THE BLAZE IN SEPTEMBER 1666 RAGED FOR DAYS AND DESTROYED FOUR-FIFTHS OF THE CAPITAL, LEAVING BRITAIN’S TRADE, GOVERNMENT AND PROSPERITY IN RUINS
When, early on 2 September 1666, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys heard of a fire in the City of London that had already destroyed 300 houses, he hired a boat to view the scene from the Thames. To his horror he noted: “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 … to another.”
The dramatic conflagration wasn’t the first – nor last – to strike the capital, but the Great Fire of London was one of the most devastating events in the city’s history. Raging from 1am on Sunday 2 September to dawn on Thursday 6 September, it resulted in four-fifths of the City being destroyed, including 13,200 houses and 87 churches. Miraculously, there were only six officially recorded deaths, but the very hub of Britain’s trade, government and prosperity stood in ruins.
Pudding Lane bakery
Seventeenth-century London was a turbulent place: the Great Plague had decimated a third of its population in 1665, while frictions between Protestants and Catholics, as well as England’s recent wars with France and the Netherlands, made its citizens nervous. In the event it was a spark in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane that kindled the disaster. It’s thought his oven was not fully extinguished overnight and in the early hours wood beside it caught fire. While the baker and his family escaped, their unfortunate maid perished.
The fire could hardly have started in a more dangerous place, close to the river’s warehouses and shops packed with combustibles such as coal, timber, oil and alcohol. It had been a long, dry summer and, with a strong easterly wind fanning the flames, the City’s mainly timber-framed buildings were easily lit, their overhanging jetties and the crowded nature of the narrow streets inviting fire to spread. Yet the Lord Mayor Thomas Bludworth, called to the scene at 4am, dismissed the threat posed by the fire and returned to bed, saying: “A woman might piss it out.”
When Pepys conveyed the order to Bludworth in Cannon Street at noon, the Lord Mayor had changed his earlier tune. “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.’”
With no organised fire brigade in London in 1666, people were reliant on buckets and ladders, fire hooks to pull down buildings, and hand-pumped machines to squirt water. The fire rampaged down Fish Street Hill, onto London Bridge, along the Thames and north of Thames Street, destroying warehouses, St Magnus the Martyr Church and Fishmongers’ Hall, the first of dozens of livery company halls to be ruined. Terrified by such large-scale calamity, people began to fear a French or Dutch attack, and armed mobs hunted for foreign or Catholic arsonists. Militia were called in to control the crowds.
Over five days the conflagration spread across 436 acres, ripping through Lombard Street, Cornhill and the Royal Exchange, also Threadneedle Street, Baynard’s Castle, Cheapside, the Sessions House in the Old Bailey, Ludgate and Newgate Gaol (from which prisoners escaped), Temple and Fleet Street. When the fire reached within 300 yards of the Tower of London, all available resources rushed to the scene.
St Paul’s Cathedral, in wooden scaffolding awaiting restoration, was not so lucky; its roof collapsed and thousands of books stored in the crypt fuelled the inferno.
There are tales of heroism: a seaman and a soldier climbed onto the roof of Middle Temple Hall to beat out flames. And tragedy: an 80-year-old watchmaker refused to leave his home in Shoe Lane and it fell on him. But mainly people fled to the fields outside the City; the court packed its bags; even Pepys, hearing the fire was approaching Barking Church near his home, buried his wine and Parmesan cheese in the garden for safekeeping and temporarily absented himself.
During the fire, King Charles rode around the City distributing money to encourage fire-fighting efforts and he ordered supplies to be brought for the homeless thousands camped in the fields. His brother, James Duke of York, took command of operations from the second day and set up posts manned by civilians and soldiers to tackle the fires. From the third day, gunpowder was used to demolish houses more quickly than pulling them down and by that evening the wind had also dropped. The fire fighters gradually gained control.
Diarist John Evelyn records wandering through the eerie aftermath of the disaster, burning the soles of his shoes on smouldering ground and losing his way in the “dismal desert”. The next month an official day of fasting was held and £12,794 collected from across the country to provide aid to London’s newly destitute; many would move away.
