This week marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Although my series, The Southwark Saga, begins five years after the fire, the characters are still feeling its effects. It would take years for the city to rebuild and in 1671, when Tyburn begins, parts of London are still covered in ash. In the next book of the series, we’ll meet a Dutchman who was very nearly killed in the aftermath of the fire. Let’s take a closer look in this post from the archives.
The Great Fire of London began in a bakery on Pudding Lane after midnight on Sunday, September 2nd and incinerated the medieval City of London until it died down the following Wednesday. Reaching an incredible 1700 degrees Celsius, it destroyed at least 13,200 houses, 87 churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most City authority buildings.
Although there were only six confirmed deaths, historian Neil Hanson believes that the true number of casualties of the fire and its aftermath numbered in the thousands. (1) The deaths of the poor and middle-class were not recorded, and their remains would have been burned beyond recognition. Some French and Dutch people were actually beaten and even lynched amid fears that the fire had been intentionally set by immigrants, and they had been England’s enemies in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
The houses had been mostly wooden with thatched roofs, and almost met across the streets with their projecting upper floors (jetties). Though these would have provided a shelter from the rain, the congested streets allowed the fire to spread faster with no more help than a good eastern wind.
Quite apart from the houses themselves, London was extremely flammable. The riverside alone was full of pitch, oil, tar, coal, tallow, alcohol, and turpentine. There were wooden tenements along the wharves and tar paper shacks for the poor. Homes were filled with black powder left over from the war, there were barrels of it beside the wharves, and an extra six hundred tons stored in the Tower of London.
Diarist Samuel Pepys saw the City burn, and recorded in his diary entry for September 2nd, 1666:
“Having stayed, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, I [went next] to Whitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat); and there up to the King’s closet in the Chapel, where people came about me, and I did give them an account [that]dismayed them all, and the word was carried into the King. So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw; and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses. . . .
[I hurried] to [St.] Paul’s; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, ‘Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’ . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.” (2)
The King and the Duke of York went so far as to fight the fire themselves, pulling down burning buildings alongside their people. In spite of their best efforts, the fire raged on until Wednesday, when the winds died down and the firebreaks made by the Tower of London garrison finally proved effective.
|More than 13,200 houses were destroyed|
The Dutch saw it as divine retribution. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the English had burned a Dutch town in Holmes’s Bonfire. A French watchmaker names Robert Hubert confessed to setting the fire in Westminster on orders from the Pope. After he was tragically hanged at Tyburn, it was discovered that he could not have possible set the fire as he was as sea at the time.
Fires were common. Fire was actually the second most common cause of death among women in this period due to the open hearths, ovens, and candles that filled their homes, just waiting to catch on the hem of a skirt. In the rebuilding of the City, cheap wooden and thatch houses were outlawed, and carpenters found themselves out of work by the hundreds, many of them forced to move out of London along with the homeless to seek shelter and work elsewhere.
Thousands of London’s inhabitants were left without homes and many died of exposure during the following winter. The only immediate positive to come of it is that the fire is generally believed to have eradicated the Plague that had devastated London the year before as it never returned.
It is this sad turn of events that inspires out-of-work carpenter Mark Virtue to turn to highway robbery in The Southwark Saga, preying on the wealthy who were living far enough west that the fire did not reach them. You can see the effects of the fire on the people even five years on in Virtue’s Lady, when the rebuild is beginning in earnest.
The Great Fire of London is very well-documented, thanks in no small part to diarist Samuel Pepys. You can read more about it here.
Hanson, Neil (2002). The Great Fire of London: In That Apocalyptic Year, 1666. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.
Pepys, Samuel (1995). Robert Latham and William Matthews (eds.), ed. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. 7. London: Harper Collins.