The Great Fire of London: Casualties and Aftermath

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.

The Aftermath

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.

Jessica Cale

Sources

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.

Walk the Streets of Eighteenth Century London and See the Setting of the Southwark Saga!

Ever wish you could wander around 18th century London? Now you can, just about, thanks to this incredible interactive map at Locating London’s Past. You can even use the map to search the real locations that appear in the Southwark Saga! Yes, this map is from almost 100 years later, but most of it’s still there. Bookmark it and get ready to use this a lot, because this will be an invaluable resource to historians, authors, and readers of historical fiction alike. Ever wonder about The Strand or Half Moon Street? Now you can find them! 

In case you’re curious about some of the places names in the Southwark Saga, here’s a little list to get you started (note: I’ve highlighted the place names to make searching easier):

Love Lane: There are several Love Lanes in London and Southwark at this time, but Jane lives in a little flat on the one south of the river at the west end of Maid Lane (not to be confused with Maiden Lane, below). Maggie’s shop would have been there, too, and I imagined The Rose & Crown being across the street, perhaps where the Peacock Brewhouse was. (Heh heh)

On the other side of Maid Lane is Bear Gardenwhere the prize fights are held in Virtue’s Lady, and one of Meg Henshawe’s very favorite places. 

Fleet Street: Now, The Cheshire Cheese was (and is!) a real pub, but it is not on this map. You can search Fleet Street, however, and follow it all the way east to Newgate, and beyond that is Friday Street in Cheapside. This is where Harry’s girlfriend, Mary, lives, and the lads even pay her a visit there in Virtue’s Lady. Incidentally, this is also where the Cheapside Hoard was found. (Click here for a peek at what was in it!)

Charing Cross is where Claude Duval left Sally to fend for herself in 1668, and Bedford Street in Covent Garden is where Tyburn begins (adjacent to the infamous Maiden Lane). 

Mark and Nick grew up in a house on St James Square between Pall Mall and Piccadilly. Tyburn itself is on the map, just about, on the far left hand side at the end of Tiburn Road (follow Oxford Street west). If you zoom in, you can see the creepy little illustration of the gallows. 

How cool is that? 

PS – Don’t miss amazing street names such as Dead Man’s Place, Clink Street, and Vinegar Yard. This is way too much fun. Enjoy! 

PPS – If you fancy a paperback copy of either (or both!), I’m giving away one of each via Goodreads this month. You can even enter through the widgets in the sidebars! 😉 

Newgate: Welcome to Hell


From 1188 until 1777, Newgate Prison stood on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey in the City of London. Appearing in literature as far back as The Canterbury Tales, Newgate was a real hell on earth that struck terror into the people of London for more than 700 years. 

Originally a gate in the Roman wall, a prison was built on the site at the end of the twelfth century. According to medieval statute, it was managed by two elected sheriffs, who in turn rented the administration to private Keepers for money. Being a keeper or a gaoler was a very sought-after position. They took their payment directly from the inmates, which made it one of the best paying positions in London. 

The Keepers charged for everything. They charged inmates for entering the prison (as if they had a choice), for putting their shackles on, and for taking them off. Many charged up to four times the legal limit for these and for basic human needs such as food and water. Inmates commonly died of starvation, violence, or disease, such as Jail Fever (typhus). They were sent there for debt, dissent, and crimes of any scale from stealing a few pennies to murder. They were kept together in long, filthy cells with little daylight and no sanitation until they were freed, executed, or died.

On the other hand, if you had money to spend, you could stay in relative comfort in a private cell of your own with a bed, food, tobacco, newspapers, and perhaps some prison gin. Prostitutes regularly visited the prison and serviced the inmates for a price. Some keepers even had arrangements with the inmates to let them out at night on the condition that they would return and share anything they had stolen. 

Reading a list of Newgate’s famous inmates is like reading a who’s who of British history. Claude Duval was kept there from December of 1669 until his execution in January of 1670. An even more famous ladykiller, Giacomo Casanova, was kept there for a time for alleged bigamy. Sir Thomas Malory (yes, as in Le Morte d’Arthur), pirate Captain Kidd, highwayman James MacLaine, pickpocket and fence Moll Cutpurse, and even the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, all stayed in Newgate for a time. Jack Sheppard escaped twice. Daniel Defoe was imprisoned there as well, and in his Moll Flanders, the heroine is born there and later does time there herself. 

Newgate was moved and rebuilt in 1777. In 1783, executions were moved there from Tyburn, and the prison continued operating there until it was closed in 1902. 

This prison plays a big part in both Tyburn and Virtue’s Lady, and it’s no secret that Mark’s been inside a couple of times. For a good, hard look at Newgate from the inside (complete with cadavers, rats, and sexpest wardens), check out The Southwark Saga. 

Five More Common Ways to Die in Restoration London

This is a page from John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality listing some of the recorded deaths from 1662. Here we have Excessive Drinking, Executed, Grief, and Leprosy, as well as “French Pox” and the King’s Evil. Although some people did die of “Itch” (12, to be precise), most deaths were caused by much scarier things. To follow up from Five Horrible Ways to Die in Restoration London, here are five of the most common (but no less horrible) ways to die in Restoration London.

Childbirth and Puerperal Fever (Childbed Fever): Complications and infections related to childbirth were the number one killer of women. Puerperal fever could be contracted during or after childbirth or miscarriage, and was often caused by genital tract sepsis from improper hygiene. Of course, they might not even get the chance to contract it: if it took too long for the afterbirth to come out, impatient midwives might reach in and just pull it out. This could result in acute inversion of the uterus, which would definitely kill them.

Being a Child: If infants survived birth, teething could kill them. Infants’ gums would sometimes be lanced for relief, after which the wounds would become infected, causing fever and death. If they made it past teething, they were vulnerable to mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, German measles, diphtheria, meningitis, erysipelas, typhus, and rickets.

Smallpox: Smallpox was incredibly infectious and could lead to death, especially in children. It was treated by bleeding and could be survived, but might cause loss of sight and scarring, and as many as half of all Londoners had smallpox scars. Smallpox scars were even seen as desirable in servants as their employers know that they would not catch the disease again.

Tuberculosis (Consumption): Probably the most prevalent killer during the Restoration period, this chronic condition was blamed on everything from witchcraft to “vapors from women.” Graunt estimated that at least 44,500 people were killed by tuberculosis between 1641 and 1661.

Fire: The Great Fire destroyed at least 13,000 houses and it’s impossible to know how many people were killed. The Bills of Mortality weren’t published that week. The areas hit the hardest were the poorest with very dense populations, and there were few remains that were recognizable as human. Fire was also the second biggest killer of women as their sleeves and skirts could easily catch while they were cooking over open fires.