Much post-fire architecture has since vanished, but gems can still be found like the home (now museum) of the dictionary-compiler Dr Johnson in Gough Square. Visit, too, the Monument (junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill) constructed by Wren and Robert Hooke. Completed in 1677, the column is 61 metres tall – the exact distance between it and the site in Pudding Lane where the fire started – and 311 steps lead to a viewing platform offering superb vistas.
The most famous legacies of the rebuilding are Wren’s churches and his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral. Twenty-nine of the 51 churches he designed still stand, remarkable for their striking array of steeples and spires: from the baroque of St Vedast to the Gothic of
St Dunstan-in-the-East, the slender spire of St Martin-within-Ludgate and the ‘wedding cake’ tiers of St Bride.
The ‘tabula rasa’ left by the Great Fire of London may not have been filled by a model renaissance city as proposed by visionaries like Wren, but it inspired some genuine treasures and made the capital an altogether safer city for generations to come.
The Untold Story of the Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London started accidentally in a bakery, right? That wasn’t the view at the time – many believed it was a terrorist attack and violent reprisals against possible suspects soon followed.
The date 1666 is one burned on to the collective memory of a nation.
Everyone learns at school that the fire raging for four days in that hot, dry summer began in a bakery in Pudding Lane.
But a new Channel 4 documentary focuses on the lesser known story of the fire – it sparked a violent backlash against London’s immigrant population, prompted by the widely-held belief at the time that it was an act of arson committed by a foreign power.
In the days and weeks following the fire, ordinary Londoners – many of whom were displaced and homeless – gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry swiftly launched to find out what happened.
GREAT FIRE IN NUMBERS…
Destroyed 373 acres of the City
13,200 houses, 84 churches and 44 company halls burned down
Raged from Sunday 2 Sept to Thursday 6 Sept
Fewer than 10 people thought to have died, although some perished in refugee camps
Rebuilding killed more than fire
All those witness statements can be found in the inquiry’s report, a 50-page document held in the capital’s Guildhall.
It suggests the city on the eve of the fire was one fraught with anxiety and paranoia, says Sue Horth, the documentary’s executive producer, and the finger of blame was pointed at two countries with which England was at war, Netherlands and France.
“We teach people about Pudding Lane and the hot summer but we don’t say that weeks before the Great Fire, the British Navy sailed into the city of West Terschelling in the Netherlands and set fire to it in an act of diplomatic piracy.
… AND IN QUOTES
‘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’
Samuel Pepys, 2 Sept 1666
‘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’
John Evelyn, 2 Sept 1666
“London was expecting an act of reprisal against the city. It was expecting something bad to happen, not because it was superstitious or frightened, but because the government had done something bad. So when the fire happened, it was a natural and quite sensible suspicion for the people of London to have.”
As the fire raged, and rumours spread that the French had invaded, angry mobs hunted anyone who appeared to be foreign, says Ms Horth. A Swedish diplomat was lynched. A French woman trying to escape to a refugee camp in Spitalfields had her breast cut off because people thought the baby chicks she carried in her apron were fireballs.
“London was a city turned to constant night, with the ash cloud and smoke, and the sun couldn’t penetrate, so it was a frightening place to be. Thousands of buildings were razed. People either tried to escape or they fought the fire or they tried to find those responsible.”
This violence is the untold story of the fire, says Adrian Tinniswood, author of By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London.
Most people thought it was an attack by the Dutch, because of the recent atrocity by the Royal Navy under Admiral Robert Holmes.
“There was cheering in the streets of London when that happened, so when the fire started, people thought it was the Dutch getting their own back.
“In fact, the fire was caused by a gale blowing across London for four days. It hit London in the early hours of Sunday morning, just as [Thomas] Farriner’s bakery goes up in flames. The gale blew embers and bits of straw across the city and fires broke out all over the place, so people said: ‘This isn’t a fire spreading, it has to be arson’.”
On the fourth day, when the fire was finally quelled, King Charles II, the newly restored monarch after years of civil war, tried to calm matters by going to a new camp of 100,000 homeless, and declaring the fire was an act of God.
