An hour-by-hour account of the Great Fire of London

An hour-by-hour account of the Great Fire of London, which started 350 years ago today...

How French spies burnt London to the ground... at least that's what most Britons thought when the Great Fire started 350 years ago this week. And, as this mesmerising hour-by-hour account reveals, they took savage revenge on any foreigner they caught

By Emma Craigie For The Daily Mail
2 September 2016

The summer of 1666 was hot and dry and the numbers of plague dead were rising. In the City of London, 80,000 people were crammed within a square mile. Narrow streets were jammed with carts and the upper storeys of houses jutted out so far they blocked the daylight. All this was to be destroyed by the Great Fire of London 350 years ago. Here, we tell the story of one of the most dramatic events in English history as it unfolded hour by hour.

London's burning: A drawing of the the Great Fire of London in September 1666

Saturday, September 1, 1666

8 pm: Thomas Farriner closed up his bakery on Pudding Lane, close to the Thames, just east of London Bridge.

‘Pudding’ was the medieval word for ‘offal’ and referred to the entrails and other animal waste which were taken away down the street to dung boats on the river.

Farriner would have baked in something similar to a pizza oven: a domed brick cavity, heated by burning wood laid directly on the oven floor and raked out once the space was hot enough for the baking to begin.

By evening the oven would be cold, and each night Farriner relaid the kindling ready for lighting early the next morning. On this evening, as usual, he raked over the coals in the grate of the fireplace and went to bed.

Midnight: Hanna Farriner, Thomas’s 23-year-old daughter, was the last person up. Before going upstairs to bed, she took a last look around the house and checked the bakehouse. She noticed nothing untoward.

Sunday, September 2

1 am: Thomas Farriner’s manservant, who slept on the ground floor, woke up coughing and choking. The room was full of smoke.

He managed to make his way upstairs and wake Thomas, Hanna and their maid. Their only escape route was out of a window and along the guttering to their neighbour’s window. Thomas Farriner went first. Hanna, already badly burnt, managed to follow him, as did the manservant, but the maid didn’t make it.

The Farriners’ shouts roused local people to help put out the fire, filling buckets with water from the Thames. The immediate neighbours had time to clear their property as the blaze was confined to the bakery for about an hour.

When, despite their best efforts, the flames began to spread down Pudding Lane towards the warehouses that lined the Thames, the parish constables decided to call the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth. They wanted permission to pull down nearby buildings in order to contain the fire.

Bludworth, apparently annoyed at being woken, declared he could not possibly order the destruction of houses without the agreement of the landlords, few of whom could be found in the middle of the night. In any case, Bludworth insisted, the fire was manageable: ‘A woman could p*** it out.’

The Great Fire of London near the Tower of London, watched by a huge crowd of people

Fire engines were summoned. These were heavy tanks with manual pumps that needed eight horses or 28 men to pull them through the streets.

They struggled to reach the fire as Pudding Lane was blocked by fleeing residents carrying what goods they could. By the time they arrived, the fire was so fierce their hoses couldn’t reach the heart of the blaze.

The flames were fanned by the persistent east wind and fuelled by the pitch commonly stored in basements for use in the maintenance of river vessels. We know that temperatures must have reached 1,700c, as melted pottery has been found on the site by archeologists.

The wooden waterwheels beneath London Bridge, which helped provide water for the fire engines, caught ablaze, so the engines had further problems with their water supply, and several fell into the river in the attempt to refill their tanks.

3 am: A quarter of a mile away, in a house in Seething Lane beside the Tower of London, the household maids were up late preparing for a special Sunday dinner.

When they finally went to bed, they saw the glow of a great fire in the City from their attic window.

One of the maids, Jane Birch, rushed to wake the master and mistress of the house, Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys. Samuel slipped on his nightgown and went up to the maids’ room to look. He judged the blaze far enough away and went back to bed and to sleep.

