The Aftermath of the Great Fire of London

The last 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) …

The Aftermath of the Great Fire of London

The rebuilt City of London, with St Paul’s Cathedral at its heart (the view from The Shard)

Would the City ever be rebuilt, or be the same again?   

Well, of course it would, not least because the prosperity of the City was essential not only to that of the country as a whole but also to that of powerful men with vested interests, watching anxiously from the sidelines as “day by day the City’s wealth flowed out of the gate” to other boroughs. 

The Mayor initiated the process essentially straight away, within weeks commencing  a detailed survey and map of the fire-damaged area of the City to assist with the assessment of compensation claims, and to use as a  template for reconstruction plans.  The survey was actually commissioned by the King, Charles II, in his “Proclamation …  to Prohibit the Rebuilding of Houses after the Great Fire of London without Conforming to the General Regulations therein premised”.  His actual words were as follows: “[W]e do hereby direct, that the  lord mayor and court of aldermen do, with all possible expedition, cause an exact survey to be made and taken of the whole ruins occasioned by the late lamentable fire, to the end that it may appear to whom all the houses and ground did in truth belong … .  … [W]e shall cause a plot or model to be made for the … ruined places; which being well examined by those persons who have most concernment as well as experience, we make no question but all men will be pleased with it, and very willingly conform to those orders and rules which shall be agrees for the pursuing thereof”.   Among the other stipulations in the “Proclamation … ” were one reading: “ … [T]hat no man  whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building, great or small, but of brick or stone … ”; and another, that “ … Fleet Street, Cheapside, Cornhill, and all other eminent and notorious streets, shall be of such a breadth, as may, with God’s blessing, prevent the mischief that one side may suffer if the other be on fire … “.  Priority was to be given to the reconstruction of churches: “ … [W]e do heartily pray unto Almighty God, that he will infuse it into the hearts of men, speedily to endeavour by degrees to re-edify some of those many churches, which, in this lamentable fire, have been burned down and defaced … ”. 

Hollar’s Survey

The survey was undertaken by one John Leake; and the map drafted by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77), a Bohemian who had travelled widely before eventually settling in London, and  earning a reputation as an engraver and print-maker of some considerable skill, specialising in landscape scenes.  Another map was made in 1666 by Doornick; a later one in 1673 by Blome (and yet later ones, documenting the progress of the rebuilding,  in 1676 by Ogilby and Morgan, and in 1682 by Morgan). 

Christopher Wren’s Original Rebuilding Plan

A number of revolutionary reconstruction plans for the City were submitted, by, among others, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and John Evelyn.   Any one of these plans,  if implemented,  would have given it a radically new look and feel, much more like  that of the great European cities of the day, such as Paris and  Rome, with their broad boulevards and   open piazzas – Evelyn wrote that “In the disposure of the streets, due consideration should be had, what are the competent breadths for commerce and intercourse, cheerfulness and state”.  But these  plans were soon abandoned on the grounds of practicality and expediency in favour of  one involving much less legal wrangling and groundwork, and much more like the old one.  Note also that, according to the Earl of Clarendon, “[V]ery many, with more expedition than can be  conceived, set up little sheds of brick and timber upon the ruins of their own houses, where they chose to inhabit rather than in more convenient places, though they knew they could not long reside in those new buildings”.  So in some ways the City that might have been never came to be, and  that that had been would come  to be again:  for the most part neither  particularly beautiful nor harmonious, but, rather,   “lived in”  and fractious; and yet, familiar and loved.  The  new City was to differ from the old one, though, in several  important respects.  The old narrow streets would  be replaced with new wide ones, designed to  simultaneously hinder the spread of fire and unencumber the flow of traffic.  In accordance with the aforementioned Royal Proclamation of 1666 and the  “Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London” of 1667 (further acts would follow in 1707, 1709 and 1774), old  houses would  be replaced by new ones of four categories of standard build, of fire-proof stone and brick rather than timber: those of the first category, fronting “by-streets and lanes”, of two storeys; those of the second category, fronting “streets and lanes of note, and the Thames”, of three storeys; those of the third category, fronting “high and principal streets”, of four storeys, with storey heights specified; and those of the fourth category, designed for” people of quality”, also of four storeys, although with storey heights unspecified.      The old  breeding-grounds for disease would  be swept aside in the process, although incidentally rather than  by design.  As another incidental, the old organic economy would be replaced by a modern mineral economy, considerably ahead of its time, fuelled by (sea-)coal rather than wood.

The committee appointed by the Court and the City to oversee and implement the chosen reconstruction plan included  the aforementioned Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the aforementioned Robert Hooke (1635-1703),  and four others, namely, Hugh May, Roger Pratt, Peter Mills and Edward Jerman. 

