The Welsh freedom-fighter Owain Glyndwr’s daughter Catrin and her children were captured by the English at the Siege of Harlech in 1409. They were then brought to London and imprisoned in the Tower, and at least most if not all of them died there in 1413, under circumstances best described as “mysterious” The children had a claim to the English throne through their late father Edmund Mortimer (who was descended from Edward III). Some suspect that they were done to death so as to prevent them from making any such claim.
Surviving records indicate that Catrin and two of her daughters were buried not in the Tower but in the churchyard of St Swithin London Stone on the other side of the city (there are no records of what became of her other daughter or of her son Lionel).
A modern Gelligaer bluestone sculpture by Nic Stradlyn-John and Richard Renshaw, inscribed with a Welsh englyn by Menna Elfyn, marks the spot. Freely (by me) rendered into English, the englyn reads: “In the Tower, now her home,|Her heart-song turns to longing:|The exile’s silent lament”.
I am delighted to announce that my latest book, “Soldiers and Sportsmen All … ” has just been published by Amazon, priced at £4.99 for the electronic format or £8.99 for a print-on-demand paper version (link below).
Contained within is the Great War story of the 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers (The City of London Regiment). The Battalion served on the Western Front for over three years, fighting in the Battles of the Somme in 1916, in the Battles of Arras and Cambrai in 1917, and finally in the First and Second Battles of the Somme, 1918, the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, and the Final Advance in Picardy, in 1918. It suffered just over eighteen hundred casualties over the course of the war, including just under six hundred fatalities. Even those who survived the war are also now long-dead; the war itself, no longer living memory but history.
The story is one of ordinary men, of diverse origins, living and dying in the midst of an extraordinary time in history. It is told from the viewpoint of an ordinary soldier in a trench somewhere in France. It features photographic images and/or at least brief biographical sketches of a sample of over two hundred such men from the 24th Battalion.
One of the men who served in the 24th Battalion in the Great War was Private Charles Reuben Clements from Hammersmith in what was then Middlesex and is now London, a former shop assistant – and the author’s maternal grandfather.
On the night of 29th/30th December, 1940, during the Second World War, an air raid by the German Luftwaffe resulted in 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 two hundred civilians were killed across London that night – and perhaps as many as thirty thousand over the entire course of the war. Among them was Auxiliary Fireman Sidney Alfred Holder, who was crushed by a collapsing building on Shoe Lane.
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.
Of these, Christ Church Newgate Street and St Alban Wood Street were substantially destroyed, with only their towers remaining intact.
And St Mary Aldermanbury and St Stephen Coleman Street were essentially completely destroyed.
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).
A number of historic Livery Company Halls were also destroyed, including those of the Brewers and the Coopers (barrel makers).
And the Medieval Guildhall, which had survived the Great Fire of 1666, was seriously damaged, although mercifully not irreparably so.
Here are a few photographs – taken from the top of the Shard – featuring three of the six London churches wholly designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736). Hawksmoor was employed by Christopher Wren as a clerk from the age of about 18. In time he became one of the greatest masters of English Baroque architecture. All six of Hawksmoor’s London churches remain standing. (Hawksmoor also collaborated with John James on two other London churches, one of which still survives.)
Today I remember the men of the Royal Fusiliers who were killed in the Great War, in particular those of my grandad Charles Reuben Clements’s Battalion, the 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) …
The Royal Fusiliers (the City of London Regiment)
The Royal Fusiliers – the City of London Regiment – was founded as long ago as 1685, in the aftermath of the failed Monmouth Rebellion, from two companies of guards from the Tower of London. It went on to see service in, among others, the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, the Crimean War, the “Indian Mutiny”, the Second Afghan War, the Boer War, the Great War, the Second World War, and the Korean War, before being incorporated into the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in 1968.
There is a fine Fusilier Museum in the Regimental Headquarters in the Tower of London, which houses an extensive archive together with a range of artefacts, including the colours of the 24th Battalion.
There is also a regimental war memorial, dedicated “to the glorious memory of the 22 000 Royal Fusiliers who fell in the Great War” at Holborn Bars at the western entrance to the City of London. The memorial, designed by Alfred Toft, features the figure of a fusilier on a parapet, “encircled by the vast radius of air that extends from head to bayonet tip to trailing foot”, with “this framing circle … [rendering] … the sculpture … both more powerful and more vulnerable, … fixing our attention, as if through a sniper’s sights, on the soldier at its dead centre”.