The king took a very enlightened view and always believed it was an accident, says Mr Tinniswood. His brother, James, Duke of York, went even further. He rode into the city with his bodyguards and rescued people from the mob, some of whom were in the very act of being hanged on street corners.
The hunt for a foreign scapegoat continued, until one volunteered for the role. At the end of September, the parliamentary committee was appointed to investigate the fire, and a French Protestant watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed to having deliberately started the fire at the bakery with 23 conspirators.
Although his confession seemed to change and flounder under scrutiny, he was tried and hanged. Afterwards, colleagues told the inquiry Hubert had been at sea with them at the time, and the inquiry concluded the fire had indeed been an accident. No-one knows why he confessed.
Until the 19th Century, the plaque at London’s Monument stated that followers of the Pope were to blame, says Ms Horth, and named Hubert as the fire-starter. It was only after Catholic emancipation in the 19th Century that the government decided the plaque was inflammatory and had those inscriptions removed.
“This story [about it being an accident] is not necessarily the most helpful for us all to believe,” Ms Horth says. “The truth is that we will never know how it began. We now believe it was an accident but 350 years ago certain people thought differently. There are many perspectives to events and it’s up to us to understand them all.”
It’s natural the version of events told to youngsters should airbrush the gruesome details, says Meriel Jeater, curator at the Museum of London.
“The traditional view taught in schools is that it all happened as a happily-ever-after sort of story. It was a terrible disaster, but not many people died, we rebuilt the city in brick so it was fireproof, and isn’t St Paul’s pretty?
“But the more you investigate, you realise it wasn’t all like that. The dark side was that the fire burst on to the surface religious tension and paranoia about national security.”
It’s a tale with echoes today, says Ms Jeater. “When I was curating the exhibition, it wasn’t long after the 7/7 bombings and when I was reading about the reactions against Catholics and the Dutch, it struck me that there were a lot of similarities with the backlash against Muslim people after the bombing. A lot of suspicion about people living in London.
“It’s different people and different events, but I think human nature is very similar.”
3 Myths About The Great Fire Of London You Probably Believe
The Great Fire of London is a very well-known disaster, and has been researched and written about extensively ever since 1666. However, there are still some enduring myths and misconceptions that the Museum of London’s Fire! Fire! exhibition (May 2016 – April 2017) aimed to tackle.
Myth #1: The Great Fire stopped the Great Plague
This is the myth that I hear people talking about most often. They may have read it in a children’s book or heard it at school. The idea is that there was a silver lining to the tragedy of the fire, as it ended the great plague that swept the city from 1665-66. This was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in London, and killed 100,000 Londoners- about 20% of the city’s population. The fire is supposed to have wiped out London’s rats and fleas that spread the plague and burned down the insanitary houses which were a breeding ground for the disease. If anyone asks you about this, you can tell them that it’s not true. Here’s why:
▪ The Great Fire only burnt about a quarter of the urban metropolis so it could not have purged the plague from the whole city.
▪ Though the outside walls of houses rebuilt after the fire had to be built from brick, there were no major improvements to hygiene and sanitation afterwards.
▪ Many of the areas that were worst affected by the plague, such as Whitechapel, Clerkenwell and Southwark, were not destroyed by the fire.
▪ The numbers of people dying from plague were already in decline from the winter of 1665 onwards.
▪ People continued to die from plague in London after the Great Fire was over.
This myth seems to have grown up because the two catastrophes were so close together and because the Great Plague of 1665-66 was the last major outbreak of the disease in this country. We are still not sure why the plague did not return to our shores after it faded out in the 1670s but it wasn’t due to London’s 1666 fire.
Myth #2: The Great Fire spread due to the thatched roofs of London’s houses
In fact, thatch had been banned within the City of London by building regulations dating back to 1189. These rules were reinforced after a terrible fire in 1212 when an estimated 3000 people died. Shortly after this fire, the City authorities ruled that all new houses had to be roofed with tiles, shingles or boards. Any existing roofs with thatch had to be plastered. The medieval regulations appear to have been successful in preventing large-scale fires. John Stow, in his 1598 Survey of London said ‘since which time [referring to introduction of the rules], thanks be given to God, there hath not happened the like often consuming fires in this city as afore.’
