On 2nd September 1666, disaster struck London. At around 2am that morning, in the house of John Farryner, a baker in Pudding Lane, a fire started that would cause widespread devastation. At the time the fire had struck, London had already been through the mill. The previous year the Great Plague had struck, killing an estimated 30,000 people; and previous to the Great Fire, the country had been in the grip of the Second Dutch War.
London was used to fires – the nature of the closely build wooden houses had seen to that. So when the Lord Mayor of London was called to the fire in Farryner’s house, he wasn’t best pleased with what he saw and apparently said that “a woman might piss it out”. The fire had been blazing for around an hour previous to the Mayor’s visit and before he had gone to bed, Farryner had carefully checked his fire (which was only in one room) and he had gone through it and raked up the embers. However it started, the flames caught hold. Whatever spark had been produced, perhaps smouldering beneath the floorboards, it reached a pile of faggots that Farryner had placed ready for the next days baking and it was not long until the building was fully ablaze. Farryner’s house was, of course, made of timber and surrounding the house were other tightly packed timber framed buildings. And the timber had tried out thanks to the long, sweltering hot summer.
Just six months earlier, Charles II had written to the City Authorities to try and warn them of the dangers of fire in the city. He tried to warn them that the narrow streets lined with the timber framed buildings held the potential for grave catastrophe. He even gave his Royal Authority to pull the timber buildings down and rebuild them. But nothing was done. The usual precautions obviously seemed good enough to the mayor as he dithered by the apparent small fire – water pumps were brought out to try and stem the blaze. But within an hour, an easterly gale (which had prevented the British fleet from engaging the Dutch fleet not so long back) had made the fire take hold. It was sweeping through the streets.
St Paul’s On Fire – Museum of London
And the fire spread quickly, sweeping from Pudding Lane down Thames Street and beyond. It even reached the Royal Exchange after the fire rained down destruction along Fist Street Hill and Lombard Street. Nothing could stop the fire as it raged its way towards London Bridge. London Bridge was not the same stone structure we see today, instead it was crammed with dry timber framed buildings all crammed close together.
London Bridge from a panorama of London, drawn in 1660 by Claes Van Vissher
Before the southward spread of the flames were able to be stopped, almost a third of the buildings on London Bridge were destroyed.
It didn’t take long for the old water pumping machines used to break down. Yet still the authorities dithered and did not take the necessary precautions to stop the fire spreading even further. To start with, the Lord Mayor was loath to pull down more houses than he already had to create bigger gaps that the fire could not jump across as he and his authorities would have to deal with any costs for rebuilding. The only way that could be absolved was by royal authority.
The famous diarist John Evelyn wrote of the fire:
“Churches, public halls, exchange, hospitals, monuments and ornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner from house to house and street to street.”
Charles behaved exceptionally when he heard news of the fire. He granted authority for the Mayor to pull down more houses, and he took his brother James, Duke of York to see the extent of the blaze. At noon on the first day, him and his brother travelled downriver and landed at Three Cranes, climbing upon a roof to see the extent of the flames. And it was from this moment on that Charles realised that he needed to help and he put himself in harms way as he made his way to the front line. Him and his brother urged people to pull down houses and even helped with the water buckets.
On the second day of the fire, Charles summoned the Privy Council and set up a special committee where fire posts were set up. Each post had 100 men and a further 30 soldiers and an allowance of £5 for bread and beer. These posts were set up in a semicircle from Smithfield to Temple Bar, and three courtiers were attached to each post too. These courtiers could override the aldermen if they thought more buildings should be destroyed to stop the spread of fire and could even hand out a shilling to those who gave their all and worked through the night. A ring even closer to the front line was set up, headed by Parish constables, and militia was called in from neighbouring counties to take over from the London Trained Bands. The Duke of York organised defences and doused houses against the flames that were expected to reach where he was and Charles worked with men in Queenhithe to pull down the local market stalls and houses, he then rode around the inner ring of fire posts encouraging the men to stay and fight the fire. Some said he carried a bag of silver or gold and handed out money to those who agreed to stay. One man, Henry Griffith later reported that:
“His Majesty’s… singular care and pains, handling the water in buckets while they stood up to the ankles deep in water and playing the engines for many hours together, as they did at the Temple and Cripplegate, which people seeing, fell to work with effect, having so good fellow labourers”
Yet despite their hard work, the fire raged on – at one point building into a huge wall of flame, 50 feet high. It is said that the heat became so intense that fire balls were created that drew air into themselves and destroyed church towers and ancient walls. Yet Charles still kept on, and worked like a common labourer. And until the fire eventually burned itself out, prayers and fasting were ordered as if God’s divine providence could stop the onslaught. It must be remembered that despite the advances in science, people were still incredibly superstitious and believed that their prayers to God would help. Their prayers did little and the fire even gutted old St Paul’s Cathedral, the heat so intense that it melted the lead roof.