After being alerted to the fire, Samuel Pepys judged the blaze far enough away and went back to bed and to sleep

7 am: When Pepys got up, it looked to him as if the fire had died down. It was an illusion of daylight and Jane Birch soon had word from the street that 300 houses had been destroyed and that Fish Street, the main thoroughfare leading north from London Bridge, was alight.

Before 8 am: Pepys walked the short distance to the Tower of London, where he climbed the battlements to get a good view over the city. The sight shocked him. Not only was Fish Street alight, but so were the two churches that stood at the entrance to London Bridge.

The warehouses of Thames Street were ablaze and all the houses that lined the bridge.

The fire stretched about a quarter of a mile west from Pudding Lane. As he looked out over the city, Pepys saw flames licking the steeple of St Laurence Pountney — one of the highest points on the skyline. Within minutes, the great spire came crashing to the ground.

About 8 am:
Pepys, who worked in the Admiralty, took a boat up river to Whitehall to inform the King. He was ushered straight into a meeting with Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York.

They ordered him to instruct Mayor Bludworth to start the demolition of buildings to limit the spread of the fire. They also offered troops, should this measure fail.

Later that morning: Pepys set off back to the city by coach in search of Lord Mayor Bludworth, whom he found in an office in Cannon Street, ‘like a man spent’. Bludworth had a handkerchief around his neck, and when Pepys gave him the King’s message, ‘he cried like a fainting woman’. Bludworth insisted he was already doing everything that could be done and that . . . ‘he needed no more soldiers; and that he must go and refresh himself . . .’ which he promptly did.

Rumours were flying around London that the fire was not an accident, but an act of terrorism by foreign enemies — most likely, the Roman Catholic French.

Fourteen-year-old William Taswell, a pupil at Westminster School, was horrified to witness a brutal attack on ‘an innocent Frenchman walking along the street’.

A blacksmith ‘felled him to the ground with an iron bar. I could not help seeing the innocent blood of this exotic flowing in a plentiful stream down to his ancles (sic)’.

Early afternoon: Charles II and the Duke of York set off downstream in a barge to see the fire for themselves. They were horrified by the enormity of the damage.

Charles summoned a former Lord Mayor, Sir Richard Browne, and instructed him to begin the demolition of buildings between the fire and the Tower of London.

It was essential to prevent the fire reaching the Tower as it held huge quantities of gun powder.

That evening, Samuel Pepys sat with his wife in an alehouse on the South Bank, not far from London Bridge, from where they watched the fire grow.

‘As far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire . . . a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruine,’ he wrote.

Samuel wept. Eventually, he and his wife set off back across the river to their home, ‘with a sad heart’.

Another illustration of the Great Fire of London in September 1666 shows burning buildings beside the Thames River

The fire had already destroyed 1,000 homes and businesses, nine churches, 22 alleys and wharves, and six Livery company halls.

About 11 pm: As the sound of the fire grew louder, Samuel Pepys started packing up the family goods for removal.

He moved his iron chests and money into the cellar, and his paintings and furniture into the garden ‘by mooneshine’. Pepys then began to panic that the garden would not be safe enough when he learnt that his neighbour was taking his goods to the country.

Monday, September 3

4 am: Still wearing his nightgown, Pepys left his house by cart, bearing all their belongings to the safety of a house in Bethnal Green.

Even at this hour, the roads out of London were packed with people fleeing the city.

Later that morning: Charles II decided to intervene more forcefully, so he put his brother James, the Duke of York, in charge of the fire-fighting efforts.

James set up command posts along the perimeter of the fire, giving his courtiers instructions to press-gang firefighters and reward those who stayed in post with a shilling a night — a huge sum.

The exodus continued all day. Many people set up makeshift camps on Moorfields, the large public gardens just north of the city.

With almost all shops destroyed or closed, there was a shortage of food and drink.

As the conflagration spread, so did the attacks on foreigners. A member of the Portuguese ambassador’s household was beaten up by a mob.

