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The Great Fire of London - 1995 British Heritage Feature

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1996 
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THE GREAT FIRE OFLONDON

Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle!

From the Journals of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys

September 2, 1666
Nearly every housewife has made the same mistake, usually with no greatconsequence. But on September 2, 1666 the result was apocalyptic. ThomasFarrinor, baker to King Charles II of England, neglected, in effect, toturn off his oven. He thought the fire was out, he later claimed, butapparently the smoldering embers ignited some nearby firewood and by oneo'clock in the morning, three hours after Farrinor went to bed, his housein Pudding Lane was in flames. Farrinor, along with his wife and daughter,and one servant, luckily escaped from the burning building through anupstairs window, but the baker's maid paid dearly for his carelessness,becoming the Great Fire's first victim.

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The fire then leapt across Fish Street Hill and engulfed the StarInn. The London of 1666 was a city of half-timbered, pitch-covered medievalbuildings that ignited at the touch of a spark–and a strong wind on thatSeptember morning ensured that sparks flew everywhere. From the Inn, thefire spread into Thames Street, where riverfront warehouses were burstingwith oil, tallow, and other combustible goods. By now the fire had growntoo fierce to combat with the crude firefighting methods of the day, whichconsisted of little more than bucket brigades armed with wooden pails ofwater. The customary recourse during a fire of such magnitude was todemolish every building in the path of the flames in order to deprive thefire of fuel, but the city's mayor hesitated, fearing the high cost ofrebuilding. Meanwhile, the fire spread out of control, doing far moredamage than the most overzealous firefighters could possibly have managed.

Soon the flames were visible from Seething Lane, near the Tower ofLondon, where Samuel Pepys first noted them without concern:

Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready againstour feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of agreat fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gownand went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Laneat the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought itfar enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and byJane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have beenburned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down allFish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walkedto the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and thereI did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinitegreat fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .

So down [I went], with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenantof the Tower, who tells me that it began this morning in the King's baker'shouse in Pudding Lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus's Church and mostpart of Fish Street already. So I rode down to the waterside, . . . andthere saw a lamentable fire. . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove theirgoods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very firetouched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair ofstairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poorpigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about thewindows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and felldown.

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] toWhitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Towerto see the fire in my boat); and there up to the King's closet in theChapel, 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 wascalled for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw; and thatunless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stopthe fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to myLord 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 saveand, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goodscarried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in CannonStreet, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To theKing's message he cried, like a fainting woman, 'Lord, what can I do? I amspent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but thefire overtakes us faster than we can do it.' . . . So he left me, and Ihim, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of meansused to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, andfull of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; andwarehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.

John Evelyn took even less note of the fire during its first hours than hadPepys. His journal entry for the 2nd, the day on which Pudding Lane firsterupted, contains only the briefest of mentions. By the following day,however, Evelyn was drawn into the unfolding spectacle:

I had public prayers at home. The fire continuing, after dinner I tookcoach with my wife and son and went to the Bank side in Southwark, where webeheld that dismal spectacle, the whole city in flames near the water side;all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames street, and upwards towardsCheapside, down to the Three Cranes, were now consumed: and so [we]returned exceeding astonished what would become of the rest.

The fire having continued all this night (if I may call that nightwhich was 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 onfoot to the same place, and saw the whole south part of the city burningfrom Cheapside to the Thames, and all along Cornhill, (for it likewisekindled back against the wind as well as forward), Tower street, Fen-churchstreet, Gracious street, and so along to Bainard's Castle, and was nowtaking hold of St. Paul's church, to which the scaffolds contributedexceedingly. The conflagration was so universal, and the people soastonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency orfate, but crying out and lamentation, running about like distractedcreatures without at all attempting to save even their goods; such astrange consternation there was among them, so as it burned both in breadthand length, the churches, public halls, Exchange, hospitals, monuments, andornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner, from house to house andstreet to street, at great distances from one the other; for the heat witha long set of fair and warm weather had even ignited the air and preparedthe materials to conceive the fire, which devoured after an incrediblemanner houses, furniture, and everything. Here we saw the Thames coveredwith goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some hadtime and courage to save, as, on the other, the carts, &c. carrying out tothe fields, which for many miles were strewed with moveables of all sorts,and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could getaway. Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the worldhad not seen since the foundation of it, nor be outdone till the universalconflagration thereof. All the sky was of a fiery aspect, like the top of aburning oven, and the light seen above 40 miles round about for manynights. God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above10,000 houses all in one flame; the noise and cracking and thunder ofpeople, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideousstorm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was notable to approach it, so that they were forced to stand still and let theflames burn on, which they did for near two miles in length and one inbreadth. The clouds also of smoke were dismal and reached upon computationnear 50 miles in length. Thus I left it this afternoon burning, aresemblance of Sodom, or the last day. It forcibly called to my mind thatpassage–non enim hic habemus stabilem civitatum: the ruinsresembling the picture of Troy. London was, but is no more! Thus, Ireturned.