Wren

Wren was an architect and a  member of an aristocratic family who had finally found favour in the Restoration, after years in the wilderness during the Protectorate and Commonwealth. He was also an anatomist and astronomer (one wonders whether he, like Sartre’s autodidact, acquired his learning by reading an encyclopaedia, starting with the letter “A”); a follower of the “New Philosophy” of Francis Bacon; and an early member of the Royal Society.   He was, in short, an archetypal Renaissance Man, and, most definitely, the right man, in the right place, at the right time – an unusually happy conjunction in the history of the City. 

Hooke

Hooke was similarly an  architect and surveyor.  He was also a pioneer microscopist and polymath, although curmudgeonly as well as brilliant, and memorably described by  Samuel Pepys as  “the most,  and promises the least, of any man in the world that I ever saw”.  In 1665, he published a book on his microscopical observations, described by Pepys as “the most  ingenious … that ever I read in my life”.

Wren and his  office set about their reconstruction work as speedily  as practicable, so as to provide  the City with the opportunity of re-establishing itself with the minimum of delay and loss.  In all, they rebuilt 51 churches – 49  within the walls and 2 immediately without –  that had been destroyed in the Great Fire, that is, a little over half of the total number of 86 (together with St Clement Danes on the Strand, which had actually survived the fire).  They  also rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral, and numerous other public and private buildings.  Most of the rebuilding work was   in  the – English –  High Renaissance or Baroque style.  That on the church of St Magnus the Martyr resulted in  what T.S. Eliot described – in his 1922 poem “The Waste Land” – as an “inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold”.  Much of the work was completed within a few short years; the cost covered by a tax on coal imposed by Act of Parliament.  Samuel Pepys even noted in his diary as early as  December 24th, 1666: “  So … to the [rebuilt] Upper ‘Change, which is almost as good as the old one; only shops are but on one side. 

Of  the 51 churches rebuilt  by Wren, 30 are still standing, together with St Paul’s Cathedral, and 21 are not.  Of  the 21 that are no longer  standing, 17,   far more than one might have hoped, were demolished on the orders of  our own  town planners – in some cases justifiably, for safety reasons; in others, at least arguably  so,  either for security reasons, or to allow for site redevelopment; but in still others,  simply because they had been deemed, under the incomprehensibly philistine Union of Benefices Act of 1860, to be surplus to requirements!  Only 4, far fewer than one might have feared, were destroyed during the Blitz of the Second World War, although  a number of others were also damaged to varying extents at this time, some of which were subsequently restored, and  some left as empty shells.  Two, St Mary Aldermanbury and St Stephen Coleman Street, were destroyed,  and a number of others damaged, on a single, fateful night, 29th/30th  December, 1940, when tens of thousands of incendiary bombs  were dropped on an essentially unguarded City (St Paul’s was saved: some would say, due to divine intervention; others, due to the heroism of the St Paul’s Watch).    At  least many of the  original plans of the recently lost churches still survive, as do some later images, including photographs. Remarkably, St Mary Aldermanbury has been  rebuilt, using   Wren’s plans, and material salvaged from his church, on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (where Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech).

Wren’s Original (“Warrant”) Design for St Paul’s
The west front of St Paul’s (the dome partially obscured by parallax)

The most famous of Wren’s many  famous achievements  was undoubtedly the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral, eventually completed after thirty-five years’ work  in 1710/1.  The cathedral is faced in plain Portland Stone, wonderfully reflective of the City’s light and mood.  A staggering 66000 tons of the stone  was used to face St Paul’s, having been quarried in Portland in Dorset and  brought round the coast and up the Thames to London in barges.  (Portland Stone was also used in the construction of essentially all the other churches rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire, although it was first used in London in the construction of the Banqueting House in Whitehall by Inigo Jones).  St Paul’s it is crowned  with a glorious and iconic dome, making it unique among all the cathedrals of England.     The stone-work is by the Master Masons  Joshua Marshall and the brothers Edward and Thomas Strong and their team, overseen by Grinling Gibbons; the wood-work by the Master Carpenter John Langland and his team, also overseen by Grinling Gibbons; and the demi-grisaille paint-work inside  the dome by the Painter-Stainer James Thornhill and his team.  Wren’s simple epitaph inside the cathedral reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, meaning “Reader, should you seek his memorial, look about you”.   HisOn the pediment above  the  south door is a stone bearing  the image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, together with  the inscription “Resurgam”, meaning “I shall rise again” (a different stone bearing the same inscription had happened to be found among  the smouldering ruins of the old  cathedral – a positive portent if ever there was one). 

And so, out of the ashes arose  a new London. 

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