A young man was thrown in Bridewell prison because he looked like a Frenchman.

The teenage William Taswell heard rumours that 4,000 French were about to set upon London and spread the fire. Many in the city and the suburbs were arming themselves in readiness for this attack.

About 9 pm: Back home in Seething Lane, Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys ate cold left-overs. They’d had no sleep the previous night, and now had no furniture, so they lay down in Samuel’s office upon a quilt belonging to his manservant, William Hewer.

Tuesday, September 4

5 pm: The fire had reached the east side of medieval St Paul’s Cathedral — a vast symbolic landmark in the city, longer than today’s cathedral and 120 ft taller. It could be seen for miles.

The Duke of York moved on to the northern edge of the fire to oversee the destruction of houses in Holborn.

Londoners try to escape burning buildings as The Great Fire cut a swathe through the city

Charles II joined his brother at the pumps and both men stood for hours in ankle-deep water. Day was now as dark as night, under a vast cloud of smoke and dust, and the ground shook with explosions. One nobleman, Lord Berkeley, had begun using the gunpowder at the Tower of London to blow up the houses along Tower Street.

Just after sunset, young William Taswell went down to the Thames at Westminster, where he had a view downriver of the City. He could see how close the fire was to St Paul’s, and was transfixed.

About 8 pm: Samuel Pepys buried his wine and parmesan cheese in his garden. He ‘supped’ with neighbours ‘on a shoulder of mutton . . . without any napkin or anything, in a sad manner, but were merry’.

From time to time they went out into the garden to look at the sky, which was all on fire and ‘enough to put us out of our wits; and indeed it was extremely dreadful — for it looks just as if . . . the whole heaven [was] on fire’.

9 pm: The fire had taken hold and St Paul’s Cathedral was burning so brightly that by its light Taswell was able to read a small edition of the Latin plays of Terence, which he carried in his pocket.

Wednesday, September 5

2 am: Elizabeth Pepys, laying for a second night on their manservant William Hewer’s quilt on the floor of her husband’s office, was woken by cries of ‘Fire!’

Barking church at the bottom of Seething Lane was alight. The household leapt out of bed and Samuel ordered a boat to take his wife, his gold and his servants to Woolwich. ‘But Lord, what a sad sight it was by moonlight to see the whole city almost on fire.’

7 am: Samuel Pepys returned home, expecting to find his house burnt to the ground. But, it was not. Luckily, the fire in nearby Barking church had petered out. The wind had finally dropped.

About 4 pm: Samuel Pepys walked to Moorfields to see the encampment. He bought himself a drink and a penny loaf, which cost two pence. The people camping in the great park were wretched, huddled over their few possessions and miserable with hunger. Few of the displaced Londoners could afford the inflated prices.

Evening: The Duke of York decided the worst was over. Having checked every post was manned for the night, he returned exhausted to his rooms in Whitehall. But 70,000 people had no rooms to return to.

Thursday, September 6

6.30 am: At dawn, William Taswell set off to see the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral. The ground was so hot that the 14-year-old scorched his shoes, and the air was so hot he had to rest at Fleet Bridge, feeling faint and overcome.

When Taswell reached St Paul’s, he was in ‘violent emotion’. He was shocked by the sight of melted metal, which he assumed had come from the great bells, but may well have been lead from the roof.

An illustration of people fleeing the Great Fire of London in September 1666

The building was very unstable, and William was almost crushed by falling masonry as he climbed over the ruins.

He came upon the body of an old woman, ‘whole as to skin, meagre as to flesh, yellow as to colour’.

He loaded his pockets with pieces of metal, helped himself to a sword and a helmet, and returned to school.

Later that day: Charles II rode out to the public encampment at Moorfields and made a speech to the crowds. He assured them the fire had been caused by an accident and not by a foreign plot.

As the King spoke, the clear-up operation was beginning. The teams of firefighters were joined by local residents in clearing rubble and smouldering timbers.

