal belonging  to the bells melting; the ruinous conditions of the walls; whole heaps of stone of a large circumference tumbling down with a great noise … , ready to crush he to death.  [N]ear the east walls … a human body presented itself to me, parched up, as it were, with the flames; whole as to skin, meagre as to flesh, yellow as to colour.  This was an old decrepit woman who fled here for safety, imagining the flames could not have reached her …  . Her clothes were burned, and evry limb reduced to a coal”.

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