Great Fire of London
[click the picture to reach the LONG list of participants]
A little after midnight on Sunday 2nd September 1666, Thomas Farriner was awakened from sleep by the smell of burning. Farriner, as might be guessed by his name, was a baker, and the fire in his oven had got out of control. Farriner roused his family and fled the premises but his maid, asleep in a back room wasn’t able to get out and became the first casualty of what came to be known as the Great Fire.
The fire burned for 3 days and nights, ripping through the heart of the city and destroying most of the old medieval buildings within the city walls including 87 churches and St Paul’s cathedral. At that time most of the buildings were made from wood and were thatched. August had been a hot dry month and there were strong east winds to fan the flames. The result was a firestorm that melted the steel stored in warehouses on the docks. Recorded deaths are in single figures but no attempt was made to find out the casualty rate amongst the poor and middle class, some 80,000 of whom were left homeless. Nor is it known how many died of illness, starvation or exposure in the months that followed. It is estimated that the cost of the fire was ten million pounds[well over a billion in todays money]. Businesses were ruined and families left destitute. Insurance, particularly domestic insurance for the less well off, was very rare.
This is a particularly well publicised disaster. In addition to a terrific account in an early newspaper, the London Gazette, we have accounts by two of the greatest diarists, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, and paintings done soon after the event by artists who had been there. I’ll finish this post with a combination of both.
Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seen since the foundation of it, nor be outdone till the universal conflagration thereof. All the sky was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seen above 40 miles round about for many nights. God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame; the noise and cracking and thunder of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forced to stand still and let the flames burn on, which they did for near two miles in length and one in breadth. The clouds also of smoke were dismal and reached upon computation near 50 miles in length.
By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .
So down [I went], with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it began this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding Lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish Street already. So I rode down to the waterside, . . . and there saw a lamentable fire. . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.