By 1666, the vast majority of houses in the City would have been tiled. Even if there were a small number of thatched buildings lurking in the densely-packed streets, they were not in significant numbers to be noted as a cause of the Great Fire by 17th-century authors. The London Gazette and Rege Sincera’s Observations both Historical and Moral upon the Burning of London both mention timber buildings as a problem but not thatch. Sincera wrote about ‘ the weakness of the buildings, which were almost all of wood, which by age was grown as dry as a chip’. The London Gazette’s reporting of the disaster says it began ‘in a quarter of Town so close built with wooden pitched houses’.
How many people died during the Great Fire?
We don’t know for sure. Amazingly, fewer than ten deaths were recorded. One of the people killed was 80-year-old watchmaker Paul Lowell. He refused to leave his house on Shoe Lane even though his son & friends begged him to go. His bones & keys were found in the ruins.
Myth #3: London was rebuilt in brick & stone thanks to the Great Fire
While it is true that the February 1667 Rebuilding Act stated that ‘all the outsides of all Buildings in and about the said Citty be henceforth made of Bricke or Stone’ there were many brick buildings in London beforehand. In fact, records show that there were even brick houses on Pudding Lane, that notorious street where the fire began, before 1666.
Royal proclamations dating back over 60 years demanded that new buildings be built from brick. In March 1605 James I said that no one was to build a new house in London unless it was made from brick or stone because he wanted to reserve the country’s timber for the navy’s ships. Uptake was slow, however, and later proclamations repeated this demand several times, such as in October 1607, when King James stated that new brick or stone buildings would ‘both adorne and beautifie his said City, and be lesse subject to danger of fire’.
As these rules only applied to new houses, and appear to have only been sporadically obeyed, the Great Fire became the opportunity to enforce, re-state and refine existing rules. The disaster affected such a large area that thousands of brick houses had to be built to replace those that had been destroyed. This has left us with a false impression that the fire introduced brick to London.
The Great Fire of London Was Blamed on Religious Terrorism
Why scores of Londoners thought the fire of 1666 was all part of a nefarious Catholic conspiracy
The rumors spread faster than the blaze that engulfed London over five days in September 1666: that the fire raging through the city’s dense heart was no accident – it was deliberate arson, an act of terror, the start of a battle. England was at war with both the Dutch and the French, after all. The fire was a “softening” of the city ahead of an invasion, or they were already here, whoever “they” were. Or maybe it was the Catholics, who’d long plotted the downfall of the Protestant nation.
Londoners responded in kind.
Before the flames were out, a Dutch baker was dragged from his bakery while an angry mob tore it apart. A Swedish diplomat was nearly hung, saved only by the Duke of York who happened to see him and demand he be let down. A blacksmith “felled” a Frenchman in the street with a vicious blow with an iron bar; a witness recalled seeing his “innocent blood flowing in a plentiful stream down his ankles”. A French woman’s breasts were cut off by Londoners who thought the chicks she carried in her apron were incendiaries. Another Frenchman was nearly dismembered by a mob that thought that he was carrying a chest of bombs; the bombs were tennis balls.
“The need to blame somebody was very, very strong,” attests Adrian Tinniswood, author of By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire. The Londoners felt that “It can’t have been an accident, it can’t be God visiting this upon us, especially after the plague, this has to be an act of war.”
As far as we know, it wasn’t. The fire started in the early hours of the morning of September 2 on Pudding Lane in the bakery of Thomas Farriner. Pudding Lane was (and still is) located in the centre of the City of London, the medieval city of around one square mile ringed by ancient Roman walls and gates and rivers now covered and forgotten. Greater London built up around these walls in the years after the Romans left in the 4th century, sprawling out in all directions, but the City of London remained (and still remains) its own entity, with its own elected Mayor and home to around 80,000 people in 1666. That number would have been higher, but the Black Plague had killed roughly 15 percent of the entire city’s population the previous year.
