The Great Fire of London, which burned through London in September 1666.
We know the facts: where it began (Pudding Lane), how many houses were destroyed (around 70,000) and how many were killed (surprisingly low, for five days of burning, at six).
|Great Fire of London, 1666. (c) Public Domain, unkown artist, dated 1675|
But if what if you could put yourself in the centre of London during the fire? What would it feel like? What would you see, or hear?
I love the politics, the plots and poring over 500-year old state papers. But it's this part of history that excites me the most, trying to gain an understanding of what our ancestors really experienced. What were they doing and thinking, as their blackened houses crackled and were engulfed around them?
One of the chief sources of everyday life in London during the Great Fire is the Diary of Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator under the newly-restored Stuart king, Charles II. His personal journal spans from 1660, when he was 26 years old, and continues up to 1669, a few months after his 36th birthday, when he decided to stop writing it. And because he recorded his everyday life during this period - which includes the Great Fire of 1666, we can put ourselves next to him, travelling through smoky, burnished seventeenth-century London.
The fire burned intensely for five days, but its consequences lasted much longer. It was first noticed early in the morning - by 3am - on 2nd September. Although Samuel was watching the fire from 'far off', he could sense the sting of smoke in the air. And people had begun to panic. He writes:
'Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging off into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; 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 water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned their wings, and fell down.' (1)
And everyone's thoughts were on saving their valuables, rather than trying to fight the fire, which Samuel thought was odd:
'Having staid, and in an hour's time seen the fire: rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire... the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches...' (1)
Later on, when the fire has settled, he says that the Duke of York (the king's brother and future James II) has noticed that: 'none of the nobility come out of the country at all to help the King, or comfort him, or prevent commotions at this fire; but do as if the king were nobody.' (2) It seems that during the time of the Great Fire it was every man for himself.
|Map showing the damage after the Great Fire, Wenceslav Hollar, 1666 (c) Public Domain|
The pulling down of houses was sanctioned by the king. The idea was that, by pulling down the houses either side of the burning buildings, the fire wouldn't spread, stopping it in its tracks. It worked, although the fire continued to smoulder in some parts, leading to a feeling of helplessness. The Mayor of London complained that people wouldn't obey his orders, and that 'the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it'. (1)
So if you could teleport yourself into London at this time, what would you see?
First, you'd notice the choking, accrid smoke in your nostrils. Even if the fire was far away, it would be carried in the wind, which bellowed strongly in gusts around the streets. You'd hear the dull thump of horse hooves and the clatter of carts piled high with people and belongings being hastily pulled along the narrow, dusty road. People had to jump out of the way, covered in soot, smoke and dust. You move closer to the houses to avoid being run over from the carts, walking tightly against the silver and white wooden-beamed buildings that still stand. The scene you would be standing in was chaotic and driven by a feeling of helplessness and fear.
As soon as people moved belongings to a friend or relative's house (or packed into a local church) further out of the centre of London - they'd have to move it again and again, as the fire spread further. There were scenes of total disorder. Samuel notes that 'the streets full of nothing but people and horses and carts loaden with goods, ready to run over one another". (1) On the Thames, too, boats were filled with people and goods, being rowed out of harm's way. In some cases, belongings were just dumped in the street. On the third day of the fire, Samuel sees Mr Howell 'whose goods, poor man, his trayes, and dishes, shovells, etc were flung all along Tower-street in the kennels, with people working therewith from one end to the other' as the fire consumed with 'infinite fury'. (3)
If you could see into people's gardens, you'd see people digging, too. This tells us that, by the third day of burning, people had started to give up moving belongings from one house to another - presumably they decided this was just a thankless daily exercise, and also because of a shortage of carts, leaving people at home, stranded, with valuable goods they wanted to save. Samuel writes, 'Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it there'. Samuel followed suit by burying some important papers, wine and his 'Parmazan cheese'. (3)
Later that evening, Samuel writes that the sky looked 'extremely dreadful... and the whole heaven on fire'. (3)
