Tag Archives: John Evelyn

My City of Ruins (Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and William Taswell, 1666)


On this day in 1666, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“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 went on to write, 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”.

John Evelyn wrote:

“I wente this morning on foote from White hall as far as London bridge, 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, the ground under my feet so hot, as made me not only Sweate, but even burnt the soles of my shoes … : 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 not onely … destroyed  all the bridge, but sunke … all the vessels in the river, & renderd … demolition …  even …  at many miles distance:

At my return 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 but the Inscription of the Architrave which …  had not one letter of it defac’d: which I could not but take notice of: 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: It is also observable, that the lead over the Altar …  was untouch’d: and among the divers monuments, the body of one Bishop, remained intire.

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 …

Sir Tho: Greshams Statue, though falln to the ground from its nich in the R: Exchange remain’d intire, when all those of the Kings since the Conquest were broken to pieces: also the Standard in Cornehill, & Q: Elizabeths Effigies, with some armes on Ludgate continud with but little detriment, whilst the vast yron Chaines of the Cittie streets, vast hinges, barrs & gates of Prisons were many of them mealted, & reduc’d to cinders by the vehement heats: nor was I yet able to pass through any of the narrower streets, but kept to the widest, the ground & aire, smoake & fiery vapour, continued so intense, my hair being almost seinged … : … nor could one have possibly knowne where he was, but for the ruines of some church, or hall, that had some remarkable towre or pinnacle remaining … ”.

And the  schoolboy William Taswell, on encountering the body of  one of the few recorded victims of the fire:

“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”.


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


On this day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote:

“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… ”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“[I]t crossed towards White-Hall … .  It pleased his Majestie to command me among the rest to looke after the quenching of fetter-lane … , to preserve (if possible) that part of Holborn, whilst the rest of the Gent: tooke their several posts, some at one part, some at another, for now they began to bestir themselves, … & began to consider that nothing was like to put a stop, but the blowing up of … houses, as might make a [wider] gap than any yeat made by the ordinary method of pulling them downe … : This some stout Seamen proposd early enough to have saved the whole Citty: but some … avaritious Men, Aldermen &c. would not permit, because their houses must have ben the first: It was … now 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 … that the furie of it began … to abate, … so as it came no farther than … the enterance of Smithfield  …

It brake out againe in the Temple; but the courage of the multitude persisting, & innumerable houses blown up with Gunpowder, such gaps … were soon made … as the fire [was able to be got under control] …

[T]here I left this smoking … heape, … the poore Inhabitans dispersd all about St Georges, Moore filds, as far as higate, & several miles in Circle … : [and] returned with a sad heart to my house … ”.


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


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

“ …  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 [Charles II] … 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’”.

And John Evelyn wrote:

“This fatal night … began that deplorable fire, neere Fish-streete … : … I … with my Wife & Sonn … went to the bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole Citty in dreadfull flames … and … consumed … from the bridge … down to the three Cranes, & so returned exceedingly astonishd, what would become of the rest”.


“The most magnificent triumph” (John Evelyn, 1662)

Catherine of BraganzaDetail of Canaletto painting of early eighteenth-century triumphal procession

On this day in 1662, John Evelyn wrote in his diary:

“I was spectator of the most magnificent triumph that ever floated on the Thames; considering the innumerable … vessels, … adorned with all imaginable pomp, …  thrones, arches, pageants and other representations, stately barges of the Lord Mayor and Companies, … music and peals of ordnance … , going to meet and conduct the new Queen [Catherine of Braganza] from Hampton Court to Whitehall, at the first time of her coming to town.  In my opinion, it far exceeded all the Venetian Bucentoras etc on the Ascension … .  His Majesty and the Queen  came in an antique … open vessel, covered with a … canopy of cloth of gold, made in form of a cupola, supported with high Corinthian pillars, wreathed with flowers, festoons and garlands.  I was in our new-built vessel, sailing amongst them”.

Whales and whaling in London (John Evelyn, 1658)

2 - Skeleton of North Atlantic Right Whale believed to be that described by Evelyn, discovered at Bay Wharf in Greenwich in 2010

On this day in 1658 John Evelyn wrote in his diary:

“A large whale has been taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it … .  … [A]fter  a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood … by two tunnels, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.  Its length was fifty-eight foote, height sixteen, black skin’d like coach-leather, very small eyes, great taile, and onely two small finns, a picked snout, and a mouth so wide that divers men might have stood upright in it; no teeth, but suck’d the slime onely as thro’ a grate of … whale-bone, the throate yet so narrow as would not have admitted the least of fishes … ”.

Throughout history, whales have not infrequently ended up accidentally stranded in London  as Evelyn describes, the most recent case being in 2006.

From the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards, whales were also deliberately hunted out at sea, and brought back to ports such as London, Yarmouth, Hull and York   to be sold, their oil for lighting and for  lubrication (and their bones for the manufacture of corsets).  The London whaling industry was dominated initially by the Muscovy Company, and subsequently  by its semi-independent subsidiary, the Greenland Company.  By the turn of the  seventeenth and  eighteenth centuries, its fortunes had begun to decline as it found itself for the most part out-competed by a Dutch whaling industry better equipped with specially strengthened ships capable not only of “bay whaling” but also of  “ice whaling” far out at sea, on the edge of the Arctic ice fields.  Nonetheless, whaling expeditions continued to be conducted out of London until the early nineteenth century.  The last was  in 1835.