Farriner was a maker of hard tack, the dry but durable biscuits that fed the King’s Navy; he’d closed for business on Saturday, September 1, at around 8 or 9 that night, extinguishing the fire in his oven. His daughter, Hanna, then 23, checked the kitchen at around midnight, making sure the oven was cold, then headed to bed. An hour later, the ground floor of the building was filled with smoke. The Farriners’ manservant, Teagh, raised the alarm, climbing to the upper floors where Thomas, Hanna, and their maid slept. Thomas, Hanna, and Teagh squeezed out of a window and scrambled along the gutter to a neighbor’s window. The maid, whose name remains unknown, did not and was the first to die in the fire.
At first, few were overly concerned about the fire. London was a cramped, overcrowded city lighted by candles and fireplaces. Buildings were largely made of wood; fires were common. The last major fire was in 1633, destroying 42 buildings at the northern end of London Bridge and 80 on Thames Street, but there were smaller fires all the time. The City of London’s Lord Mayor at the time, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, will ever be remembered as the man who declared that the 1666 fire was so small, “a woman might piss it out”. But Bloodworth, described by diarist Samuel Pepys as a “silly man”, wasn’t the only one to underestimate the fire: Pepys himself was woken at 3 that morning by his maid, but when he saw that the fire still seemed to be on the next street over, went back to sleep until 7. The London Gazette, the city’s twice-weekly newspaper, ran a small item about the fire in its Monday edition, among gossip about the Prince of Saxe’s unconsummated marriage to the Princess of Denmark and news of a storm in the English Channel.
A second report on the fire that week, however, was not forthcoming. Within hours of printing Monday’s paper, the Gazette’s press burned to the ground. By the time the newspaper had hit the streets, Londoners were very much aware that the fire that the Gazette reported “continues still with great violence” had yet to abate.
Several factors contributed to the fire’s slow but unstoppable spread: Many of the residents of Pudding Lane were asleep when the fire began and slow to react, not that they could have done much beyond throw buckets of whatever liquid – beer, milk, urine, water – was on hand. A hot summer had left London parched, its timber and plaster buildings like well-dried kindling. These buildings were so close together that people on opposite sides of the narrow, filthy streets could reach out their windows and shake hands. And because London was the manufacturing and trade engine of England, these buildings were also packed with flammable goods – rope, pitch, flour, brandy and wool.
But by Monday evening, Londoners began to suspect that this fire was no accident. The fire itself was behaving suspiciously; it would be subdued, only to break out somewhere else, as far as 200 yards away. This led people to believe that the fire was being intentionally set, although the real cause was an unusually strong wind that was picking up embers and depositing them all over the city.
“This wind blowing from the east was forcing the fire across the city much quicker than people were expecting,” explains Meriel Jeater, curator of the Museum of London’s “Fire! Fire! Exhibition,” commemorating the 350th anniversary of the fire. Sparks would fly up and set fire to whatever they landed on. “It seemed that suddenly, another building was on fire and it was, ‘Why did that happen?’ They didn’t necessarily think there was spark involved, or another natural cause… England was at war, so it was perhaps natural to assume that there might have been some element of foreign attack to it.”
Embers and wind didn’t feel like a satisfying or likely answer, so Londoners started to feel around for someone to blame. And they found them.
At the time, London was the third largest city in the Western world, behind Constantinople and Paris, and roughly 30 times larger than any other English town. And it was international, with trade links all over the world, including countries that it was at war with, Holland and France, and those it wasn’t entirely comfortable with, including Spain. London was also a refuge for foreign Protestants fleeing persecution in their majority Catholic homelands, including the Flemish and French Huguenots.
That people believed that the city was under attack, that the fire was the plot of either the Dutch or the French, was logical, not paranoia. The English had just burnt the Dutch port city of West-Terschelling to the ground just two weeks earlier. As soon as the fire broke out, Dutch and French immigrants were immediately under suspicion; as the fire burned, the English authorities stopped and interrogated foreigners at ports. More troubling, however, was that Londoners began to take vengeance into their own hands, says Tinniswood. “You’re not looking at a population that can distinguish between a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a Swede. If you’re not English, good enough.”