The people who were camping in the green fields of London began to move on to find places to stay in the outskirts of the city and in the villages beyond.

The tally of destruction was 13,500 houses, 87 churches, 44 Company Halls, three city gates, the city’s prisons, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House and St Paul’s Cathedral.

The human casualties recorded, though, are amazingly low, with fewer than ten people known to have died.

The figure is undoubtedly an underestimate, as some bodies would have been incinerated, and in the chaos of the dispersal of so many citizens, human loss was hard to count.

Nonetheless, death by smoke inhalation was much rarer before the invention of plastics.

The people of London were, of course, traumatised. Elizabeth Pepys’s hair fell out and Samuel suffered from recurrent nightmares, headaches and stomach aches. And these were people who lost almost nothing in the fire.

Read more: Hour-by-hour account of how the Great Fire of London unfolded 350 years ago | Daily Mail Online
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Ten lesser-known facts about the Great Fire of London...

10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Great Fire of London

One of the most famous disasters in London’s history, the Great Fire of 1666 devastated the heart of England’s capital, destroying more than 13,000 houses and badly damaging landmarks including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Exchange. But how much do you really know about the blaze? Writer Rebecca Rideal, author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire, shares 10 lesser-known facts…

Friday 2nd September 2016
Rebecca Rideal
BBC History Magazine

Great Fire of London, September 1666. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

On 5 September 1666, the 33-year-old Samuel Pepys climbed the steeple of the ancient church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower and was met with the “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning”. Leaving the church, he wandered along Gracechurch Street, Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street towards the Royal Exchange, which he found to be “a sad sight” with all the pillars and statues (except one of Sir Thomas Gresham) destroyed. The ground scorched his feet and he found nothing but dust, ash and ruins. It was the fourth day of the Great Fire of London and, though some parts of the city would continue to burn for months, the worst of the destruction was finally over.

Thanks in part to Pepys’s vivid diary entries, the story of the Great Fire is well known. Alongside the fortunes of Henry VIII’s wives, the Battle of Britain and the fate of Guy Fawkes, it forms part of a scattering of familiar islands in the muddy quagmire of British history. We all know, roughly speaking, what happened: during the early hours of 2 September 1666, a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse on Pudding Lane, which blazed and spread with such ferocity and speed that within a few days the old City of London was reduced to a charred ruin. More than 13,000 houses, 87 churches and 44 livery halls were destroyed, the historic city gates were wrecked, and the Guildhall, St Paul’s Cathedral, Baynard’s Castle and the Royal Exchange were severely damaged – in some cases, beyond repair.

Those with more than a passing knowledge of the crucial facts might be aware of accounts of King Charles II fighting the fire alongside his brother, the Duke of York; of Samuel Pepys taking pains to bury his prized parmesan cheese; or of the French watchmaker Robert Hubert meeting his death at Tyburn after (falsely) claiming to have started the blaze. Here are 10 more facts you may not know about the Great Fire of London…

1) It did not start on Pudding Lane

Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse was not located on Pudding Lane proper. Hearth Tax records created just before the fire place Farriner’s bakehouse on Fish Yard, a small enclave off Pudding Lane. His immediate neighbours included a waterbearer named Henry More, a sexton [a person who looks after a church and churchyard] named Thomas Birt, the parish ‘clearke’, a plasterer named George Porter, one Alice Spencer, a widow named Mrs Mary Whittacre, and a turner named John Bibie.

Billingsgate, London, pictured in 1598. Until boundary changes in 2003, the ward included Pudding Lane. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

2) The Great Fire of London was not Thomas Farriner’s first brush with trouble

In 1627, the then 10- or 11-year-old Thomas Farriner was discovered by a city constable wandering alone within the city walls, having run away from his master [it is not known why he had a master at this time]. He was detained at Bridewell Prison, where the incident was recorded in the book of minutes.

