The Great Fire of London

Wenceslaus Hollar’s contemporary illustration he named ‘The Prospect of this Citty, as it appeared from the opposite Southwarke side in the fire time’, which shows how the wind was spreading the conflagration from east to west. It was made from his imagination because he wrote after the event that it had “passed by us here at Whitehall. For all that there were great fears for one day that the flames would reach us here, I never saw them…”.

On Saturday 1st September 1666 around one hundred British warships gathered in the North Sea under the two most experienced commanders, the King’s cousin Prince Rupert and George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, heading towards the English Channel for what was hoped would be a decisive victory against the Dutch fleet. King Charles and his brother James, Duke of York, waited anxiously at Whitehall Palace for news of the battle.

The mission did not go well. As the British manoeuvred for position a gale-force wind suddenly rose up, so strong that it was impossible to fire their cannons, with a number of the ships losing their sails and, in some cases, even their masts. They retreated in chaos back to the safety of the Isle of Wight in order to make repairs as quickly as possible. In the meantime, the storm moved eastwards across south-east England.

A number of bakeries were located around Eastcheap and as the winds began to reach London that evening, at around nine o’clock Thomas Farriner closed his bakery shop in Pudding Lane for the night as usual. Farriner made bread, pasties and pies but the major part of his business was supplying ships’ biscuits to the Navy’s Victualling Office at nearby Little Tower Hill. By the time he finished for the night his oven was cold and he loaded it up with bundles of faggots ready to light in the morning. Farriner lived above the shop together with his daughter Hanna, a manservant and a maid. At about midnight Hanna checked the bakery and retired to bed. Around one o’clock in the morning Farriner’s servant woke in his bed on the ground floor to find the bakery filled with smoke. Climbing the stairs he woke the others but by then the smoke was so bad they had to exit through an upstairs window, across the roof and into a neighbour’s window. The maid did not make it and perished in the subsequent blaze.

Neighbours began to wake, gathering in the street and using whatever they could to extinguish the blaze. The parish constables decided it was serious enough that the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, should be summoned in case it became necessary to demolish buildings on either side to create a firebreak. The hot summer had left the timber and plaster structures extremely dry and inflammable and the strong wind was fanning the fire so that it began to spread along the buildings. Sparks, carried by the wind, set heaps of straw and hay alight in the coaching yard of the nearby Star Inn on Fish Street. However, Sir Thomas felt that he could not order the demolition of houses without permission of the owners but as they were rented buildings it might take some time to locate them. Besides, he did not consider the fire to be serious enough to take such drastic action, so left the people to tackle the blaze and went home to bed. “Pish!” he is reported to have commented, “a woman might piss it out”.

Chains of men passed leather buckets of water but it had no effect and the fire continued. By daybreak on Sunday morning it had spread from Pudding Lane to Fish Street where St. Margaret’s church was devastated, and on to St. Magnus the Martyr which presided over the northern end of London Bridge. Around 300 houses had been destroyed by eight o’clock that morning. It reached the warehouses along Thames Street, which were filled with inflammable goods such as flax, tar, hemp, timber, hay, hops and brandy. Soon the bridge itself was beginning to succumb to the flames along with the pumping equipment that could have been used to provide a water supply. Buildings that had only recently been built after the fire of 1633 were destroyed.

Fire has been a danger in the City of London from the time of its foundation in Roman times. Between 764AD and 1227 there were fifteen major fires that destroyed large parts of the Saxon and early medieval town, and over the centuries there have been numerous others that greatly damaged certain areas. The biggest accidental blaze had been one that destroyed the southern end of London Bridge in 1212. Many people were killed when they became trapped and prior to 1666 it had been known as the ‘Great Fire of London’. Eighty buildings had been destroyed in another fire at the northern end of the bridge in 1633.

Since the early part of the Middle Ages regulations had been in place stipulating that fire-fighting equipment consisting of ladders, buckets and a hook on a pole must all be kept in place in larger houses and parish churches to deal with any fire. In order to raise an alarm the bells of parish churches were rung ‘backwards’ and parish constables had a responsibility to deal with the situation. Close to the river most of the community would form a human chain in order to pass buckets of water to where it was needed. Other types of fire-fighting equipment had come into use, including a ‘squirt’, a kind of large syringe.

At the beginning of the 17th century the fire engine had been invented in Nuremburg and in 1625 the first patent was issued to produce one in England. In the thirty years prior to the fire William Borroughs produced about 60 of them at his foundry in Lothbury and they had been used at the 1633 London Bridge fire. Yet they were extremely cumbersome, taking 28 men to move them, and in a blaze this big they simply became stuck in the crowds of people filling the narrow streets, unable to reach the fire. By the time they eventually did arrive the blaze was so intense that the meagre flow of water from them rendered them useless.

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