Category Archives: On this day

The second Great Fire of London

0 - St Paul's

On this day in 1940, an air raid by the German Luftwaffe led  to the so-called “Second Great Fire of London”. Tens of thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped, and the small individual fires that they set off soon coalesced into a great conflagration that threatened the entire city centre.  Around 200 people were killed, and damage to property was on a then unprecedented scale.  The area around St Paul’s was essentially razed to the ground, although the cathedral  itself miraculously survived essentially intact, thanks to the heroic actions of the firefighters of the St Paul’s Watch, who put out no fewer than twenty-eight individual incendiary-bomb fires inside the building.   Ten other  Wren churches were struck by bombs, namely, Christ Church Newgate Street, St Alban Wood Street, St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, St Anne & St Agnes, St Augustine-by-St-Paul’s, St Lawrence Jewry, St Mary Aldermanbury, St Mary-le-Bow, St Stephen Coleman Street and St Vedast-alias-Foster.

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Of these, Christ Church Newgate Street and St Alban Wood Street were substantially destroyed, with only their towers  remaining intact.

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And St Mary Aldermanbury and St Stephen Coleman Street were essentially completely destroyed.

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Remarkably, St Mary Aldermanbury was rebuilt, out of salvaged material, and according to Wren’s original design, in Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1966 (as a memorial to Winston Churchill, who had made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech there in 1946).

The consecration of Westminster Abbey (1065)

Edward the Confessor's body being brought to the abbey for burial in 1066

Westminster Abbey was consecrated on this day  in 1065 …

A monk of St Bertin’s Abbey wrote of its construction:

“Outside the walls of London … stood a monastery [founded by Bishop Dunstan under King Edgar the Peaceable and] dedicated to St Peter, but insignificant in buildings … .  … The king [Edward the Confessor], therefore  … gave his attention to that place, for it both lay hard by the famous and rich town and also was a delightful spot, … [and] … decided to have his burial place there [he was to die on January 5th, 1066].  Accordingly, he ordered that out of the tithes of all his revenues should be started the building of a noble edifice, worthy of the Prince of the Apostles; so that, after the transient journey of this life, God would look kindly upon him, both for the sake of his goodness and because of the gift of lands and ornaments with which he intended to ennoble the place.  And … there was no weighing of the costs, … so long as it proved  worthy of … God and St Peter”.

Cromwell cancels Christmas (John Evelyn, 1657)

2 - The church of St Margaret, Westminster - where the warden was fined for celebrating Christmas  in 1647.JPG

On this day in 1657, under the Commonwealth and Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell that followed the Civil War, John Evelyn wrote in his diary:

“I went to London with my wife, to celebrate Christmas day, Mr Gunning preaching in Exeter chapel … .  Sermon ended, as he was giving us the Holy Sacrament, the chapel was surrounded with [Parliamentarian] soldiers, and all the communicants and assembly surprised and kept prisoner by them … .  It fell to my share to be confined to a room …, where yet I was permitted to dine with the master of it … and some others of quality who invited me.  In the afternoon came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others … to examine us one by one; some they committed to the marshal, some to prison.  When I came before them, they took my name and abode, examined me why, contrary to the ordinance made, that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the nativity (so esteemed by them), I durst offend …, and … pray for  Charles Stuart … .  I told them we did not pray for Charles Stuart, but for all kings, princes, and governors.  They replied … with other frivolous and ensnaring questions, and much threatening; and, finding no color to detain me, they dismissed me with much pity of my ignorance.  These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity.  As we went up to receive the sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us as if they would have shot us  at the altar, but yet suffering us to finish the office of Communion, as perhaps not having instructions what to do in case they found us in that action.  So I got home late the next day, blessed be God”.

The  coronation of William the Conqueror  (Orderic Vitalis, 1066)

1 - The coronation of William the Conqueror, Westminster Abbey, as depicted by Matthew Paris

On this day in 1066, William I was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey.  One Orderic Vitalis wrote of the occasion:

“So at last on Christmas Day …, the English assembled at London for the king’s coronation, and a strong guard of Norman men-at-arms and knights was posted round the minster to prevent any treachery or disorder.  And, in the presence of the bishops, abbots, and nobles of the whole realm of Albion, Archbishop Ealdred consecrated William duke of Normandy king of the English and placed the royal crown on his head.  This was done in the abbey church of St Peter the chief of the apostles, called Westminster, where the body of King Edward [the Confessor] lies honourably buried.

But at the prompting of the devil, who hates everything good, a sudden disaster and portent of future catastrophes occurred.  For when Archbishop Ealdred asked the English, and Geoffrey bishop of Coutances asked the Normans, if they would accept William as their king, all of them gladly shouted out with one voice if not one language that they would.  The armed guard outside, hearing the tumult …, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings.  The fire spread rapidly …, the crowd who had been rejoicing … took fright and throngs of men and women of every rank and condition ran out of the church in frantic haste.  Only the bishop and a few clergy and monks remained, … and with difficulty completed the consecration of the king who was trembling from head to foot.

… The English, after hearing of the perpetration if such misdeeds, never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge”.

The rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666  (Samuel Pepys, 1666)

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On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

 “[T]hrough the City … , observing the ruins … .  So … to the [rebuilt] Upper ‘Change, which is almost as good as the old one; only shops are but on one side”.

Remarkably, a matter of mere  weeks after the devastating Great Fire of September 2nd-6th, the City was already getting back on its feet and beginning to function as normal again.  It would be well over forty years, though,  before the  rebuilding process was completed, with Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral only officially opening on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1711.

The  new City was to differ  from the old one in several  important respects.  The old narrow streets were to be replaced with new wide ones, designed to  simultaneously hinder the spread of fire and unencumber the flow of traffic.  In accordance with the Royal Proclamation of 1666 and the  “Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London” of 1667, the old  houses were to be 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.  And, 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 cost of the entire enterprise, incidentally, would be covered by an emergency  tax on coal imposed by Act of Parliament.

London Bridge Waterworks (1582)

An engineering drawing of the water wheel

On this day, December 24th,  in 1582, the Dutchman Pieter Maritz’s London Bridge Waterworks began supplying fresh water from the Thames to private houses in the City of London.  His rather rickety-looking apparatus actually worked well, and indeed, in the original demonstration to City officials, forced a jet over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr!   It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but thereafter replaced by his grandson, and  it continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.

An eighteenth-century paiting of Old London Bridge showing the water wheel

“How fine this would have been” (Vita Sackville-West, 1926)

Artist's impression of what Wren's London would have looked like.jpeg

On this day in 1926, Vita Sackville-West wrote, in a letter to Virginia Woolf:

“  … What I think of when I walk down the Strand is: how fine this would have been if Wren’s plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire had been adopted.  Steps to the river, and all that – and a broad thoroughfare … ”.

Wren’s grandiose plans for the redesigning of the layout of London after the Great Fire of 1666, if fully implemented,  would have given it a radically new look and feel, much more like  that of the great European cities of the day, with their uniform architecture, broad boulevards and open piazzas.  But they  were soon essentially abandoned on the grounds of practicality and expendiency 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.