And, in the city church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate (Holy Sepulchre London), on Newgate Street, a few minutes walk east of the war memorial, there is a Royal Fusiliers Memorial Chapel, and a Garden of Remembrance, dedicated in 1950.
The 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion
The 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion was a “Service” Battalion, a part of Lord Kitchener’s “New Army”, raised in 1914, in the Hotel Cecil on the Strand in London, part of which served for a while as a Drill Hall.
It was raised by a remarkable woman named Emma Pauline Cunliffe-Owen. Emma was born in 1863, to an English father, Sir Francis Philip Cunliffe-Owen, the Director of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert), and a German mother, Jenny von Reitzenstein, whose father, a Baron, had been an aide-de-camp to Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia. She married her cousin, Edward Cunliffe-Owen, a barrister, in 1882, and the couple settled in London, and had four children together, before becoming estranged. The story goes that in 1914, on the outbreak of war, Mrs Cunliffe-Owen chanced to meet two big-game hunters of her acquaintance while walking down Bond Street, and, half-jokingly, asked them why they had not yet enlisted in the Army. They in turn, and in similar vein, asked her why she had not yet raised her own battalion. And so she did. She and her husband, with the sought approval of the Secretary-of-State for War, Lord Kitchener, advertised in The Times for “Sportsmen, aged 19 to 45, upper and middle class only”, to sign up at the Hotel Cecil “at once”, to constitute a Sportsmen’s Battalion around fifteen hundred strong. In the event, the response was such that two Sportsmen’s Battalions were constituted, the 23rd (1st Sportsmen’s), the Royal Fusiliers, on September 25th, 1914, and the 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s), on November 20th.
Before it began its basic training at Hare Hall Camp in Romford, the 24th Battalion was marched through London for inspection, in the presence of Mrs Cunliffe-Owen, at Horse Guards’ Parade. After its basic training, the 24th Battalion deployed to the Western Front, and received its “first taste of the trenches”, in November, 1915. It went on to fight in the Battles of the Somme in 1916, in the Battles of Arras and Cambrai in 1917, and finally in the First and Second Battles of the Somme, 1918, the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, and the Final Advance in Picardy, in 1918.
The 24th Battalion sustained 1 853 casualties over the course of the war, including 557 fatalities. It is believed that only six men from the 1914 cohort served with it throughout the Great War.
Being the Great War story of my maternal grandfather Charles Reuben – “Charlie” – Clements (CRC), a Private in the24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers (the City of London Regiment).
Before the Great War
Charles Reuben Clements was born at home in Hammersmith in Middlesex on January 12th, 1896, the son of Charles Ernest Clements, a carman and contractor, and his wife Jessie Clements, nee Percy, a part-time music teacher. Home was 109 Yeldham Road, a small end-of-terrace Victorian house at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac off Fulham Palace Road, with a large yard attached, where it is believed that Charles Senior kept his horses and horse-drawn vehicles. Charles Junior received his education at Latymer School in Hammersmith. However, he was forced to leave school early, aged seventeen, in 1913, after his father died suddenly, aged only forty-two, in order to enter the workplace – as an assistant in a gentlemen’s shop – to help provide an income for his family.
At this time, his family consisted of him; his widowed mother, familiarly known to him as “Ma”; and his two younger sisters, Jessie Winifred (“Jess”), who had been born in 1901, and Lilian Edith (“Lily”), born in 1904. His elder brother John Edwin, who had been born in 1893, had died in 1894; and his younger brother, John Percy, who had been born in 1900, in 1901.
CRC was evidently a conscientious man, with a strong work-ethic. He never gambled, although he did “do the Pools”, which he considered to be a game of skill rather than chance. And, after an unfortunate early experience at a friend’s coming-of-age party, he never drank. He had a dry sense of humour. When my mother wrote to inform him of my – premature – birth in 1958, he wrote back that he was “delighted of course to hear that Robert Wynn is progressing so well” and “flattered at first to hear he resembled myself but on reading … that he was short of … hair and putting on weight am rather in doubt”. In his free time, he enjoyed a range of sporting pursuits.
