SEPTEMBER 2, 1666
A September Sunday.......
On Sunday morning, the 2nd September 1666, the destruction of medieval London began. Within 5 days the city, which Shakespeare had known, was destroyed by fire. An area of one and a half miles by half a mile lay in ashes; 373 acres inside the city walls and 63 acres outside, 87 churches destroyed (including St. Paul's Cathedral) and 13,200 houses. In all this destruction, it is amazing that only 6 people are definitely known to have been killed. However, it seems likely that the actual death toll was much higher. In destroying the close packed houses and other buildings it is also likely that the fire finally put an end to the Great Plague that had devastated the city in the previous year - killing 17,440 out of the population of 93,000.
The fire started in the house and shop of Thomas Farynor, baker to King Charles II in Pudding Lane (the site of Farynor's house is marked today by the Monument). Farynor forgot to douse the fire in his oven on the previous night and embers set light to the nearby stacked firewood. By one o'clock in the morning, three hours after Farynor had gone to bed, the house and shop were well alight. Farynor's assistant woke finding the house full of smoke and the roused the household. Farynor, his wife and daughter and one servant escaped by climbing through an upstairs window and along the roof tops. The maid was too frightened to climb along the roof and stayed in the house - becoming the first victim of the fire.
Sparks from the burning house fell on hay and straw in the yard of the Star Inn at Fish Street Hill. The London of 1666 was a city of half timbered and pitch covered medieval buildings, mostly with thatched rooves. These buildings were extreme fire risks and ignited very easily. In the strong winds that blew that morning, the sparks spread rapidly, setting fire to rooves and houses as they fell. From the Star Inn, the fire engulfed St. Margaret's church and then entered Thames Street. Here there were warehouses and wharves packed with flammable materials - oil, spirits, tallow, hemp, straw, coal etc. By now the fire was far too fierce to be fought with the crude hand operated devices that were all that was available. By 8.00am, seven hours after the fire had started, the flames were half way across old London Bridge. Only the gap left by a previous fire in 1633 prevented the flames from crossing the bridge and starting new fires in Southwark on the south bank of the river.
The diarist, Samuel Pepys was called from his home in Seething Lane near the Tower of London. He recorded his impressions of the day:
Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .
So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it began this morning in the King's baker's house in Pudding Lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus's Church and most part of Fish Street already. So I rode down to the waterside, . . . and there saw a lamentable fire. . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or 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 pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.
Having stayed, and in an hour's time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, . . . I to Whitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat); and there up to the King's closet in the Chapel, where people came about me, and I did give them an account [that] dismayed them all, and the word was carried into the King. so I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw; and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses. . . .
To St Paul's; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a handkerchief 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 pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.' . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.
The fires burned all that day and on through the next. Fleet Street, Old Bailey, Ludgate Hill, Newgate etc. were all reduced to ashes. The stones of St. Paul's cathedral were reported to be exploding with the heat and molten lead from the roof ran down the streets in a stream. The strong easterly winds kept the flames advancing.
There was little that could be done to stop the spread of the fire. Various laws had been enacted, obliging the parishes to provide buckets, ladders, squirts and fire hooks, but much of the equipment was rotten through neglect and water supplies, away from the banks of the river, were scarce.
By now, with little other alternatives, thoughts turned to demolishing houses to create fire breaks. Lord Mayor Bludworth was rather concerned as to who would foot the bill for rebuilding houses that the corporation ordered to be pulled down. Bludworth was over-ruled on the orders of the King. The 'trained bands' were called out to assist with the demolition but they began too close to the advancing fires and were unable to clear the sites before the ruins became added fuel for the flames.
In desperation now, gunpowder was used to blow up houses - and often with excessive success! For three more days the fire raged through the City - before finally burning out at Temple Church near Holborn Bridge.
As relief began to set in after the previous days panic, the dying fire flared up again and began to creep onwards towards Whitehall. The Duke of York ordered the destruction of more buildings and the fire was finally brought under control.
By the end of the fire some four fifths of the City had been destroyed, approximately 13,200 houses, 87 churches and 50 Livery Halls over an area of 436 acres. Although the fire only claimed a few lives it may actually have saved many more - the rats that had helped to transmit the bubonic plague (Black Death) the previous year mostly died in the fire. The number of plague victims dropped rapidly after the fire.
For those who had lost everything, life was a sudden descent into abject poverty. The population of the City was dispersed around St. George's Fields and Moorfields and out as far as Highgate. Some were provided with tents, others made what shelter they could and build huts and hovels. Thousands of people were ruined and prisons became overcrowded.
The Great Fire of London set in motion changes in the capital which laid the foundations for organised firefighting in the future. Wooden houses and designs dating back to the medieval period were replaced with brick and stone buildings and owners began to insure their properties against fire damage. The new insurance companies quickly realised that their losses could be minimised by employing men to put out fires. Christopher Wren, the great 17th Century architect began the reconstruction of London and built 49 new churches together with the great cathedral of St. Paul's that we know today. After the fire of 1666, the face of London had changed forever.
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