During the 17th century, Bridewell (a former Tudor palace) was a kind of proto-correctional facility where young waifs and strays would often be sent to receive a rudimentary education, many of them then cherry-picked to become apprentices to the prison’s patrons.

During the boy’s hearing, it transpired that he had attempted to run away from his master three or four times previously. Farriner was released, only to be detained once more in 1628 for the same reason. A year later he was apprenticed as a baker under one Thomas Dodson.

3) Far from levelling the city, the Great Fire of London scorched the skin and flesh from the city’s buildings – but their skeletons remained

The ruins of many of London’s buildings had to be demolished before rebuilding work could begin. A sketch from 1673 by Thomas Wyck shows the extent of the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral that remained. John Evelyn described the remaining stones as standing upright, fragile and “calcined”.

What’s more, the burning lasted months, not days: Pepys recorded that cellars were still burning in March of the following year. With plenty of nooks and crannies to commandeer, gangs operated among the ruins, pretending to offer travellers a ‘link’ (escorted passage) – only to rob them blind and leave them for dead. Many of those who lost their homes and livelihood to the fire built temporary shacks on the ruins of their former homes and shops until this was prohibited.

Old St Paul's Cathedral burning in the Great Fire of London, 1666. By Wenceslaus Hollar. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

4) At the time of the Great Fire, England was engaged in a costly war with the Dutch Republic and was gearing up for one last battle

The conflict, known as the Second Anglo-Dutch War, was the second of three 17th-century maritime wars to be fought between the English and the Dutch over transatlantic trade supremacy. By September 1666 there had already been five major engagements: the battle of Lowestoft (1665); the battle of Vĺgen (1665); the Four Days’ Battle (1666); St James’s Day Battle (1666); and Holmes’s Bonfire (1666).

In the confusion of the blaze, some believed that the Great Fire of London had been started by Dutch merchants in retaliation for the last of these engagements – a vicious raid on the Dutch islands of Vlieland and Terschelling – which had occurred barely a month earlier. That attack had been orchestrated by Sir Robert Holmes (renowned for his short fuse and unpredictable nature) and resulted in the destruction of an estimated 150 Dutch merchant ships and, crucially, the torching of the town of West-Terschelling.

While the attack was celebrated with bonfires and bells in London, it appalled the Dutch, and there was rioting in Amsterdam. Aphra Behn – at that time an English spy stationed in Antwerp – wrote how she had seen a letter from a merchant’s wife “that desires her husband to com [sic] to Amsterdam home for that theare [sic] never was so great a desolation & mourning”. Behn was supposed to travel to Dort to continue her espionage, but declared that she “dare as well be hang’d as go”.

5) Though we do not know exactly how many people died as a result of the Great Fire of London, it was almost certainly more than commonly accepted figures

In the traditional telling of the Great Fire story, the human cost is negligible. Indeed, only a few years after the blaze, Edward Chamberlayne claimed that “not above six or eight persons were burnt,” and an Essex vicar named Ralph Josselin noted that “few perished in the flames.” There was undoubtedly enough warning to ensure that a large proportion of London’s population vacated hazardous areas, but for every sick person helped out of their house, there must have been others with no one to aid them. What’s more, parish records hint at a far greater death toll than previously supposed.

At the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, for example, the number of burials increased by a third (presumably a result of citizens from destroyed parishes using this surviving church). Interestingly, there was a disproportionate rise (by two-thirds) in the number of deaths due to being “aged” and an increase in deaths attributed to “fright”. Likewise, the parish records of St Boltoph Bishopsgate show that the mean age at the time of death rose by an astonishing 12 years, from 18.3 to 31.3. This suggests either that older people were more likely to die in the month of September or that, in an age in which infanticide was rife, the deaths of young infants were not being recorded – perhaps even both.