The Great War
CRC voluntarily enlisted in the 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers on May 30th, 1915, and was given the regimental number 3526.
It is evident from his surviving “Medical History” (Army Form B178), in the National Archives, dated June 4th, 1915, that he lied about his age when he volunteered, claiming to be twenty-two when he was actually only nineteen – possibly because he looked about sixteen. Also, that he was only 5’6” tall, and only weighed 9st4lbs.
After enlistment, CRC was sent to Hare Hall Camp in Romford in Essex, where the 24th Battalion had just set up its base, for training. He emerged from training as a Private soldier and 1st Class Signaller. As a Signaller, one of his responsibilities on the battle-front would be to relay communications. In the Great War, this was generally done by using field telephone networks, rather than by the hitherto conventional means of signalling with flags (using Semaphore), or with lamps or mirrors, or with a Heliograph (using Morse Code). It would involve the laying and constant repairing of miles of telephone cable in and around front-line trenches, often under fire. And it would be dangerous work. In April, 1917, the then Signals Officer for the 24th Battalion, Second Lieutenant Cyril Francis Stafford, would suffer a mortal wound while supervising the laying of telephone cables near Vimy Ridge while under heavy shell-fire. Private Frank Richards of the Royal Welch Fusiliers wrote, “Signallers who went into attacks with their companies had to muck in with the scrapping until the objective was taken and then if they were still on their feet were generally converted into runners [tasked with delivering messages by hand]. A runner’s job was very dangerous: he might have to travel over ground from where the enemy had just been driven and which now was being heavily shelled. In shell holes here and there might be some of the enemy who had been missed by the mopping-up party or who had been shamming dead; they would pop up and start sniping at him. I remember one show we were in … where extra runners had been detailed off for the day, losing fifteen out of twenty”.
CRC went on to serve with the 24th Battalion on the Western Front for three years, fighting in the Battles of the Somme in, 1916; in the Battles of Arras and Cambrai in 1917; and in the First and Battles of the Somme, and the Battle of Havrincourt, the first of the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, in 1918. At one point during the First Battles of the Somme, 1918, specifically on March 23rd, 1918, he would have been very close to where his future brother-in-law, my paternal grandfather, Able-Bodied Seaman Francis Wynn Jones (FWJ) of the Anson Battalion of 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, was captured by the advancing Germans, somewhere between Havrincourt and Bertincourt, on the Flesquieres-Havrincourt Salient.
According to his “Casualty Form – Active Service”, CRC was twice treated for “d. C.T. [?disease of Connective Tissue] Foot” – which I take to be “Trench Foot” – in the Winter of 1916/17. The first time was in the field, at No. 47 C.C.S. (Casualty Clearing Station), in Beauval, somewhat to the west of Beaumont-Hamel, on November 27th, 1916. The second time was to the rear, at No. 8 Red X.H. (Red Cross Hospital), in Paris-Plage (Le Touquet), on the coast, near Etaples Camp, on December 27th. CRC was granted two ten-day periods of home leave over the three-year course of his service, the first between January 20th-30th, 1917, and the second between February 12th-22nd, 1918.
CRC was reported in the “Nominal roll of casualties sustained during month of SEPTEMBER 1918” in the “Battalion War Diary” as having been killed on September 10th!
In fact, according to his “Casualty Record – Active Service” (Army Form B103), he had been seriously wounded by shrapnel, or possibly shell fragments, in the left arm (elbow) and leg (thigh, knee and ankle) on 12th. He was carried from the field to the 5th F.A. or Field Ambulance, and from there he was taken – either by an actual ambulance or a horse-drawn cart – to No. 46C.C.S or Casualty Clearing Station at Bac du Sud, near Bailleulval, just south-west of Arras. From No. 46 C.C.S. at Bac du Sud, CRC was transferred to No. 12G.H. or General Hospital in Rouen on September 13th.