“The rumors reach a kind of crescendo on the Wednesday night when the fire is subsiding and then breaks out just around Fleet Street,” says Tinniswood. Homeless Londoners fleeing the fire were camped in the fields around the City. A rumor went up that the French were invading the city, then the cry: “Arms, arms, arms!”
“They’re traumatized, they’re bruised, and they all, hundreds and thousands of them, they take up sticks and come pouring into the city,” says Tinniswood. “It’s very real… A lot of what the authorities are doing is trying to damp down that sort of panic.”
But extinguishing the rumors proved almost as difficult as putting out the fire itself. Rumors traveled fast, for one thing: “The streets are full of people, moving their goods… They’re having to evacuate two, three, four times,” Tinniswood explains, and with each move, they’re out in the street, passing information. Compounding the problem was that there were few official ways able to contradict the rumors – not only had the newspaper’s printing press burned down, but so too did the post office. Charles II and his courtiers maintained that the fire was an accident, and though they were themselves involved in fighting the fire on the streets, there was only so much they could do to also stop the misinformation spreading. Says Tinniswood, “There’s no TV, no radio, no press, things are spread by word of mouth, and that means there must have been a thousand different rumors. But that’s the point of it: nobody knew.”
Several people judged to be foreigners were hurt during Wednesday’s riot; contemporaries were surprised that no one had been killed. The next day, Charles II issued an order, posted in places around the city not on fire, that people should “attend the business of quenching the fire” and nothing else, noting that there were enough soldiers to protect the city should the French actually attack, and explicitly stating that the fire was an act of God, not a “Papist plot”. Whether or not anyone believed him was another issue: Charles II had only been restored to his throne in 1660, 11 years after his father, Charles I, was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces. The City of London had sided with the Parliamentarians; six years later, Londoners still didn’t entirely trust their monarch.
The fire finally stopped on the morning of September 6. Official records put the number of deaths as fewer than 10, although Tinniswood and Jeater both believe that number was higher, probably more like 50. It’s still a surprisingly small number, given the huge amount of property damage: 80 percent of the city within the walls had burned, some 87 churches and 13,200 homes were destroyed, leaving 70,000 to 80,000 people homeless. The total financial loss was in the region of £9.9 million, at a time when the annual income of the city was put at only £12,000.
On September 25, 1666, the government set up a committee to investigate the fire, hearing testimony from dozens of people about what they saw and heard. Many were compelled to come forward with “suspicious” stories. The report was given to Parliament on January 22, 1667, but excerpts from the proceedings transcripts were leaked to the public, published in a pamphlet. By this time, just a few months after the fire, the narrative had changed. Demonstrably, the Dutch and the French hadn’t invaded, so blaming a foreign power was no longer plausible. But the people still wanted someone to blame, so they settled on the Catholics.
“After the fire, there seems be a lot of paranoia that is was a Catholic plot, that Catholics in London would conspire with Catholics abroad and force the Protestant population to convert to Catholicism,” Jeater explains. The struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism in England had been long and bloody, and neither side was above what amounted to terrorism: The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was, after all, an English Catholic plot to assassinate James I.
The official report issued to Parliament rejected much of the testimony as unbelievable – one committee member called the allegations “very frivolous”, and the conclusion declared there was no evidence “to prove it to be a general design of wicked agents, Papists or Frenchmen, to burn the city”. It didn’t matter: The leaked excerpts did much to solidify the story that the fire was the work of shadowy Catholic agents. For example:
William Tisdale informs, That he being about the beginning of July at the Greyhound in St. Martins, with one Fitz Harris an Irish Papist, heard him say, ‘There would be a sad Desolation in September, in November a worse, in December all would be united into one.’ Whereupon he asked him, ‘where this Desolation would be?’ He answered, ‘In London.’
