Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle!
September 2, 1666
It was a small mistake, but with great consequences. On September 2, 1666, Thomas Farrinor, baker to King Charles II of England, failed, in effect, to turn off his oven. He thought the fire was out, but apparently the smouldering embers ignited some nearby firewood and by one o’clock in the morning, three hours after Farrinor went to bed, his house in Pudding Lane was in flames. Farrinor, along with his wife and daughter, and one servant, escaped from the burning building through an upstairs window, but the baker’s maid was not so fortunate, becoming the Great Fire’s first victim. Did these cakes set fire to London?
The fire then leapt across Fish Street Hill and engulfed the Star Inn. The London of 1666 was a city of half-timbered, pitch-covered medieval buildings and sheds that ignited at the touch of a spark–and a strong wind on that September morning ensured that sparks flew everywhere. From the Inn, the fire spread into Thames Street, where riverfront warehouses were bursting with oil, tallow, and other combustible goods. By now the fire had grown too fierce to combat with the crude firefighting methods of the day, which consisted of little more than bucket brigades armed with wooden pails of water. The usual solution during a fire of such size was to demolish every building in the path of the flames in order to deprive the fire of fuel, but the city’s mayor hesitated, fearing the high cost of rebuilding. Meanwhile, the fire spread out of control, doing far more damage than anyone could possibly have managed.
Soon the flames were visible from Seething Lane, near the Tower of London, where Samuel Pepys first noted them without concern:
Pepys Diary Entry, September 2 1666
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. . . .
I hurried] 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 [I] 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.
On February 24th 1667 Pepys notes in his diary:
Asking Sir R Viner what he thought was the cause of the fire, he tells me that the Baker, son and his daughter did all swear again and again that their Oven was drawn by 10 a-clock at night. That having occasion to light a candle about 12, there was not so much fire in the bakehouse as to light a match for a candle, so as they were fain to go into another place to light it. That about 2 in the morning they felt themselves almost choked with smoke; and rising, did find the fire coming upstairs – so they rose to save themselfs; but that at that time the bavins were not on fire in the yard. So that they are, as they swear, in absolute ignorance how this fire should come – which is a strange thing, that so horrid an effect should have so mean and uncertain a beginning.
Even on February 28th 1667 Pepys notes:
I did within these six days see smoke still remaining of the late fire in the City; and it is strange to think how to this very day I cannot sleep a-night without great terrors of fire; and this very night I could not sleep till almost 2 in the morning through thoughts of fire.
and on March 16th 1667:
The weather is now grown warm again, after much cold weather; and it is observable that within these eight days I did see smoke remaining, coming out of some cellars, from the late great Fire, now above six months since.
and on May 5th:
Sir Jo Robinson … doth tell me of at least six or eight fires within these few days, and continually stories of fires; and real fires there have been in one place or other almost ever since the late great Fire, as if there was a fate over people for fire.
John Evelyn took even less note of the fire during its first hours than had Pepys. His journal entry for the 2nd, the day on which Pudding Lane first erupted, contains only the briefest of mentions. By the following day, however, Evelyn was drawn into the unfolding spectacle:
I had public prayers at home. The fire continuing, after dinner I took coach with my wife and son and went to the Bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole city in flames near the water side; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames street, and upwards towards Cheapside, down to the Three Cranes, were now consumed: and so [we] returned exceeding astonished what would become of the rest.
The fire having continued all this night (if I may call that night which was light as day for 10 miles round about, after a dreadful manner) when conspiring with a fierce eastern wind in a very dry season; I went on foot to the same place, and saw the whole south part of the city burning from Cheapside to the Thames, and all along Cornhill, (for it likewise kindled back against the wind as well as forward), Tower street, Fen-church street, Gracious street, and so along to Bainard’s Castle, and was now taking hold of St. Paul’s church, to which the scaffolds contributed exceedingly. The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods; such a strange consternation there was among them, so as it burned both in breadth and length, the churches, public halls, Exchange, hospitals, monuments, and ornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner, from house to house and street to street, at great distances from one the other; for the heat with a long set of fair and warm weather had even ignited the air and prepared the materials to conceive the fire, which devoured after an incredible manner houses, furniture, and everything. Here we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save, as, on the other, the carts, &c. carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with moveables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away.
Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seen since the foundation of it, nor be outdone till the universal conflagration thereof. All the sky was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seen above 40 miles round about for many nights. God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame; the noise and cracking and thunder of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forced to stand still and let the flames burn on, which they did for near two miles in length and one in breadth. The clouds also of smoke were dismal and reached upon computation near 50 miles in length. Thus I left it this afternoon burning, a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day. It forcibly called to my mind that passage–non enim hic habemus stabilem civitatum: the ruins resembling the picture of Troy. London was, but is no more! Thus, I returned.
