London's Burning: The Great Fire

By Bruce Robinson

In September 1666 the heart of England's capital, the City of London (now London's financial district), was devastated by fire. Everyone knows the Great Fire of London started in a baker's shop in the aptly named Pudding Lane, but was it an accident or a pernicious Catholic plot?


Late summer, 1666: London was an emotional and physical tinderbox. Following decades of political and religious upheaval, the restoration in 1660 of the Protestant Charles II ensured that suspicion lingered around republicans and Catholics alike. With the country also at war with the French and Dutch, paranoid xenophobia - a familiar English trait - was rife.

Fires in London were common, even inevitable, given the capital's largely timber construction. Yet for years there had been warnings of London's total destruction by fire: in 1559 Daniel Baker had predicted London's destruction by 'a consuming fire'. In April 1665, Charles had warned the Lord Mayor of London of the danger caused by the narrow streets and overhanging timber houses. Furthermore, a long, hot summer had left London dry and drought had depleted water reserves.

Yet the greatest fear among Londoners was not fire. Plague had killed over 68,000 people in the previous two years. Although Charles II had returned to Whitehall in February 1666, London remained unsafe, with death carts still commonplace. What worried inhabitants most was the strong east wind. This, combined with the dry, dusty air, was known to be particularly effective in carrying plague. It would prove as equally efficient as fire in taking lives.

London's burning

Thus by September 1666, all that was required was a spark. This was provided at the house of Thomas Farynor, the king's baker in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. At 2.00am on Sunday 2nd September his workman smelled smoke and woke the household. The family fled across the nearby roofs, leaving only a maid, too scared to run, who soon became the first of the four listed casualties of the fire.

With only narrow streets dividing wooden buildings, the fire took hold rapidly, and within an hour the Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, had been woken with the news. He was unimpressed, declaring that 'A woman might piss it out'. Yet by dawn London Bridge was burning: an open space on the bridge, separating two groups of buildings, had acted as a firebreak in 1632. It did so again: only a third of the bridge was burned, saving Southwark from destruction and confining the fire to the City of London, on the north bank.

Samuel Pepys lived nearby and on Sunday morning walked to the Tower of London. There he saw the fire heading west, fanned by the wind, and described 'pigeons... hovering about the windows and balconies till they burned their wings and fell down'. With Bloodworth dithering, Pepys went to Whitehall, informing the King and his brother James, Duke of York, of the situation. Although Charles II immediately ordered Bloodworth to destroy as many houses as necessary to contain the fire, early efforts to create firebreaks were overcome by the strength of the wind, which enabled the fire to jump gaps of even twenty houses. By the end of Sunday the fire had begun to travel against the wind, towards the Tower, and Pepys had begun to pack.

By the following dawn, the fire was raging north and west, and panic reigned. The Duke of York took control of efforts to stop the fire, with militias summoned from neighbouring counties to help the fight, and stop looting. But the flames continued relentlessly, devouring Gracechurch Street, Lombard Street, the Royal Exchange, and heading towards the wealthy area of Cheapside. By mid afternoon the smoke could be seen from Oxford, and Londoners had begun to flee to the open spaces of Moorfields and Finsbury Hill.


By nightfall the streets were jammed with the carts of fleeing Londoners, and the fire was heading down Watling Lane, towards St Paul's Cathedral. The next day saw the greatest destruction. Both the King and the Duke of York were immersed in the battle against the fire, which was contained until late afternoon, when it jumped over the break at Mercers' Hall and began to consume Cheapside, London's widest and wealthiest street. While Pepys was busy evacuating his house - digging a pit in which he buried 'a parmazan cheese as well as my wine and some other things' - he had an inspiration. 'Blowing up houses... stopped the fire when it was done, bringing down the houses in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it'.

Although demolition began to take effect in the east, in the west the fire had destroyed Newgate and Ludgate prisons, and was travelling along Fleet Street towards Chancery Lane. It was visible as far away as Enfield, embers were falling on Kensington, and flames surrounded St Paul's Cathedral, covered in scaffolding. This caught fire, soon followed by the timber roof beams. The lead roof melted and flowed down Ludgate Hill, and stones exploded from the building. Within a few hours the Cathedral was a ruin.

This marked the height of the inferno. On Wednesday morning the fire reached a brick wall - literally - at Middle Temple and at Fetter Lane. Workers took the opportunity to pull down more buildings and widen the break. At the same time, the wind slackened and changed direction, turning south and blowing the fire onto itself and into the river. In the north, it was being checked at Smithfield and Holborn Bridge, and the Mayor, finally useful, was directing demolition in Cripplegate.

The aftermath

By Thursday the fire was effectively extinguished, having destroyed 373 acres of the City - from the Tower in the East to Fleet Street and Fetter Lane in the West - and burning around 13,200 houses, 84 churches and 44 company halls. Officially, only four people died, but John Evelyn referred in his diary to 'the stench that came from some poor creatures' bodies' and the true toll is likely to have been much higher, rising further in the following months.

The fire beaten, London's full attention could turn to the question of blame. Hysteria had raged as fiercely as the flames, as frightened fingers fell on foreigners. On Sunday a schoolboy, William Taswell, had seen 'the ignorant and deluded mob... [venting] forth their rage against the Roman Catholics and Frenchmen' and his brother saw 'a Frenchman almost dismembered'. The King's Guard assaulted strangers for speaking poor English, and everywhere there was 'a great alarm of French and Dutch being risen', as Pepys reported.

