Category Archives: Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London contd. (Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, 1666)


On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote:

“(T)o the Tower Street, and there met the fire burning … .  And … Sir W. Pen and I did dig [a pit], and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan cheese”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“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”.


The Great Fire of London contd.  (Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, 1666)


On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote:

“(M)y Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, .., which I did, riding … in my night-gown, in the cart … ”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“The fire having continued 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 [Bankside], 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 … ”.


The Royal Exchange

1 - The old Royal Exchange

On this day in 1566, the first stone of the original Royal Exchange was laid (*).

3 - Gresham

The building, modelled on the bourse in Antwerp, was the brainchild of the City financier and philanthropist Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-79).  Incidentally, Gresham also founded Gresham College, by bequest.  He is buried in the church of St Helen, Bishopsgate.

The Royal Exchange was burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666.  An eye-witness, one Thomas Vincent, wrote:

“The Royal Exchange itself, the glory of the merchants, is now invaded with much violence.  And when once the fire was entered, how quickly did it run round the galleries, filling them with flames; then descendeth the stairs, compasseth the walks, giving forth flaming volleys, and filleth the courts with sheets of fire.  By and by, down fall all the kings upon their faces, and the greatest part of the stone building after them, with such a noise as was dreadful and astonishing”.

A replacement building was built in 1669, and burnt down in 1838  …

2 - The new Royal Exchange

… and a second replacement was in turn built in 1844.

4 - Gresham's grasshopper symbol atop the Royal Exchange

The grasshopper on the top of the building is Gresham’s insignia.

(*)  Much to the disgust of native Londoners, the architect was a foreigner.  On a related note, a  census taken in the City on this day in 1567 revealed the presence of “40 Scots, 428 Frenchmen, 45 Spaniards, 140 Italians, 2030 Dutch, 44 Burgundians, 2 Danes and 1 Liegois”.

A voice from the past (Samuel Pepys)

Seething Lane Gardens (3) - Copy.JPG

On this day in 1703 Samuel Pepys died.  He is buried in the church of St Olave Hart Street, which to this day holds an annual service to  honour his memory.

The following are selected extracts from the entries in his diary for the days of the Great Fire of London in 1666:

“September 2d .  …  Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire … in the City.  So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown, and went to her window; and thought it to be … far enough off,   and so went to bed again … .  … By and by Jane comes and tells me that … the fire …  is now burning all down Fish Street, by London Bridge.  So I made myself ready … and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places … ; and … did see the houses at  that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the end of the bridge … .  So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant … , who tells me that it begun … In the King’s bakers in Pudding-lane, and hath burned  St Magnus’s church and most … of Fish-street already.  So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and … there saw a lamentable fire.   …  Every body endeavouring to remove their goods, and …  bringing them 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 … stairs, by the waterside, to another.   … Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and … the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible … : I to White Hall, … and did tell the King … what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down [to create fire-breaks], nothing could stop the fire.  The King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor [the singularly ineffectual Thomas Bloodworth]” and command him to … pull down  [houses].  At last met my Lord Mayor … .  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 pulling down   houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it’”.

September 3d. (M)y Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, .., which I did, riding … in my night-gown, in the cart … .

September 4th.  … (T)o the Tower Street, and there met the fire burning … .  And … Sir W. Pen and I did dig [a pit], and put our wine in it, and I my parmazan cheese … .

September 5th.  … About two in the morning my wife … tells me of new cryes of fire, it being come to Barking Church … .    I up; and finding it so, resolved …  to take her away, and did, and … my gold … ; but, Lord! what a sad sight it was by moone-light, to see the whole City almost on fire … .  Home, and whereas I expected to have seen our house on fire, … it was not.  … (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.  I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw… ”.



The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (1663)

a-scene-from-the-humorous-lieutenantOn this day in 1663, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane first opened its doors, to put on a performance of John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont’s Jacobean tragi-comedy “The Humorous Lieutenant”, which was originally written in 1625, although not finally published until 1647.


The theatre was built by Thomas Killigrew, who we might think of as a theatrical impresario, at the behest of the new King, Charles II, and was the first to be built in London after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 (immediately prior to which, during the inter-regnum, the performance of plays had been banned by the Puritans).  It became well known for its Restoration comedies, many of them penned by the house dramatist John Dryden, and performed by the house troupe, Killigrew’s “King’s Men”.  The king himself went to the theatre often, and the favourite of his thirteen mistresses, “pretty, witty Nell”, Nell Gwyn(ne) performed  there from 1665-71.  Samuel Pepys also went there, and wrote in his diary:

“The house is made with extraordinary good contrivance, and yet hath some faults, as the narrowness of the passages in and out of the Pitt, and the distance from the stage to the boxes, which I am confident cannot hear; but for all other things it is well, only, above all, the musique being below, and most of it sounding under the very stage, there is no hearing of the bases at all, nor very well of the trebles, which sure must be mended”.

