Next year will mark the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which swept across a third of the capital, destroyed 13,000 houses and 87 churches.
The Great Fire of London started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane at about 1am on Sunday, 2 September, 1666. Storm winds, dry weather and the combustible goods stored in the Pudding Lane area helped the fire to grow into an inferno that seemed unstoppable. Over the next four days, the fire consumed 80 per cent of the medieval City of London and a portion of its suburbs to the west of the City wall.
The fire spread mostly westward and northward until, by Wednesday, 5 September, it had burnt all the way from Tower Street in the east to Temple in the west. Even the Fleet River had not stopped it – the high winds carried sparks over the water on Tuesday morning and set fire to Salisbury Court, where Samuel Pepys had been born in 1633. Throughout Tuesday the fire claimed Fleet Street and St Bride’s church. The unfortunate vicar of St Bride’s, Paul Boston, had only taken up his post two weeks beforehand.
Pie Corner, at the junction of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane near Smithfield Market, was one of the places where the fire was halted on Tuesday night. A legend grew up that the fire started at Pudding Lane and ended at Pie Corner, though it actually continued to burn and spread in other areas for the next day.
The fire was seen by some as a punishment from God for the sin of gluttony, spreading as it did from ‘Pudding’ to ‘Pie’, so in the 18th century the figure of a fat boy was put up at Pie Corner on the Fortune of War tavern in commemoration of the disaster. The figure’s inscription included the words ‘occasion’d by the sin of gluttony’ across his rotund belly. The tavern was demolished in 1910 but the figure still remains on the current building. The boy has been gilded since he was first made and the inscription is now on the wall beneath him.
Temple was the scene of frantic fire-fighting efforts as the Duke of York and a team of soldiers, sailors and volunteers tried to prevent the fire from spreading along the Strand towards the royal palace of Whitehall. Many people who lived in the various buildings in the Temple area were lawyers who were away for the summer vacation.
This view of the Fire (circa 1666) is taken from the west. In the far distance on the right-hand side is London Bridge. (Museum of London)
An 18th century (1791) engraving of the ‘Fat Boy’ of Pie Corner. (Museum of London)
Their rooms were locked and so their belongings could not be saved from the fire. Robert Flatman wrote a letter to his barrister brother Thomas to tell him what had happened. He writes “I am not able to express without horror the great progress of the fire” and then “your Chamber in the Temple is down, but your books are safe”. It seems Thomas at least had not lost everything. This letter will be displayed in the forthcoming exhibition, alongside other poignant letters from Great Fire eyewitnesses.
The fire was seen as a punishment from God
On Wednesday, 5 September, the storm winds lessened and the fire-fighters, working hard on the western side of the city, began to get control of the blaze. Firebreaks to prevent the fire spreading were created by pulling down houses with huge hooks or blowing them up with gunpowder. The fire was extinguished at Fetter Lane, Shoe Lane, Holborn Bridge and Smithfield. It was too late for Paul Lowell, an 80-year-old watchmaker from Shoe Lane who had refused to leave his home. His bones and keys were found in the ruins. Mr Lowell’s sad demise is one of only six deaths recorded from the Great Fire of London.
The Great Fire made tens of thousands of people homeless and many fled to the fields around London. John Evelyn described the scene of Londoners camping out “some under tents, others under miserable huts and hovels… reduced to extremist misery and poverty”. The fire had also destroyed shops and market places so there was a real risk of London running out of food. On 5 and 6 September King Charles II issued proclamations containing measures to help the refugees, including the setting up of temporary markets at Clerkenwell, Islington, Finsbury Fields, Mile End Green, Ratcliff, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall.
One of the aims of the new exhibition at the Museum of London is to debunk some of the myths about the Great Fire. The most common of these is the idea that it ended the Great Plague of 1665 by cleansing the city of the rats and fleas responsible for spreading the disease and the insanitary houses that people lived in. In fact, the areas of London worst hit by plague were not those that burnt in the Great Fire. The most plague-ridden parts were those that ended up accommodating large numbers of refugees after the fire, such as Southwark, Whitechapel and Clerkenwell.
So Clerkenwell had to cope with the aftermath of the Great Fire, even if most of the neighbourhood was lucky enough to escape the flames.
Fire! Fire! will open at the Museum of London on 23 July, 2016
GREAT FIRE FACTS
(The blaze also led to a few 17th century myths)
• The first casualty was the maid who lived above the Pudding Lane bakery of Thomas Farriner.
• There were (false) rumours the fire was deliberately started by the Dutch or the French.
• Frenchman Robert Hubert confessed and was hanged, though he was not in London at the time.
• Despite the hapless Hubert’s contradictory evidence, a relieved Thomas Farriner signed the confession as true.
• Three months later a Parliamentary investigation found that the fire had been an accident.
•There’s been a law against thatched buildings in London ever since. In 1997, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre needed special permission.
• Sir Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire is 202ft tall, because it stands that distance from where the fire started.
• In 1986, the Company of Bakers unveiled a plaque to commemorate the fire in Pudding Lane.