Sept. 4th.
The burning still rages, and it was now gotten as far asthe Inner Temple; all Fleet street, the Old Bailey, Ludgate hill, Warwicklane, Newgate, Paul's chain, Watling street, now flaming, and most of itreduced to ashes; the stones of St. Paul's flew like [grenades], themelting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavementsglowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread onthem, and the demolition had stopped all the passages, so that no helpcould be applied. The eastern wind still more impetuously driving theflames forward. Nothing but the Almighty power of God was able to stopthem, for vain was the help of man.

Sept. 5th.
It crossed towards White-hall; but oh, the confusion there wasthen at that Court! It pleased his Majesty to command me among the rest tolook after the quenching of Fetter lane end, to preserve if possible thatpart of Holborn, whilst the rest of the gentlemen took their several posts,some at one part, some at another (for they now began to bestir themselves,and not till now, who hitherto had stood as men intoxicated, with theirhands across) and began to consider that nothing was likely to put a stopbut the blowing up of so many houses as might make a wider gap than any hadyet been made by the ordinary method of pulling them down with engines;this some stout seamen proposed early enough to have saved near the wholecity, but this some tenacious and avaricious men, aldermen, &c. would notpermit, because their houses must have been [among the first to belevelled]. It was therefore now commanded to be practised, and my concernbeing particularly for the Hospital of St. Bartholomew near Smithfield,where I had many wounded and sick men, made me the more diligent to promoteit; nor was my care for the Savoy less. It now pleased God by abating thewind, and by the industry of the people, when almost all was lost, infusinga new spirit into them, that the fury of [the fire] began sensibly toabate about noon, so as it came no farther than the Temple westward, northan the entrance of Smithfield north: but continued all this day and nightso impetuous toward Cripplegate and the Tower as made us all despair; italso broke out again in the Temple, but the courage of the multitudepersisting, and many houses being blown up, such gaps and desolations weresoon made, as with the former three days consumption, [that] the back firedid not so vehemently urge upon the rest as formerly. There was yet nostanding near the burning and glowing ruins by near a furlong's space.

The coal and wood wharfs and magazines of oil, rosin, &c. didinfinite mischief, so as the invective which a little before I haddedicated to his Majesty and published, giving warning of what mightprobably be the issue of suffering those shops to be in the City, waslooked on as a prophecy.

The poor inhabitants were dispersed about St. George's Fields, andMoorfields, as far as Highgate, and several miles in circle, some undertents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag or anynecessary utensils, bed or board, who from delicateness, riches, and easyaccommodations in stately and well furnished houses, were now reduced toextremest misery and poverty.

In this calamitous condition I returned with a sad heart to myhouse, 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 andsound.


The fire destroyed about four-fifths of the city, including roughly13,200 houses, nearly 90 parish churches, and nearly 50 livery companyhalls–in all an area of more than 430 acres. In the aftermath, SirChristopher Wren, the great architect, designed and oversaw theconstruction of 49 new churches, as well as the new St. Paul's Cathedral.Amazingly, the fire claimed only 16 lives and may actually have savedcountless more. After 5th September, the Black Plague, which had ravishedLondon since 1664, abruptly declined, probably because so few of the ratsthat helped to transmit the disease escaped the flames.

Samuel Pepys is the best known diarist of his day. Although he wasa minor public official, his diary contains more details of his privatelife than of London politics. Still, his accounts of both the Black Deathand the Great Fire show that he was less than in awe of persons holdinghigh office.

John Evelyn was an English writer best known for his diary, which,along with that of Samuel Pepys, provides us with our best glimpse into thesocial world of 17th century London. Evelyn was an ardent Royalist duringthe English Civil War, and held several minor offices after theRestoration.



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