The burning still rages, and it was now gotten as far as the Inner Temple; all Fleet street, the Old Bailey, Ludgate hill, Warwick lane, Newgate, Paul’s chain, Watling street, now flaming, and most of it reduced to ashes; the stones of St. Paul’s flew like [grenades], the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them, and the demolition had stopped all the passages, so that no help could be applied. The eastern wind still more impetuously driving the flames forward. Nothing but the Almighty power of God was able to stop them, for vain was the help of man.
It crossed towards White-hall; but oh, the confusion there was then at that Court! It pleased his Majesty to command me among the rest to look after the quenching of Fetter lane end, to preserve if possible that part of Holborn, whilst the rest of the gentlemen took their several posts, some at one part, some at another (for they now began to bestir themselves, and not till now, who hitherto had stood as men intoxicated, with their hands across) and began to consider that nothing was likely to put a stop but the blowing up of so many houses as might make a wider gap than any had yet been made by the ordinary method of pulling them down with engines; this some stout seamen proposed early enough to have saved near the whole city, but this some tenacious and avaricious men, aldermen, &c. would not permit, because their houses must have been [among the first to be levelled]. It was therefore now commanded to be practised, and my concern being particularly for the Hospital of St. Bartholomew near Smithfield, where I had many wounded and sick men, made me the more diligent to promote it; nor was my care for the Savoy less.
It now pleased God by abating the wind, and by the industry of the people, when almost all was lost, infusing a new spirit into them, that the fury of [the fire] began sensibly to abate about noon, so as it came no farther than the Temple westward, nor than the entrance of Smithfield north: but continued all this day and night so impetuous toward Cripplegate and the Tower as made us all despair; it also broke out again in the Temple, but the courage of the multitude persisting, and many houses being blown up, such gaps and desolations were soon made, as with the former three days consumption, [that] the back fire did not so vehemently urge upon the rest as formerly. There was yet no standing near the burning and glowing ruins by near a furlong’s space.
The coal and wood wharfs and magazines of oil, rosin, &c. did infinite mischief, so as the invective which a little before I had dedicated to his Majesty and published, giving warning of what might probably be the issue of suffering those shops to be in the City, was looked on as a prophecy.
The poor inhabitants were dispersed about St. George’s Fields, and Moorfields, as far as Highgate, and several miles in circle, some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag or any necessary utensils, bed or board, who from delicateness, riches, and easy accommodations in stately and well furnished houses, were now reduced to extremest misery and poverty.
In this calamitous condition I returned with a sad heart to my house, blessing and adoring the distinguishing mercy of God to me and mine, who in the midst of all this ruin was like Lot, in my little Zoar, safe and sound.
Fires in the 17th Century
Pepys records 15 fires in his diary in addition to the Great Fire.
Most houses in London had timber frames. They were often high and were crammed together with little if any space between. Heating was by fires and lighting was by candles, whether rush, tallow or beeswax. Everywhere there were flammable materials – hay in stables, pitch and tar by the river for ships and boats, wood in yards everywhere, kindling in bakeries such as the one where the Great Fire began.
Fire fighters were not organised and had often little more than buckets and large syringes to spread the water. More effective was gunpowder to force a fire break and grappling irons to pull down thatch or weak timbers.
In January 1673 fire destroyed Pepys own house and in 1684 a later house was saved only by having his neighbour’s house blown up.
One of the results of these fires was that insurance companies began to take some responsibility for property loss and after about 1772 they established fire brigades. Houses rebuilt after the Great Fire were built to stricter regulations which included brick construction and improved water supplies.
The fire destroyed about four-fifths of the city, including roughly 13,200 houses, nearly 90 parish churches, and nearly 50 livery company halls–in all an area of more than 430 acres. In the aftermath, Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect, designed and oversaw the construction of 49 new churches, as well as the new St. Paul’s Cathedral. Amazingly, the fire claimed only 16 lives and may actually have saved countless more. After 5th September, the Black Plague, which had ravished London since 1664, abruptly declined, probably because so few of the rats that helped to transmit the disease escaped the flames.
Samuel Pepys is the best known diarist of his day. Although he was a minor public official, his diary contains more details of his private life than of London politics. Still, his accounts of both the Black Death and the Great Fire show that he was less than in awe of persons holding high office.
John Evelyn was an English writer best known for his diary, which, along with that of Samuel Pepys, provides us with our best glimpse into the social world of 17th century London. Evelyn was an ardent Royalist during the English Civil War, and held several minor offices after the Restoration.
- Samuel Pepys Diary 1666 – Great Fire, Pepys. Info, http://www.pepys.info/fire.html