The diarist John Evelyn certainly believed that the foul smell in the air at the time of the fire was caused by the bodies, beds and other combustible goods of “some poor creatures”, and the poet John Dryden – who, it must be said, was out of London at the time – wrote of “helpless infants left amidst the fire”. When reports reached France, a substantial loss of life was implied: “The letters from London speak of the terrible sights of persons burned to death and calcined limbs, making it easy to believe the terror though it cannot be exactly described. The old, tender children and many sick and helpless persons were all burned in their beds and served as fuel for the flames.”

6) Louis XIV of France offered to help

It took more than a week for news of the fire to reach the French royal court in Paris, but when it did there was talk of little else. The Venetian ambassador in the French capital declared that “this accident… will be memorable through all the centuries.”

Privately, Louis XIV must have been thrilled. It was wrongly believed that the fire had destroyed England’s magazine stores and that the English navy would be forced to retire. Because of a 1662 treaty with the Dutch Republic, France had been obliged to enter the Anglo-Dutch War on the side of the Dutch, but the French king had neither the appetite nor the navy to play an active role.

Louis XIV publicly ordered that he would not tolerate “any rejoicings about it [the Great Fire], being such a deplorable accident involving injury to so many unhappy people”, and offered to send aid in the shape of food provisions and anything else that might be required to relieve the suffering of those left destitute.

King Louis XIV of France, c1690. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

7) There had been a genuine plot to burn the City of London

In April 1666, a group of parliamentarians led by John Rathbone and William Saunders were tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Charles II, overthrow government and fire the City of London, letting down the portcullis to keep out assistance. The trial was recorded in the London Gazette, which revealed that the plotters purportedly had the support of a conspirator in Holland and had planned to execute their “Hellish design” on the anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s death, 3 September.

8 ) People let their imaginations run away with them

By 6 September, news of the fire had travelled as far as Berwick, where local soldiers claimed that they had seen visions of “ships in the air”. Reporting the phenomenon back to Whitehall, one Mr Scott assured his contact that he believed it to have just been their imaginations. As he travelled across Wiltshire to gather more information about the fire, Bulstrode Whitelocke bumped into his friend Sir Seymour Pyle who had “had too much wine”. Pyle claimed that there had been a huge fight between 60,000 Presbyterians and the militia, which had resulted in the death and imprisonment of 30,000 rebels. Whitelocke soon discovered that Pyle had been “drunke & swearing & lying att almost every word”.

London Bridge on fire during the Great Fire of London, 1666. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

9) The Great Fire of London was predicted

A few weeks before the fire, one Mr Light claimed to have been asked by a “zealous Papist”: “You expect great things in ’66, and think that Rome will be destroyed, but what if it be London?”

Meanwhile, five months before the fire Elizabeth Styles claimed to have been told by a Frenchman that at some point between June and October there would not be “a house left between Temple Bar and London Bridge”.

In 1651, an astrologer named William Lilly created a pamphlet entitled Monarchy or No Monarchy that contained illustrative predictions of the future state of England. The images depicted not only a city blazing with fire, but scenes of naval warfare, infestations of rodents, mass death and starvation. Unsurprisingly, Lilly was called in for questioning following the fire of 1666.

10) The Great Fire wasn’t the only blaze in London in 1666

London was thrown into a panic during the evening of 9 November when a fire broke out in the Horse Guard House, next to Whitehall Palace. It was believed that the blaze had been caused by a candle falling into some straw. According to Samuel Pepys, the whole city was put on alarm by the “horrid great fire” and a lady even fell into fits of fear. With drums beating and guards running up and down the streets, by 10pm the fire was extinguished, with little damage caused.

Rebecca Rideal is a specialist factual television producer and writer whose credits include The Adventurers’ Guide to Britain, Bloody Tales of the Tower and David Attenborough’s First Life. She runs the online magazine The History Vault and is currently studying for her PhD on Restoration London during the Great Plague and the Great Fire at University College London.

Her latest book, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire (John Murray, 2016), is out now.

10 facts about the Great Fire of London | History Extra
Last edited by Blackleaf; Sep 3rd, 2016 at 07:36 AM..

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