And from there he was repatriated to the U.K., on board His Majesty’s Hospital Ship “Formosa”, on 15th. He spent the remaining two months of the war receiving treatment in hospitals in Keighley and Shoreham, and some time after the war convalescing in the Star and Garter Home in Richmond in Surrey. On September 20th, 1918, while he was at Shoreham, an X-Ray was taken of his wounded arm, and, according to his medical records, “a piece of shrapnel was found, localised and measured”, but “the surgeon thought an operation inadvisable + it was left in situ”. A later “Statement As To Disability” noted “metal fragments still in arm”, and occasional “shooting pains”, on account of which he was entitled to a Disability Pension of “5/- Dept Allowance + 3/6d allot weekly”. He had “copped a Blighty one”. His only visible scar was the size and shape of a teardrop, under his eye.
CRC was almost certainly wounded in an operation in the Battle of Havrincourt, the first of the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, which took place on September 12th, 1918. The “Battalion War Diary” contains a narrative of operations. According to this narrative, ‘D’ Company was subjected to “ … a very heavy barrage … and Captain CHESTON posted his men in shell-holes well in advance of the trench line [an old German defensive tactic devised on the Somme in 1916] and saved a good many casualties by doing so as the trenches were very badly knocked about indeed”. ‘C’ Company “ … tumbled up against quite unexpected German opposition in the portion of FAGAN SUPPORT … west of the Canal with several machine guns firing from shell-hole positions in the triangle to the south between it and the Canal [the Canal du Nord, which formed part of the Hindenburg Line]”. And ‘B’ Company “had to fight for every yard of the 700 of trench to be cleared … [and] … did so in a way that speaks for itself of the spirit of the Company and its leaders. … . Twelve Machine Guns (heavy and light) were … taken by the Company, probably many others were over-ran and overlooked”. The 24th Battalion’s total casualties in the action were recorded as “KILLED 8 + WOUNDED 49 + MISSING 1 = 58”. The men recorded as killed were Privates Frederick Child, W. Gowland, C. Hamilton, John Alfred Mayes and Percy Charles Pereira on September 12th, and Lance-Corporal Robert Burns, and Privates George Louis Parris and John Robert Warriner on 13th; and the missing man was Private F. Coley.
After the Great War
After the war, in 1919, CRC returned to work, in Harrods, a luxury department store in Knightsbridge in the fashionable West End of London, which at the time provided employment for large numbers of ex-Servicemen.
In 1921, he came to own and manage his own gentlemen’s outfitter’s shop at 180 South Ealing Road in Ealing in Middlesex, and to live in the modest rooms above. As befitting for someone in that line of work, he was always very smartly turned out. In 1933, he bought his first car, a “Baby Austin”, and thereafter spent a certain amount of time each year travelling round the south of England selling his wares. Besides his retail business, he also dabbled in property.
CRC also returned to his sporting pursuits.
He played football for the amateur side Ealing Wednesday, so-called because most of the players were independent shopkeepers, and they preferred to play on early closing day, which was Wednesday, rather than on Saturday, so as not to lose their best trading day’s takings.
The team had a particularly successful season in 1923-24, ending up as winners of the Ealing Hospital Cup, the Harrow Charity Shield, the Kingston and District Wednesday League, the Philanthropic Cup, and the Roose Francis Cup, and as runners-up in the Hounslow League and the Middlesex Mid-Week Cup. They also won the London Mid-Week Cup in 1930-31. CRC reportedly also played on an ad hoc basis for the professional side Fulham, who were in the Second Division of the English League, in the early 1920s. However, he always supported, and would have liked to play for, his local team, Brentford. Notwithstanding this, he never really seriously thought about becoming a professional footballer, because the pay was poor – difficult to believe as that is today. He did, though, represent the Thames Valley Harriers at long-distance running, and Middlesex at bowls, both, again, on an amateur basis. He also played tennis to a high standard, including at the prestigious Queen’s Club in West Kensington in London, which, incidentally his father had helped to build in 1886. Here, he played with Fred Perry, who went on to win three Wimbledon Men’s Singles titles, in 1934, 1935 and 1936.
On October 21st, 1921, CRC married Gladys Mabel Millard, familiarly known to him as “Mabs”.
