The Great Fire of London destroyed most of the medieval city within days. Some believed it was God’s judgement upon a sinful city, including Charles II’s debauched court.
London was gripped by drought lasting from November 1665 to September 1666 – a cold dry winter followed by a prolonged hot summer. The water cisterns’ levels were reduced to mere trickles. The overcrowded timber buildings and narrow streets increased fire danger.
Strong eastern gales blew across England the day before and surged through London.
The fire started around 2.00 am on Sunday, 2 September 1666, on the ground floor of a bakery in Pudding Lane.
Baker Thomas Farriner, his daughter Hannah, a maid and manservant lived upstairs. They escaped through an upstairs window whilst raising the alarm. The maidservant remained behind and perished, becoming the first casualty.
Neighbours used whatever they could to help extinguish the fire including buckets of water and shovels of dirt.
No emergency services existed although some procedures were followed when fire broke out. The alarm was raised, adjoining houses were evacuated as their occupants bundled up precious possessions or threw them out windows and doors into the street, church bells were “rung backwards” (a muffled peal) to call public-spirited citizens to action. Parish constables and other officials blocked off both ends of the affected street.
All streets and lanes leading to the Thames were manned by double rows of fire-fighters, as one human chain passed buckets to the river whilst the other sent full buckets back to the fire.
Fire-fighting equipment hadn’t changed much since Roman times. Shovels, squirts (brass syringes holding up to one gallon of water), long ladders and crude fire engines (manually-operated fire pumps on wheels or sleds). They were difficult to operate or manoeuvre, especially in London’s crowded streets. Water for refilling was hard to obtain when the Thames was at low tide.
Parish constables notified the Mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, who arrived promptly, but he declared the fire wasn’t very serious.
“A woman could piss it out,” he scoffed, before returning home.
Several blocks away in the Navy Office in Seething Lane, Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys were woken around 3.00 am by their maid Jane Birch. Pepys also decided it wasn’t serious as he glanced through the window, before returning to bed.
The following morning, an anxious Pepys walked 100 yards to the Tower of London, and climbed to the battlements to observe the damage. He was appalled as the fire had spread about a quarter of a mile along the Thames’ north bank.
He hurried to Whitehall to inform the King immediately. Charles II instructed Pepys to command Bludworth to begin pulling down houses. James Duke of York added Life Guards were available to help fight the fire if the Mayor needed them. Bludworth was reluctant to take up the Duke of York’s offer.
Charles II and the Duke viewed the destruction from the royal barge. Charles authorised demolitions between London Bridge and the Tower to prevent the fire spreading.
Charles stood in ankle-deep water as he manned pumps for several hours. He returned to Whitehall covered in mud. The Duke often remained in the streets from 5.00 am until midnight using everything possible to save the city.
Evacuation began in earnest as Londoners packed up their belongings and fled – their main aim getting their goods to safety. The elderly were carried in their beds or makeshift wheelbarrows. The narrow streets became congested as people and goods headed towards the river or away from the city.
Wagons and carts were hired at exorbitant prices, as some sought to make money from others’ misfortunes. Many moved their belongings to nearby churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral, believing they were safe.
Pepys arranged an evacuation of his wife, furniture, pictures, hangings and other goods, in case the fire destroyed the Navy Office, whilst he aided the King and the Duke in their fire-fighting efforts.
Act of God
The devastation continued as the fire spread further north and west.
Three-quarters of medieval London was eventually destroyed, including 13,200 houses in 400 streets and courts. Eighty-seven churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, six chapels, forty-four livery companies, the Guildhall, the Exchange, the Custom House, Bridewell Prison, the great law courts, four bridges and three city gates were also gone.
Rumours had circulated that the fire was started by the French or the Dutch so Charles II reassured his subjects the fire was an “an act of God”.
The winds eased on 5 September as the fire was finally brought under control although fires continue to burst among the still-smouldering ruins.
Hundreds of soldiers from Kent, Surrey, Middlesex and Hertfordshire were brought in to relieve the exhausted fire-fighters, with carts laden with spades, axes and buckets.
The rains started on 9 September, although the drought finally ended by a downpour, beginning on 15 October.
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Fraser, Antonia, Charles II: His Life and Times (Abridged, illustrated format), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1993
Hanson, Neil, The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Great Fire of London, Doubleday [Transworld Publishers], London, 2001
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© 2010 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 3 April 2010.