Sunday Sept 2nd – Thursday 6th September 1666. The population of London in 1600 was between 200,000 and 250,000 people. It was a fast growing city with distinct areas. Some grand houses lined the streets but there were hovels too. In 1571 the Royal Exchange had been built where merchants could buy and sell goods, the piazza of Covent Garden was built in 1632 and fine houses were being built along the Strand linking London with Westminster.
The port of London continued to play a massive role in its development and wool was its primary export to the continent. Streets were very narrow and cramped, houses were made of wood and the layout of the city was haphazard to say the least. The river Fleet was a stinking hygiene hazard and the problem of how to remove waste was a major issue. In 1665 the plague struck London again. This was almost certainly a mixture of the bubonic and the more deadly pneumonic strains. Around 60,000 people are supposed to have perished from the disease.
This was the scene in 1666. The city had started to settle down again after the disaster the previous year and Londoners had enjoyed, except for the smell, a long, hot summer.
On the night of Saturday 1st September Thomas Farriner, the King’s Baker, had gone to bed and his maid was putting out the ovens. It would seem however that she did not compete this task because at about 1am on Sunday 2nd sparks from the oven set light to the bakery. The Great Fire of London had started. In her panic the maid tried to escape the building but was afraid to jump and was consumed by the blaze – the first of only 4 official casualties of the fire. Thomas Farriner, his wife, children and another maid escaped through an upstairs window and across the roof to safety. The flames that now engulfed the bakery in Pudding Lane leapt across to Fish Street and then to the Star Inn before making its way down Thames Street. The easterly wind that was blowing strongly was fanning the flames at an alarming rate.
The Mayor of London, Thomas Bludworth, was raised from his sleep after having enjoyed a fine dinner the previous evening. He was not pleased. He drew his curtains to see and exclaimed in frustration that a “Woman could piss it out” it was so small and that he should not have been bothered.
Unfortunately for the Mayor a number of factors militated against a quick end to the fire. The area alight was surrounded by warehouses that contained highly flammable material – tar, pitch, timber and rope. The houses were very dry due to the good summer and the wind whipped the flames so quickly that the very primitive apparatus available to the soldiers, who were trying to put it out with pails of water and sprayers, had no effect at all. All the fire equipment was stored in the churches and this included hooks to pull houses down to create a firebreak. This was now carried out but again the flames were too fast for them. There were concerns that the wind would also carry the flames across the river Thames to the south side of the city as the fire roared on into Tuesday.
People were making their way to the open spaces such as Finsbury Hill and Moorfields, or storing all their belongings on boats and going out onto the water. Thousands were homeless and shelters and tents were built on any land that was available. Charles II was concerned that these people would become rebellious and ordered that gunpowder be used to create firebreaks more quickly. This was done. The wind started to turn too and push the fire back from where it had come before easing on Wednesday 5th September. By the early hours of Thursday it had been put out.
436 acres, 13,200 houses, 87 churches (including St Paul’s Cathedral) around 50 Livery Halls (that looked after the City’s trades), Newgate and Ludgate prisons and the Guildhall had been destroyed. Over 80,000 were homeless. In 1979 archaeologists excavated the remains of houses near Pudding Lane and found some melted pottery meaning the fire had reached temperatures of over 1700°C. Rumours were flying around on the streets as to why this had happened. Many were blamed including a variety of foreigners. The Frenchman, Robert Hubert, confessed to having started the fire and was hanged at Tyburn on September 28th – even though he was nowhere near London at the time.
It took over 50 years to rebuild the city. St Paul’s Cathedral, newly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was not completed until 1711. Only 51 churches were rebuilt and those who were made homeless had a miserable time in what were, in effect, shanty towns built around the edges of London. Charles II encouraged them to resettle in other neighbouring towns and encouraged the towns to welcome them. A Fire Court was established to settle disputes between tenants and landlords about who should pay for the rebuilding. With the new building so came new regulations. New houses had to be faced with brick, streets were widened and 2 new ones created. Pavements and new sewers were built. New public buildings were paid for with a new coal tax. The Fleet, a ‘tributary’ that flowed into the Thames, was nothing more than an open sewer with every disease going. The fire effectively boiled the Fleet and sterilised it. Slums had been burned away.
Sir Christopher Wren, who designed the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, also designed a monument that stands at the junction of Fish Street Hill and Monument Street. It is 62metres tall and stands 62 metres from where the fire started. There are 311 steps to the viewing platform on this tallest freestanding stone column in the world and is of a fluted doric design built between 1671 and 1677. There are 3 Latin inscriptions at the base. One tells of how the fire started, one how it caused so much damage and one saying what Charles II did to deal with it. At the top stands an urn of flames. Charles II did not want his own statue at the top as he said he did not start it. There is also a less well-known monument placed where the fire was finally stopped. This is known as the Golden Boy of Pye Corner and can be found in Smithfield, made of wood, covered in gold.
Much of our first hand evidence comes from the diarist Samuel Pepys. He also had to flee his house – but not before burying his wine, parmesan cheese and other valuables. He says this about the fire:
Monday 2nd September
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 [I went], 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 [went next] 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. . . .
The Fire made a huge impact on London. Only 9000 houses were rebuilt. 80% of the city was destroyed. The economic and social costs to London were huge - and to the country as a whole. London recovered however, much like it did after the Blitz of 1941 in the Second World War. Most would say it was a better place for the rebuilding and is a sign that Londoners will not be beaten and London always bounces back.