“Mabs’s” mother, Sarah Ann Millard, incidentally, had served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment or V.A.D. nurse on the Home Front during the Great War. In 1934, “Mabs” had a baby daughter, Peggy Anne, my mother. The family would come to enjoy taking in not only sporting events but also sundry other entertainments such as comedy shows or musicals at the Chiswick Empire or the “Q” Theatre (in Kew), or, on special occasions, in the West End. During the Second World War of 1939-45, CRC joined the Middlesex Home Guard (of “Dad’s Army” fame), one of whose duties was to help to man a heavy anti-aircraft gun battery in Gunnersbury Park. According to one family story, which may or may not be entirely true, at the beginning of the Vergeltungswaffen or Vengeance-Weapon campaign directed against London, in June, 1944, he and his comrades, while attempting to shoot down a low-flying V-1 flying bomb or “Doodlebug”, instead inadvertently shot up part of a nearby building!
After the Second World War, in 1954, his daughter Peggy Anne married Emrys Wynn Jones. Then, in 1956, his wife “Mabs” died; and, in 1957, he married his second wife, a divorcee, Alice Elizabeth Ashton, nee Gooding.
CRC remained close throughout his later life to a number of his comrades from the Great War, especially to William “Billy” Bentley, who he regarded as once having saved his life, and who was his best friend; and to Archibald “Archie” Bannister, who was his best man. The old soldiers would all meet up in London every November, on the Friday closest to Remembrance Sunday, and would then all go together to the Cenotaph in Whitehall to attend the National Service of Remembrance. Like so many of his generation, CRC scarcely ever spoke, at least outside this closed circle, of his wartime experiences. However, he did once allude to the suffering of the horses on the Western Front (he had grown up around horses). He never committed to paper any of the thoughts or feelings he might have had about the war. These he took with him to his grave.
CRC died, after a sudden unexplained illness, on April 27th, 1958, aged sixty-two, and was cremated in Mortlake Cemetery on May 2nd. I was only three months old when he died, and, sadly, have nothing to remember him by bar these bare facts about his life, some faded photographs, and replacements for his lost 1914-15 Star, British War and Victory medals (“Pip, Squeak and Wilfred”). I am strangely comforted, though, by the knowledge that he would have had memories of me. My mother told me that she took me with her to see him when he was in what turned out to be his final days, and that he regained consciousness long enough to recognise me, and to lay his hand on my head, before drifting away again, for the final time.
Today I remember Private Ernest Jackson of the 24th (2nd Sportsmen’s) Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers (the City of London Regiment), the last man from the battalion to be killed in the Great War, aged thirty-two.
Ernest Jackson was born in Covent Garden in central London in 1886, the son of Edward William Jackson and his wife Mary Anne Jackson, nee Hill. He was 5’7” tall, with brown hair and green eyes. Before the war, he had been employed as an errand-boy. He had also spent two years in H.M. Prison Wandsworth for larceny.
He was conscripted into the Army in July, 1916, and sent to the Western Front in the November of that year. He had later gone Absent Without Official Leave in 1917, for which he had been sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. Upon his early release, he had gone A.W.O.L. again in September, 1918, near Flesquieres, and yet again in October, 1918, near Noyelles.
On October 8th, 1918, Jackson was court-martialled on the capital charges of desertion and “shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy” on the second of these occasions. He argued in his defence that he suffered from “mental disease caused by worries”, and added that both his parents died in an asylum. But he was shown no mercy, and indeed not even given a psychiatric evaluation. Rather, he was summarily convicted, and sentenced to death, his own Commanding Officer insisting that “cowardly action of this kind should be made an example of”.
Private Ernest Jackson was shot at dawn only four days before the end of the Great War, on November 7th, 1918. He is buried in Romeries Communal Cemetery Extension, with nothing on his headstone to indicate his fate. He is not mentioned either in the “Battalion War Diary”, or in the volume of “Soldiers Died in the Great War … ” pertaining to the Royal Fusiliers.
Incidentally, over the course of the Great War, 346 British and Empire soldiers – and others subject to the Army Act – were executed, following capital courts-martial that, in many cases, as in Private Jackson’s, essentially ignored mitigating evidence offered on their behalf. Nearly a century later, on November 7th, 2006, the British Government issued posthumous pardons to the 306 who had been executed for offences other than murder or mutiny, including the 284 who had been executed for desertion or cowardice. These men are also commemorated on the “Shot at Dawn” Memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas in Staffordshire.
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
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 … ”.
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).
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 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 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).
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”. On 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).
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.
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.
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.
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 Cathedral was gutted by the fire, although, somewhat miraculously, some of its many memorials survived, …
… 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”.