September 5, 2016 11 Comments
And so 350 years ago, yesterday, the King’s baker in London, did not properly attend to putting his oven out, and London burned. Thus the Great Fire of London. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary…
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. . . . 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 . . . of the bridge. . . .
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, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish Street already. So I rode down to the waterside, . . . and there saw a lamentable fire. . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; 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. And among other things, 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.
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] to Whitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat); 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. . . .
[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 save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon 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.’ . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.
The city was, of course, a tinderbox, being built of half-timbered buildings, covered in pitch, and with thatch roofs. And in fact, fires had become common since the invention of the chimney in Tudor times. But I can’t think of one between London, in the 13th century, and Chicago in the 1870s that so caught the imagination or was quite so fearsome.
Last night (local time) London commemorated it with the burning of a mock up on the Thames. It was quite the sight itself. One could pretty much imagine what it must have been like, and watching Old St. Paul’s collapse, was quite moving. I’m inclined to think, they talked too much on the live feed, but still, it was much better than merely hearing about it.
As Rebecca Rideal noted here, 1665 was not a great year for England. It started off with a naval defeat from France, continued with the last outbreak of The Plague, and then this. One of the things I do like about this video, and British TV in general, is that they have a group of actual historians (and good ones, as well) who do a fair amount of presenting, you saw several of them in this video.
A spectacular, and moving, commemoration of one of history’s magnificent, and terrible tragedies. Well done.