Two of England’s most prominent diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn were contemporaries who recorded in their own words not only the daily meanderings of a life lived but the significant events of their time.
Samuel Pepys maintained his diary for just nine years (1660-1669), John Evelyn from 1640 until his death in 1706.
Here they relate their experience of the Great Fire of London:
Sunday, 2 September, 1666
Lord’s Day - some of our maid’s sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today. Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the city. So I rose and slipped on my nightgown, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off; and so went to bed again and to sleep. About seven rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window, and saw the fire not so much as it was and further off, so to my closet to set things to rights after yesterday’s cleaning.
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, Sir J Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michelle and our Sarah on the bridge. So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’s Baker’s House in Pudding Lane, and that it hath burned St Magnus Church and most part of Fish Street already. So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michelle’s house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way, and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Steelyard, while I was there. Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging 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 loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balcony’s till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
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, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way.
The Duke of York bid me tell him that if he would have any more soldiers he shall; and so did my Lord Arlington afterwards, as a great secret. Here meeting, with Captain Cooke, I in his coach, which he lent me, and with me 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 good goods carried in carts and on backs.
At last met my Lord Mayor in Canning 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.”
Tom Hater came with some few of his goods saved out of his house, which is burned upon Fish Street Hall. I invited him to lie at my house, and did receive his goods, but was deceived in his lying there, the news coming every moment of the growth of the fire; so as we were forced to begin to pack up our own goods; and prepare for their removal; and did by moonshine (it being brave dry, and moon: shine, and warm weather) carry much of my goods into the garden, and Mr. Hater and I did remove my money and iron chests into my cellar, as thinking that the safest place, and got my bags of gold into my office, ready to carry away, and my chief papers of accounts also there, and my tally’s into a box by themselves.
So great was our fear, as Sir W Batten hath carts come out of the country to fetch away his goods this night. We did put Mr. Hater, poor man, to bed a little; but he got but very little rest, so much noise being in my house, taking down of goods.
Monday, 3 September
About four o’clock in the morning, my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, to Sir W Ryder’s at Bethnal Green. Which I did riding myself in my night-gown in the cart; and, Lord! To see how the streets and the highways are crowded with people running and riding, and getting of carts at any rate to fetch away things.
Her mother saying that she was not a ‘prentice girl, to ask leave every time she goes abroad, my wife with good reason was angry, and, when she came home, bid her be gone again. And so she went away, which troubled me, but yet less than it would, because of the condition we are in, fear of coming into in a little time of being less able to keep one in her quality.
At night lay down a little upon a quilt of W. Hewer’s in the office, all my own things being packed up or gone; and after me my poor wife did the like, we having fed upon the remains of yesterday’s dinner, having no fire nor dishes, nor any opportunity of dressing anything.
Tuesday, 4 September
Sir W Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I, my Parmasan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.
This night Mrs Turner (who, poor woman, was removing her goods all this day, good goods into the garden, and knows not how to dispose of them), and her husband supped with my wife and I at night, in the office; upon a shoulder of mutton without any napkin or anything, in a sad manner, but were merry. Only now and then walking into the garden, and saw how horridly the sky looks, all on a fire in the night, was enough to put us out of our wits; and, indeed, it was extremely dreadful, for it looks just as if it was at us; and the whole heaven on fire.
I after supper walked in the dark down to Tower Street, and there saw it all on fire, at the Trinity House on that side, and the Dolphin Tavern on this side, which was very near us; and the fire with extraordinary vehemence. Now begins the practice of blowing up of houses in Tower Street, those next the Tower, which at first did frighten people more than anything, but it stopped the fire where it was done, it bringing down the houses to the ground in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it, though it kindled nothing almost.
Wednesday, 5 September
I lay down in the office again upon W Hewer’s, quilt, being mighty weary, and sore in my feet with going till I was hardly able to stand. About two in the morning my wife calls me up and tells me of new cries of fire, it being come to Barking Church, which is the bottom of our lane. I up, and finding it so, resolved presently to take her away, and did, and took my gold.