The wind was strong, bringing the soot, smoke and the 'most horrid malicious bloody flame' with it. Samuel writes, 'with one's face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops', the burning flakes and smouldering ash tumbling through the London sky like molten snow. Samuel also speaks of the 'cracking of houses at their ruins', the awful crackling and rustling before rooves started to fall in and the terrifying boom as buildings collapsed heavily to their foundations. (1)
As well as the distant echoes of falling buildings, you'd hear closer sounds - the panic of chests being snapped and locked shut, filled with books, food and wine. The hurried barking of orders and calls for help with packing, and perhaps the crying of children or the barking of dogs. It was a noisy time. Samuel mentions that he let a Mr Hater sleep the night in his premises, but 'he got very little rest, so much noise being in my house, taking down of goods.' (1)
In fact, people slept very little, either worrying about the fire, which spread by the hour, or using the night to pack up their belongings. Imagine crowds of Londoners, rushing through the smoky city, with fear in their sleep-deprived, exhausted eyes. It wasn't a time for eating, either. Samuel, a wealthy man, mentions snatching cold meats and small meals over the course of a few days, and by the Wednesday notices he hasn't eaten for almost three days, except some cold meat and the leftovers of Sunday dinner. (4) For those poorer, the availability of food, after many shops and bakers were closed or ruined would have been even worse. It wasn't a time for shaving, too it seems, as on the 17th September Samuel is shocked to find out 'how ugly I was yesterday' after not shaving for a week. (5)
Another reason for residents' lack of sleep is what Samuel refers to as 'the plot'. A rumour was spread that the French had started the fire, and on Wednesday 5th September, 'there had been a great alarme of French and Dutch being risen, which proved, nothing.' (4) These rumours would have added to the panic and distrust amongst the Londoners at the time who responded to this 'religious terrorism' in anger and resentment aimed at European settlers living in the City. (6) Samuel writes that by Thursday 6th he started to believe in the plot and that, ominously, 'it hath been dangerous for any stranger to walk in the streets,' (7) and by Friday 7th, 'the militia is in armes everywhere'. (8)
It's worth remembering that Londoners had only recently emerged from an outbreak of plague, and that even 11 days since the fire started was still burying seven or eight plague victims a day. The accidental timing of the fire, coming at a health crisis, was massively unfortunate.
With fear, chaos and disorder come those who stand to profit by it. Shadowy figures in the darkness, scouting out abandoned houses for goods left behind, or conspiring as to the buildings hoarding the most valuable items ripe for the taking. On the 10th, Samuel heard from Sir W. Rider that 'the towne is full of the report of the wealth that is in his house.' Samuel immediately gets a cart and removes his goods from there, including money, and takes it back to his office, and he is 'vexed to have all the world see it.' (9) He also worries about 'strange workmen' coming and going from his house, which he is having renovated - and wondering if they would take anything from there. On the 19th, as he's unpacking goods back into his home after the fire has eased, and unsurprisingly in the chaos, he finds he's missing 'four or five of my biggest books' and that 'it do heartily trouble me'. They were found, two days later, in a hamper that had been mistaken for someone else's. (10)
But crime wasn't the only problem. The fire had a decimating effect on the local economy. Shops and livelihoods were destroyed and those still producing food and goods seemed to be busy moving their own belongings and families away from the fire. Samuel eats a 'bad venison pasty', perhaps because it was no longer fresh, due to a lack of establishments producing freshly baked goods. (10) He also complains of lack of payments, as people go into into survival mode for the fire.
Pepys' diary gives us a blunt and honest account of the fire that ripped through London in the autumn of 1666. With people in the streets abandoning their homes, panic on the streets and carts and boats loaded with personal items and families it's easier to imagine how it must have felt for Londoners trying to save themselves during this uncertain time.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to stand in London at the Great Fire? Has this post helped you imagine it for yourself?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
1. Pepys Diary Online, 2/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20
2. Pepys Diary Online, 26.9.1666 - accessed 29.3.20
3. Pepys Diary Online, 4/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20
4. Pepys Diary Online, 5/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20
5. Pepys Diary Online, 17/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20
6. Smithsonian Mag, Great Fire of London Blamed on Religious Terrorism, accessed 29.3.20
7. Pepys Diary Online, 6/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20
8. Pepys Diary Online, 7/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20
9. Pepys Diary Online, 10/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20
10. Pepys Diary Online, 19/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20
11. Pepys Diary Online, 9/9/1666 - accessed 29.3.20