• In 1212, London also suffered a severe fire that killed more than 3,000 people.
With his candour and skilled reporting, Samuel Pepys left a remarkable record of the 1660s. Andre Paine explores the life of the Clerkenwell-born diarist who gave us a vivid account of the Great Fire of London.
Pepys was born in 1633, in Salisbury Court, Fleet Street, and baptised at St Bride’s. At 15, he witnessed the first of several momentous historical episodes: the execution of Charles I. Pepys went to Cambridge, where he was a typical student who was reprimanded for drunkenness. In the early pages of his diary, the sociable Pepys even describes going “clubbing” with government colleagues in taverns.
Pepys owed his career advancement to his father’s cousin, Edward Montagu, later Earl of Sandwich. He later overlooked the fact that Montagu had apparently invited Pepys’s wife, Elizabeth, to be his mistress (she declined). The couple married in 1655, when Pepys was still living in one room of Montagu’s Whitehall lodgings. There was an early separation, though they remained together – childless – until her death (probably of typhoid) at 29 in 1669.
Pepys risked his own premature death with an operation, in 1658, for a painful kidney stone. It was removed by Thomas Hollier, surgeon at St Bartholomew’s. Pepys resolved to celebrate on every anniversary of the operation, though he did suffer some long-term complications.
The diary was started on 1 January, 1660, with a description of his domestic life. It’s not known exactly why he began the diary, though he was aware that his master kept a journal. Following his operation, there may also have been the sense that fate had singled him out for some COMspecial role. He had already found his voice as a writer in letters to Montagu, who was General at Sea, describing the political uncertainty in 1659 ahead of the Restoration.
Pepys would write up the diary every few days (in shorthand, to protect it from curious eyes) from a rough draft. The entries were vivid and full of candour, which is why the diary remains such a vital historical account. Pepys’s disciplined record reveals his jealousies, affairs and domestic rows, as well as his enjoyment of wine, music and plays.
The diary covers 1660 to 1669, when Pepys had a ringside seat of English politics and the reign of Charles II. He sailed with Montagu to the Netherlands to bring back the king in May 1660. The diarist recorded that the king’s dog defecated on the boat “which made us laugh and me think that a king and all that belong to him are but just as others are”.
Montagu received the earldom of Sandwich, and he promptly appointed Pepys to the post of Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Board. The Pepys household moved to Seething Lane, near the Tower of London (the street still exists, now adjacent to Pepys Lane).
In 1665-66, he wrote about the plague (he was evacuated to Greenwich) and then the Great Fire. After surveying the extent of the blaze from the top of the Tower of London on the Sunday morning of 2 September, 1666, he went to Whitehall and was the first person to inform the king of the spreading flames.
His diary account was a remarkable hour-by-hour report of the spreading fire.
On the entry for 5 September, he recalls “our feet ready to burn, walking through the town among the hot coles”. Pepys also describes a cat rescued from the chimney with its fur singed off but still alive.
‘With Pepys it is people that matter’
Pepys dug a pit in the garden where he famously buried his Parmesan cheese and wine. His diary and other possessions were taken to the country. The fire reached Seething Lane, though his house was spared. However, many of the landmarks of his life had been destroyed: St Paul’s cathedral and his old school in the churchyard, St Bride’s, Ludgate, much of Fleet Street, and his former family home in Salisbury Court. He suffered nightmares for months.
His accounts of the Great Fire and the plague are a large part of why the diaries are still read today. “His descriptions of both – agonisingly vivid – achieve their effect by being something more than superlative reporting; they are written with compassion,” said editor Robert Latham. “As always with Pepys it is people, not literary effects, that matter.”
The latter years covered by the diaries were stressful for Pepys, who faced inquiries into the Anglo-Dutch war. There was also a domestic crisis when Elizabeth caught him with her maid. After many rows, he later wrote that it seemed to have improved their marriage!
By 1669, Pepys thought he was going blind, so at work he dictated instead of straining his eyes by writing – and he also ended his diary. Even though his vision improved, he never returned to his habit.
Pepys died in 1703, though the first diary selections did not appear until 1825. Even in the 1890s, the editor still omitted “passages which cannot possibly be printed”. It was not until the 1970-83 edition that the unabridged Pepys – including his extra-marital activities – was finally published.
This year the complete edition of 1.25 million words became an audiobook that totals 116 hours. More than 350 years after Pepys wrote the diary for his own pleasure, it has become the ultimate box set.
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire Revolution is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich from 20 November to 28 March, 2016
The diary shows the Londoner was a lover of life
Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody. (9 November, 1665)
Musique and women I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is. (9 March, 1666)
Saw Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, done with scenes very well, but above all, Betterton did the prince’s part beyond imagination. (24 August, 1661)
After that to a bookseller’s and bought for the love of the binding three books. (15 May, 1660)
I went out to Charing Cross to see Major General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could in that condition. (13 October, 1660)
And so to bed. (4 January, 1660)
The six volumes of the diary manuscript held in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge along with his 3,000 books