As mentioned previously, the flames destroyed the Royal Exchange. This was the heart of mercantile London. The entire building was destroyed – spices brought by the East India company burned and filled the air with brightly coloured flames and the statues that filled the buildings niches were destroyed. Only the statue of Gresham remained.
Of course the people were in uproar as the flames raged, and the roads became jammed with people as they tried to escape. Many ran to the north of the city towards the open fields that surrounded the city. The gates became jammed and on the second day of the fire it was ordered that the gates be shut to incoming traffic. People piled their belongings into carts, desperate to escape. Many even tried to save their belongings by burying their belongings – Samuel Pepys buried his cheese but alas his diaries are silent as to whether he dug it back up later!). Yet as the people panicked, the nobility still tried to keep order. James Duke of Monmouth took charge in Cornhill and lead a troop of the Kings Guard to try and clear people from the streets.
One can only imagine the scene as London burned. Diarist John Evelyn writes of it in detail in his diaries:
“ten thousand houses all in one flame, the noise and crackling and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of tower, houses and churches was like an hideous storm and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at the last one was not able to approach it…London was, but is no more”
A map showing the area of London burned, by Wenceslav Hollar
By 6th September the fire had burned itself out. Two surveyors came up with figures that make one shudder even today:
- Only 67 acres of land remained untouched out of 450 acres within the city walls
- Over 13000 houses destroyed
- 89 churches reduced to rubble
- The halls of 44 livery companies had their clothes reduced to ash
- 4 bridges collapsed
- Over 10,000 people would be homeless for the winter
- Christchurch and stationers Hall had gone up in flames – many booksellers had placed their wares in storage there. £15,000 worth of books and manuscripts had been destroyed.
- No one knows how many died
Now, the hard work of rebuilding London would begin. But it was a long and slow process. Charles II himself took great interest in rebuilding the city, as he had a huge interest in building works. He appointed a council to oversee the work and urged that London be rebuilt more beautiful than ever. He followed the work closely on maps and made sure that streets were straightened and encouraged the use of bricks rather than timber. And Charles also brought in Sir Christopher Wren, a man of genius who would work hard to restore the city and rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral into the beautiful masterpiece that we see today.
It took a long time to rebuild London, and many were left destitute. The people blamed the fire on a Catholic plot. And although on 6th September, Charles rode out to tell his people that the fire was nothing to do with a plot, they were not convinced. The Quakers believed it was a righteous punishment on those who persecuted them, but the majority believed it was caused by the Catholics, desperate to undermine the protestant people. It is said too that in 1685 James Duke of Monmouth blames his own uncle for starting the fire.
50 years later, long after Charles II’s death as well as the exile of his brother James, London was still being rebuilt. The Great Fire was a massive event in British History, and one which will always live on in the history books. It was a catastrophe for many, yet despite the destruction it showed that in a time of crisis many can be relied on to work together. It proved that the country’s King could be relied on. And out of the ashes, the City of London returned anew.
Coote, S, 1999, Royal Survivor: The Life of Charles II, Palgrave: New York
Boward, B, 2012, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714, Pearson: Harlow
Fraser, A, 1979, King Charles II, Weidenfeld & Nicholson: London
Hanrahan, D, 2006, Charles II And The Duke of Buckingham: The Merry Monarch & The Aristocratic Rogue, Sutton: Stroud
Uglow, J, 2009, A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration, Faber & Faber: London
Watson, J.N.P, 1979, Captain General and Rebel Chief: The Life of James Duke of Monmouth