The theatre was temporarily closed down during the Great Plague of 1665, but re-opened in 1666.  It survived the Great Fire of that year, but was burnt down in another fire on 25th  January 1672.  The second theatre on the site was built in 1674, the third in 1794, and the fourth, present one, in 1812.


Robert Hooke and his “Microscopicall Observations” (Samuel Pepys, 1665)

Flea from Hooke's Micrographia

On this day in 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“Before I went to bed I sat up till  two o’clock in my chamber reading of Mr Hooke’s Microscopicall Observations [Micrographia], the most  ingenious book that ever I read in my life”.

Rita Greer's modern portrait of Hooke.jpg

Robert Hooke was elsewhere memorably described by Pepys as  “the most,  and promises the least, of any man in the world that I ever saw”.  He was evidently a brilliant, but curmudgeonly, polymath: not only  a pioneer microscopist, but also one of the founder members of the Royal Society  in 1660, and an architect, who worked alongside Wren  on the reconstruction of London following the Great Fire of 1666 (*).

Memorial to Hooke (Monument).jpg

(*) Readers interested in further details of the life and works of this extraordinary man are referred to the biography entitled “The Curious Life of Robert Hooke … “ by the late Lisa Jardine, originally published by HarperCollins in 2003.

The rebuilding of Aldersgate (1617)


According to John Richardson’s “Annals of London”, four hundred years ago, in 1617, the city gate of Aldersgate was rebuilt.  The new gate featured images of James I both on the outside and on the inside, commemorating the occasion when the then future  king had entered the City of London through the old gate to claim the  throne  in 1603 (the outside also featured images of the prophets Jeremiah and Samuel).

Aldersgate (2)

It was damaged during the Great Fire of 1666, and eventually demolished in 1761.

St Anthony’s Fire and St Anthony’s Hospital


St Anthony’s Fire, also known as ergotism, was a disease, common in Medieval times, caused by eating – improperly-stored – cereals contaminated by an alkaloid-secreting fungus.  Its symptoms included a rash, fever and delirium (sometimes taken as evidence of bewitchment).

P1040220 - Copy.JPG

St Anthony’s Hospital, or the Hospital of St Antoine de Viennois, specialising in the treatment of the disease, was founded on the site of a former synagogue on Threadneedle Street in 1242.  It was later expanded so as to incorporate, in 1429, a hospice; in 1440, a school, where  Thomas More (1478-1535) studied; and, in 1550, a chapel, where Protestant Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in Catholic France, worshipped.  It was burned down in the  Great Fire of 1666, and subsequently rebuilt, only to be demolished in 1840.


City of London Buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666


Of the 97 parish churches within the walls of the City of London at the time of the Great Fire of 1666, only 8, namely, All Hallows Barking, All Hallows Staining, St Alphage, St Andrew Undershaft, St Ethelburga, St Helen, St Katharine Cree, and St Olave Hart Street, survived,  and still survive, with at least some pre-Great Fire structures standing, above ground (*).

Tower of London


Of the secular buildings, only the Tower of London and the Guildhall, and parts of the Merchant Taylors’ and Apothecaries’ Livery Company Halls, and of the “Olde Wine Shades” public house, still survive.

(*) A further 5 churches, namely All Hallows on the Wall, St James Duke’s Place, St Katherine Coleman, St Martin Outwich and St Peter-le-Poer, also survived  the fire but were either rebuilt or demolished afterwards.

And 84 were burnt down in the fire, of which 49 were rebuilt afterwards, and 35 were not.

St Ethelburga Bishopsgate

Another in the  series on City of London buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666, and that still survive to this day …

The church of St Ethelburga Bishopsgate was originally built in around 1250, possibly on the site of an even older, Saxon, church, and extended in 1390, and again in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  It was undamaged  in the  Great Fire, although nonetheless restored   in 1861-2, and again, by Ninian Comper, in 1912,  and described by Nairn in 1966 as “one of the sweetest things in the City”. Sadly,  it was severely damaged by an IRA bomb on 24th April, 1993, and substantially rebuilt, and reopened as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, focussing on the role of faith in conflict resolution, in 2002.  The west front was rebuilt using stone from the Medieval church, the doorway along the lines of the fourteenth-century one, and the three-light window along the lines of the fifteenth-century one.

“The Tent” and “Peace Garden” at the back were built at the same time,  to encourage inter-faith dialogue.   Ethelburga was the sister of Erkenwald, the seventh-century Bishop of London after whom Bishopsgate is named.