This month we are commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, one of the most significant events in English history. As Master of my Livery company I have been invited to a number of events to mark the occasion and indeed have organised one of our own. Last weekend I again invited the resourceful John Steel to research and lead a walk from Pudding Lane where the fire started to Pye Corner where it finished; from Pudding to Pye.
The Great Fire swept through the centre of the city of London from Sunday 2nd to Wednesday 5th September, 1666. It gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It displaced an estimated 70,000 people.
The death toll is unknown but officially recorded as just six people. This is nonsense because the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded, while the fire was so intense that it melted lead so it ran red in the streets. According to archaeological evidence temperatures exceeded 1250°C so that bodies could have been almost totally destroyed. It is more likely that thousands perished.
A fire started soon after midnight on Sunday 2nd September at the bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane near London Bridge. Fires were common in those days and were usually soon put out. There were teams of watchmen out at night and there was a rudimentary fire brigade with fire ‘engines’ and firefighters. When the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth was woken up to be told about the fire, he replied “Pish! A woman might piss it out!” However, that summer had been very hot and there had been no rain for weeks, so consequently the wooden houses and buildings were tinder dry. Worse building regulations had been ignored and in narrow streets the upper storeys of the houses reached out almost to touch the neighbour’s house opposite. This was to save Farriner and his family as they climbed across to the house opposite but a maid servant was too scared to try this and she was the first recorded casualty.
The fire soon took hold: 300 houses quickly collapsed and the strong east wind spread the flames further, jumping from house to house. Along the river nearby were warehouses full of coal, tar, pitch, hemp, flax, tallow, wax, alcohol, turpentine and other combustibles. The major firefighting technique of the time was to create firebreaks by means of demolition by means of firehooks, or, with taller buildings, controlled gunpowder explosions. This however was critically delayed owing to the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor. Only he had the authority to order the pulling down of houses but he was concerned that many of the inhabitants were just tenants and the buildings’ owners would later sue him personally.
The famous diarist Samuel Pepys had woken up at 2am and saw there was a fire but thought it modest and went back to sleep. When he woke at 7am it was already out of control. He took a boat up to the Tower of London from where he could see the extent of the fire. He then took a boat across the river to get a vantage point at a lower level from where he could see pandemonium as people tried to get their goods to a safe place in impossibly crowded streets. Although only 33 he was already a senior official in the Navy Office. He took a boat down to Whitehall and sought audience of King Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York to inform them.
The City’s merchants had been on the Republican side during the Civil War and their decisions as to who should have the support of the armies that they financed had been decisive in the eventual outcome. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 his first actions were to find as many of those responsible for signing his father’s death warrant and bringing them to summary justice. Seven were hung, drawn and quartered and the bodies of Oliver Cromwell and others who had died in the interregnum were dug up and their skeletons hung and publicly displayed.
So memories of this were fresh just six years later and the City was reluctant to accept the help of the Duke of York’s militia. Efforts to bring the fire under control by using leather buckets quickly failed. Panic began to spread through the city. By the time they did accept the royal militia’s help the fire had spread and intensified and even creating firebreaks through the use of gunpowder was at first ineffective.
John took us through the streets telling the tale of how the fire had spread day by day. Even the Guildhall with its proud stone walls was affected. The walls stood firm but the roof fell in.
Another famous diarist John Evelyn, who lived further away, came to see the destruction. He reported that the river was covered with barges and boats making their escape piled with goods. He observed a great exodus of carts and pedestrians through the bottleneck city gates. London Bridge, the only crossing at that time, caught fire and it was feared that the fire would spread south to Southwark but there was at least a fire break on the bridge.
Able bodied porters offered their labour to rich people who wanted to save their goods. Most made fortunes charging outlandish prices while others just scarpered with the goods. Pepys buried a Parmesan cheese in his garden together with bottles of wine.
Suspicion soon arose that the fire was no accident. The winds carried sparks and burning flakes long distances giving the appearance of the setting of new fires. The English were at war with the Dutch at this time and any foreign looking person came under suspicion. The only newspaper to publish on the Monday, the Gazette, carried a feeble report among pages of gossip. Its printing house was burnt down the same afternoon. In the absence of sensible newspapers rumours were rife.
The militia spent more time rounding up suspects or trying to control the mob than firefighting. Eventually Charles declared a state of emergency overriding the city authorities and putting his brother James in charge of operations. He set up command posts around the perimeter of the fire, pressganging local men into well paid and well fed teams of firefighters.
But the Tuesday was the day of greatest destruction. St Paul’s Cathedral was seen as a safe haven for storage purposes. But what did people store there? Piles of paper and stationery and when a fireball landed inside it went up like a powder keg. The Duke set up a command post by the river Fleet seeing that as a natural firebreak. But the fire, driven by an easterly gale, leapt the river outflanking the command post.
The garrison at the Tower took the matter into their own hands using their massive store of gunpowder to blow up houses on a large scale and create firebreaks. The wind dropped on the Tuesday evening and on the Wednesday the firebreaks started to take effect. Pepys walked all over the smouldering city feeling the heat through his boots. He visited Moorfields where a refugee camp had been hastily thrown together. The price of bread doubled and there were many thousands of displaced, dispossessed and very distressed persons. Further rumours about invasions by the Dutch filled the air.
Charles dreaded a full-scale rebellion against the monarchy, not unreasonable given the events of the recent past. He announced that supplies of bread would be brought into the city every day and safe markets set up.
A simple-minded French watchmaker named Robert Hubert, claimed he was an agent of the Pope and had started the Great Fire. He was convicted and hanged at Tyburn just three weeks after the fire had subsided. After his death, it turned out that he had been on board ship in the North Sea when the fire started. But the idea that the Catholics had started the fire took hold and was still featured on the Monument in the nineteenth century.
A special Fire Court was set up to deal with property disputes and the ability to pay was usually decisive as everyone wanted the houses and churches and other buildings rebuilt as quickly as possible, though this time with bricks. Christopher Wren was put in charge and at first he had grandiose schemes with wide streets and boulevards. But in the end pragmatism won and most of the original streets were maintained as otherwise disputes over ownership and boundaries would have stayed in the Courts for decades.
The monuments are there still. On Charles’ initiative The Monument was designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, standing 61 metres (200 feet fall), its height being its distance from the start of the fire in Pudding Lane. Another monument marks the spot where the fire stopped: the Golden Boy of Pye corner in Smithfield. According to the inscription, it was evidence of God’s wrath on the City of London for the sin of gluttony that the fire started at Pudding Lane and stopped in Pye Corner.
Wren designed and rebuilt 51 churches plus his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral. St Paul’s was started in 1675 and completed in 1711. Wren lived to see it completed.
Most of the Livery Halls were burnt down, but the Livery companies did not just lose their halls, they also lost much of the property whose rents gave them their income. They also lost much of their monopolies over labour as demand for labour to rebuild London was so high that the idea of long apprenticeships and restricted numbers was no longer acceptable. Nevertheless, most of the Livery Companies managed to rebuild their halls and their financial strength, some surprisingly quickly. In 1694 when the Bank of England, then a privately held bank, was founded, it was first housed in Mercers’ Hall, and then Grocers’ Hall until the famous building was erected in the 1730s in Threadneedle Street, on Grocers’ Company land.
This rising from the ashes is symbolic of a renaissance of the City which would go from strength to strength. It had been a traumatic experience but one that gave the City the chance to renew itself. In the same spirit my Past Masters Association decided at Ironbridge in June that we would call ourselves “the Phoenix Masters”.