Lord! What sad sight it was by moon-light to see, the whole City almost on fire, that you might see it plain at Woolwich, as if you were by it. There, when I come, I find the gates shut, but no guard kept at all, which troubled me, because of discourse now begun, that there is plot in it, and that the French had done it. I got the gates open, and to Mr Shelden’s, where I locked up my gold, and charged, my wife and W. Hewer never to leave the room without one of them in it, night, or day.
So back again, by the way seeing my goods well in the lighters at Deptford, and watched well by people. Home and whereas I expected to have seen our house on fire, it being now about seven o’clock, it was not. But to the fire, and there find greater hopes than I expected; for my confidence of finding our Office on fire was such, that I durst not ask anybody how it was with us, till I come and saw it not burned.
But going to the fire, I find by the blowing up of houses, and the great help given by the workmen out of the King’s yards, sent up by Sir W Pen, there is a good stop given to it, as well as at Mark Lane end as ours; it having only burned the dyall of Barking Church, and part of the porch, and was there quenched. I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oil-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning. I became afeard to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could, the fire being spread as far as I could see it; and to Sir W. Pen’s, and there eat a piece of cold meat, having eaten nothing since Sunday, but the remains of Sunday’s dinner. Here I met with Mr Young and Whistler; and having removed all my things, and received hope that the fire at our end; is stopped, they and I walked into the town, and find Fenchurch, Gracious; and Lombard Street all in dust.
The Exchange is a sad sight, nothing standing there, of all the statues or pillars, but Sir Thomas Gresham’s picture in the corner. Walked into Moor Fields (our feet ready to burn, walking through the town among the hot-coals), and find that full of people, and poor wretches carrying their good there, and everybody keeping his goods together by themselves (and a great blessing it is to them that it is fair weather for them to keep abroad night and day); drank there, and paid two-pence for a plain penny loaf. Thence homeward, having passed through Cheapside and Newgate Market, all burned, and seen Anthony Joyce’s House in fire. And took up (which I keep by me) a piece of glass of Mercer’s Chapel in the street, where much more was, so melted and buckled with the heat of the fire like parchment. I also did see a poor cat taken out of a hole in the chimney, joining to the wall of the Exchange; with, the hair all burned off the body, and yet alive. So home at night, and find there good hopes of saving our office; but great endeavours of watching all night, and having men ready; and so we lodged them in the office, and had drink and bread and cheese for them. And I lay down and slept a good night about midnight, though when I rose I heard that there had been a great alarm of French and Dutch being risen, which proved, nothing.
But it is a strange thing to see how long this time did look since Sunday, having been always full of variety of actions, and little sleep, that it looked like a week or more, and I had forgot, almost the day of the week.
Sunday 2 September 1666
This fatal night about ten, began that deplorable fire, near Fish Street in London.
I had public prayers at home.
After dinner the fire continuing, with my Wife and Son took Coach and went to the Bank-side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole City in dreadful flames near the Waterside, and had now consumed all the houses from the bridge all Thames Street and upwards towards Cheapside, down to the Three Cranes, and so returned exceedingly astonished - what would become of the rest.
Monday, 3 September
The Fire having continued all this night (if I may call that night, which was as light as day for 10 miles round about after a dreadful manner) when conspiring with a fierce Eastern Wind, in a very dry season, I went on foot to the same place, when I saw the whole South part of the City burning from Cheap side to the Thames, and all along Cornhill (for it likewise kindled back against the Wind, as well as forward) Tower Street, Fenchurch Street, Gracious Street, and so along to Baynard Castle, and was now taking hold of St. Paul’ s-Church, to which the Scaffolds contributed exceedingly.
The Conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning (I know not by what desponding or fate), they hardly stirred to quench it, so as there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, and running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods; such a strange consternation there was upon them, so as it burned both in breadth and length, The Churches, Public Halls, Exchange, Hospitals, Monuments, and Ornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner from house to house and street to street, at great distance one from the other, for the heat (with a long set of faire and warm weather) had even ignited the air, and prepared the materials to conceive the fire, which devoured all in an incredible manner, houses, furniture, and everything. Here we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save, as on the other, the Carts &c carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with movables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away. oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle, such as happily the whole world had not seen the like since the foundation of it, nor to be out done, ‘til the universal Conflagration of it, all the sky were 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 ten thousand houses all in one flame, the noise and crackling and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry 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 the last one was not able to approach it, so as they were forced to stand still, and let the flames consume on which they did for near two whole miles in length and one in breadth. The Clouds also of smoke were dismal, and reached upon computation near 50 miles in length.
Thus I left it this afternoon burning, a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day. It called to mind that of 4 Heb: non enim hic habemus stabilem Civitatem; the ruins resembling the picture of Troy.
London was, but is no more.
Thus I returned.
Tuesday, 4 September
The burning still rages; I went now on horseback, and it was now gotten as far as the Inner Temple, all Fleet Street, Old Bailey, Ludgate Hill, Warwick Lane, Newgate, Paul’s Chain, Watling Street now flaming and most of it reduced to ashes, the stones of St Paul’s flew like grenades, the lead melting down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements of them glowing with a fiery redness, so as nor horse nor man was able to tread on them, and the demolitions had stopped all the passages, so as no help could be applied; the East Wind still more impetuously driving the flames forwards. Nothing but the almighty power of God was able to stop them, for vain was the help of man: on the fifth it crossed towards White Hall, but oh the confusion was then at that Court.
It pleased His Majesty to command me among the rest to look after the quenching of Fetter Lane end, to preserve (if possible) that part of Holborn, whilst the rest of the gentlemen. took their several posts, some at one part, some at another, for now they began to bestir themselves, and not ‘til now, who ‘til now had stood as men interdict, with their hands a cross, and began to consider that nothing was like to put a stop, but the blowing up of so many houses, as might make a wider gap, than any had yet been made by the ordinary method of pulling them down with Engines.
This some stout Seamen proposed early enough to have saved the whole City. But some tenacious and avaricious men, Aldermen and company would not permit, because their houses must have been the first. It was therefore now commanded to be practised, and my concern being particularly for the Hospital of St. Bartholomew’s near Smithfield, where I had many wounded and sick men, made me the more diligent to promote it; nor was my care for the Savoy less.
So as it pleased Almighty God by abating of the wind, and the industry of people, now when all was lost, infusing a new spirit into them (and such as had if exerted in time undoubtedly preserved the whole) that the fury of it began sensibly to abate, about noon, so as it came no farther than the Temple westward, nor than the entrance of Smithfield North; but continued all this day and night so impetuous toward Cripple-Gate, and the Tower, as made us even all despair. It also broke out again in the Temple: but the courage of the multitude persisting, and innumerable houses blown up with gunpowder, such gaps and desolations were soon made, as also by the former three days consumption, as the back fire did not so vehemently urge upon the rest, as formerly.
There was yet no standing near the burning and glowing ruins near a furlongs space; The coal and wood wharfs and magazines of Oil, rozine, and chandler did infinite mischief; so as the invective I but a little before dedicated to his Majesty and published, giving warning what might probably be the issue of suffering those shops to be in the City, was looked on as prophetic. But there I left this smoking and sultry heap, which mounted up in dismal clouds night and day, the poor Inhabitants dispersed all about St. Georges, Moore Fields, as far as Highgate, and several miles in Circle, some under tents, others under miserable huts and hovels, without a rag, or any necessary utensils, bed or board, who from delicateness, riches and easy accommodations in stately and well furnished houses, were now reduced to the extremist misery and poverty.
In this calamitous condition I returned with a sad heart to my house, blessing and adoring the distinguishing mercy of God, to me and mine, who in the midst of all this ruin, was like Lot, in my little Zoar, safe and sound.