Mr. Light of Ratcliff, having some discourse with Mr. Longhorn of the Middle-Temple, Barrister, [reputed a zealous Papist] about February 15 last, after some discourse in disputation about Religion, he took him by the hand, and said to him, ‘You expect great things in Sixty Six, and think that Rome will be destroyed, but what if it be London?’
“You’ve got hundreds of tales like that: With hindsight, people are saying that guy said something like, ‘London better look out’,” said Tinniswood. “It’s that kind of level, it’s that vague.”
What’s even more confusing is that by the time the testimonies were leaked, someone had already confessed to and been hung for the crime of starting the fire. Robert Hubert. a 26-year-old watchmaker’s son from Rouen, France, had been stopped at Romford, in Essex, trying to make it to the east coast ports. He was brought in for questioning and bizarrely, told authorities that he’d set the fire, that he was part of a gang, that it was all a French plot. He was indicted on felony charges, transported back to London under heavy guard and installed at the White Lion Gaol in Southwark, the City’s gaols having burned down.
In October 1666, he was brought to trial at the Old Bailey. There, Hubert’s story twisted and turned – the number of people in his gang went from 24 to just four; he’d said he’d started it in Westminster, then later, after spending some time in jail, said the bakery at Pudding Lane; other evidence suggested that he hadn’t even been in London when the fire started; Hubert claimed to be a Catholic, but everyone who knew him said he was a Protestant and a Hugeunot. The presiding Lord Chief Justice declared Hubert’s confession so “disjointed” he couldn’t possibly believe him guilty. And yet, Hubert insisted that he’d set the fire. On that evidence, the strength of his own conviction that he had done it, Hubert was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hung at Tyburn on October 29, 1666.
Why Hubert said he did it remains unclear, although there is a significant body of literature on why people confess to things they couldn’t possibly have done. Officials were in the strange position of trying to prove he hadn’t done what he said he did, but Hubert was adamant – and everyone else simply thought he was, to put it in contemporary terms, mad. The Earl of Clarendon, in his memoirs, described Hubert as a “poor distracted wretch, weary of his life, and chose to part with it this way” – in other words, suicide by confession.
Having someone to blame was certainly better than the alternative being preached from the city’s remaining pulpits: That the fire was God’s vengeance on a sinful city. They’d even named a particular sin – because the fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane and ended at Pie Corner, opportunistic preachers took the line that Londoners were gluttonous reprobates who needed to repent now. Pie Corner is still marked with a statue of a plump golden boy, formerly known as the Fat Boy, which was intended as a reminder of London’s sinning ways.
The Catholic conspiracy story persisted for years: In 1681, the local ward erected a plaque on the site of the Pudding Lane bakery reading, “Here by the permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent Hubert, who confessed…”. The plaque remained in place until the middle of the 18th century, when it was removed not because people had had a change of heart, but because visitors stopping to read the plaque were causing a traffic hazard. The plaque, which appears to have cracked in half, is on display at the Fire! Fire! exhibition. Also in 1681, a final line was added to the north-face inscription on the public monument to the fire: “But Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.” The words weren’t removed until 1830, with the Catholic Emancipation Act that lifted restrictions on practicing Catholics.
“Whenever there is a new bout of anti-Catholic sentiment, everybody harks back to the fire,” says Tinniswood. And 1681 was a big year for anti-Catholic rhetoric, prompted in part by the dragonnades in France that forced French Protestants to convert to Catholicism and, closer to home, by the so-called “Popish Plot,” a fictitious Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II entirely invented by a former Church of England curate whose false claims resulted in the executions of as many as 35 innocent people.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire of 1666, London was a smoking ruin, smoldering with suspicion and religious hatred and xenophobia. And yet within three years, the city had rebuilt. Bigotry and xenophobia subsided – immigrants remained and rebuilt, more immigrants joined them later.
But that need to blame, often the person last through the door or the person whose faith is different, never really goes away. “The outsider is to blame, they are to blame, they are attacking us, we’ve got to stop them – that kind of rhetoric is sadly is very obvious… and everywhere at the moment, and it’s the same thing, just as ill-founded,” Tinniswood said, continuing, “There is still a sense that we need to blame. We need to blame them, whoever they are.”