The Spanish Ambassador opened his house to all foreigners in fear of their lives - Protestant Dutch as well as Catholic French - as religious bigotry and xenophobia, born in the Reformation and raised by the Gunpowder Plot, surfaced again.

On Thursday, Charles travelled to Moorfields to address the 100,000 people made homeless, one sixth of London's population. He declared that the fire had not been started by foreign powers or subversives, but had been an act of God. Few were convinced. A scapegoat was needed: the more foreign, the better. The wait was not a long one.

The Parliamentary investigation

At the end of September, a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to investigate the fire. During the investigation a French Protestant watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed to having deliberately started the fire at the bakery with 23 conspirators. His colleagues claimed he was unbalanced and the details of his confession changed as flaws were continually unearthed. The Earl of Clarendon commented that 'Neither the judges, nor any present at the trial did believe him guilty; but that he was a poor distracted wretch, weary of his life, and chose to part with it'. He was helped by a jury - that included three Farynors - and was hanged at Tyburn.

The Parliamentary committee reported in January 1667 that 'nothing hath yet been found to argue it to have been other than the hand of God upon us, a great wind, and the season so very dry'. Yet with Farynor declaring - as expected - that his ovens had been completely extinguished on the night in question, the committee was as widely believed as the Warren Report, and the cause of the fire became the grassy knoll of late seventeenth century conspiracy theorists. In 1678, during the Popish Plot, Titus Oates declared that Jesuit priests were to set fire to the city, prompting a Commons resolution declaring that 'the City of London was burnt in the year 1666 by the Papists... to introduce arbitrary power and Popery into this Kingdom'. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth, rebelling against the new King, the Catholic James II, accused him of deliberately starting the fire. It was not until 1831 that the inscription on the fire's commemorative Monument, blaming 'the treachery and malice of the Popish faction', was removed. An inferno caused by a forgetful baker, fuelled by a strong wind and indecisive leadership, was blamed on Catholics for over 150 years.

Sex, Lice and Chamber Pots in Pepys' London

By Liza Picard

Do you want to know what people ate and drank in Restoration (late 1600s) London? Or what they wore and how they amused themselves? Apply to S. Pepys. He was a serious, career-minded civil servant for most of the working day, but as soon as his duties were done - and sometimes sooner - he had fun. Providentially for us, he wrote it all down.....


Diary extract
20th October 1660 'This morning one came to me to advise with me where to make me a window into my cellar in lieu of one that Sir W Batten had stopped up; and going down my cellar to look, I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me; but I will have it helped.'
Background information
London had had sewers for centuries but they only carried surface water. Excrement went into the cesspit under the house or in the garden, and was - in theory - regularly emptied. There was a system for rubbish collection, but somehow there were always dead dogs and cats, and food refuse, and an overwhelming amount of animal faeces in the streets.
Water had to be bought from watercarriers unless you were so poor that you collected your own from the river or one of the few public wells, or so rich that you subscribed to a private water company such as the New River. Their mains were made of elm trunks, and the domestic supply pipes were lead. The supply ran only a few hours at a time, so you had to store your water in lead tanks. No wonder it tasted foul, but it sufficed for boiling meat, and for very limited personal ablutions (Samuel Pepys was sure he caught a cold by washing his feet). Household washing used lye made from ashes and urine.


Diary extract
4th May 1662 '...Mr Holliard came to me and let me blood, about 16 ounces, I being exceedingly full of blood, and very good. I begun to be sick; but lying upon my back, I was presently well again and did give him 5s for his pains; and so we parted.'
Background information
Blood-letting had been recommended for centuries. According to the ancient Greeks, there were four 'humours' - blood, choler, and two sorts of bile - which needed to be balanced against each other. Blood-letting dealt with the first. The others might call for enemas, laxatives, and pills made of rare items such as the saliva of a fasting man and the moss that grows on an unburied skull, as well as commonplace snails and woodlice. Fashionable physicians could advise, apothecaries could dispense, surgeons could deal with minor ailments, the local wise woman might help, but they all cost money. Magic might work better, Samuel Pepys attributed his good health to wearing a hare's foot around his neck.
For the poor, there were hospitals. St Bartholomew's in Smithfield and St Thomas's south of the river provided basic care, mostly limited to rest and food. The state of medical knowledge was still primitive. There was no antisepsis, no anaesthetic except drink and opium, and little knowledge of human physiology. The only surgical intervention was to remove bladder stones, a painful and common complaint. Samuel Pepys was operated on in 1658, and celebrated his survival every year


Diary extract
13th October 1660 'I went out to Charing Cross to see Major-Generall Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered - which was done there - he looking as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down and his head and his heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.'
Background information
There was nothing a 17th century crowd liked better than a good execution. If there was nothing happening at Tyburn it might be fun to go and see the lunatics in Bedlam (the place where today's famous "God, it's like Bedlam in here" originates). There would certainly be blood and guts enjoyably spilt at the bear-baiting or bull-baiting on the south bank.
But for the faint-hearted, the animals in the royal menagerie in the Tower of London were worth seeing. Men could patronise the new coffee-houses, or the floating brothel thinly disguised as a restaurant, opposite Somerset House. Both sexes could enjoy walking in the royal parks, or taking a boat trip up the river, or going to the newly-opened theatres and watching actresses for the first time.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Nov 16th, 2006 at 03:05 PM..