Inferno: The Great Fire of London

By Guest Author - Anne Lesley

It is believed today that this fire started in a Bakery owned by Thomas Farriner (Farynor), who was the Kings Baker.

This Bakery was in the aptly named Pudding Lane which was taken from the Medieval word ‘pudding’ meaning entrails and organs; its original name was ‘Offal Pudding Lane’.

Farriner’s maid had failed to put out the ovens at the end of the day and the heat that this created caused a spark to ignite and the rest is marked in history.

In 1666 the cause of the fire was not believed to have been an accident but a Catholic Plot to destroy the city.

At the time England was at war with France and The Netherlands, and had recently sent The English Navy to set fire to West Terschelling in The Netherlands. This was classed then as an act of piracy. The people believed the Great Fire to be retaliation for this incident.

At 2.00am on 2 September workmen smelled smoke and went to investigate. Finding the Bakery on fire they raised the family from their beds. The house of Thomas Farriner was ablaze and the Great Fire of London had started.

great fire cott

Farriner’s family managed to escape the blaze by fleeing across rooftops, however the maid did not. She had attempted to climb out of a window but failed. She perished in the blaze, becoming the first recorded casualty.

Was her death an accident or something more sinister?

As London was basically made of wood the fire spread quickly, and yet the Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Bloodworth apparently did not take it seriously. He stated ‘A woman could piss it out’. I wonder whether he later came to regret that statement and felt any guilt over it after what followed?

Samuel_Pepys

The famous diarist Samuel Pepys who witnessed events was to write on 2 September 1666:

‘Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called 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 night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side 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’ . . .

This shows that even Samuel Pepys was not to take this information seriously. He then followed this with:

‘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, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side’.

‘So down [I went], with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it began this morning in the King's baker's house in Pudding Lane…… So I rode down to the waterside, …… and there saw a lamentable fire. …… Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, …… 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 waterside to another…… the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down’.

King Charles II stayed in London and took personal charge of the fight. His brother James, The Duke of York helped him in this. As the king had fled London one year earlier during the Great Plague this was at first a surprise as the people of London expected him to flee again but in this he proved them wrong.

Samuel Pepys was next to note in his diary his visit to the King;

…… ‘I [went next] to Whitehall ……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’……

john evelyn

John Evelyn, a close personal friend of Samuel Pepys remarked even less in his own journal on 2 September, but by the 3 September this had changed, he wrote:

‘I had public prayers at home. The fire continuing, after dinner I took coach with my wife and son and went to the Bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole city in flames near the water side; ……and so [we] returned exceeding astonished what would become of the rest’.

…… ‘I went on foot to the same place, and saw the whole south part of the city burning …… the people …… crying out …… running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods; …… so as it burned both in breadth and length……leaping after a prodigious manner, from house to house and street to street……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. carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with moveables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away’.

great fire old st pauls

The heat of the fire was so intense it caused the lead on the roof of St Pauls Cathedral to melt and it was seen to be flowing down the street of Ludgate Hill.

Strong winds continued to fuel the fire and a way had to be found to fight it. Delays and an indecisive Lord Mayor didn’t help. Eventually the decision was made to create Fire-Breaks which would act as a barrier to stop or slow down the fire by starving it of the wood it needed to burn. This resulted in destroying perfectly good buildings with Gunpowder. The people of London were not happy to just have their homes blown up, as they saw it, but this was the best way of trying to curb the spread of the fire. These Fire-Breaks did work over time but the carnage was immense.

The fire continued to spread and decimate the city for 3 days. On the 4th day the weather turned in its favour with the wind changing direction. Eventually it literally met a brick wall and fizzled out.

During the fire, the paranoia of the people concerning the cause resulted in foreigners or anybody that appeared to be foreign being hunted down, beaten and hanged on street corners. The belief was that there was a Catholic Plot to destroy the city.

james ii

James The Duke of York is known to have rode into the city and rescued people from the mob as they were literally being hanged.

great fire charles ii

Charles II addressed over 100,000 displaced people at a camp. He declared the fire an Act of God. This was done partly to calm the violent situation in the city and to quell the angry mobs haunting it. Many people however, refused to believe this catastrophe to be an accident and some laid the blame directly at Charles and his dissolute lifestyle. Superstition was rife among the people and many were panicked by the significance of 666 ‘The Mark of the Beast’. Many believed Charles was being given the ultimate punishment for spending more time pleasing his many mistresses than on ruling his kingdom.

Shortly after the fire many foreign people were arrested. Although the belief was of a Catholic Plot, after our humiliation at the 1st Anglo Dutch War, Protestants were also in danger. One of these was Robert Hubert who was arrested trying to flee the city. Robert Hubert was a Watchmaker from Rouen in France. When arrested he confessed to starting The Great Fire. He was tried at The Old Bailey during the October session. He changed his story many times and some believed him to be deranged and not fit to stand trial. Even the Chief Justice and others did not believe him to be guilty. It is unknown why he would admit to starting the fire and send himself to the gallows if he did not do so. Even so, he was convicted and hanged on 27 October 1666 at Tyburn.

Finally they had found their scapegoat.

From 2 – 5 Septemer 1666, The Great Fire of London had destroyed 13,200 homes, 87 Churches, St Pauls Cathedral and more. Over 70,000 of the 80,000 inhabitants lost their homes.

The official death toll recorded was no more than 4 – 6 people, with Thomas Farriner’s maid being the first. It is true that many of London’s inhabitants did flee the city. They moved themselves to higher ground such as Hampstead Heath, Moorfields and Finsbury Hill, however I still find the death toll to be small. I believe as others do that it would have been far greater, some directly due to the fire and many others indirectly, maybe this is why they are not counted. Also with the fire so rampant, many bodies would have only been charred remains and never in a position to be identified.

Following this catastrophe a mammoth rebuild of the city was to take place.

So many people were involved in the decisions to be made regarding the rebuild that it was slow in getting started, but even when started it took 10 years to truly rebuild the city with brick houses and buildings.

There is a commemorative plaque that records the site where the fire started. This is on the wall of a building called Farynor’s House on Pudding Lane. I personally do not know why we need a plaque to commemorate such an appalling and devastating event; it may be part of our history but I do not believe it is something to be celebrated.

There are also 2 monuments to The Great Fire.

great fire monument

The first one is just called ‘Monument’ and is 202 ft (62 m) tall and 202 ft (62 m) from where the fire started. It is situated at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill.

great fire golden boy

The 2nd one is called ‘Golden Boy of Pye Corner’ and this marks the point where the fire stopped and is situated on the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, near Smithfields.

There are many opinions on how The Great Fire of London started and it will always create great debate, but whatever the reason it was a huge tragedy for the inhabitants and buildings of London.

great fire plague

London had already dealt with The Great Plague of 1665 which resulted in over 68,000 deaths, and now with The Great Fire. If anything good was to come from The Great Fire at the time, it was that the fire had destroyed the disease that had engulfed the city of London during The Great Plague.

The city of London has been through many things in its history, but has survived them all and continues to be one of the greatest cities in the world.

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