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350 years ago today, the Great Fire of London began. It started in a baker’s on Pudding Lane, and over the next four days it engulfed some four-fifths of the City of London. Some 13,200 homes, 89 churches and old St Paul’s Cathedral were destroyed.

To get an idea of what it must have been like, there can be no better eyewitness than Samuel Pepys. He wrote at length on this in his diary, describing – as he watched the blaze from “a little alehouse on the Bankside” – “a most horrid and malicious bloody flame, not like the flame of an ordinary fire … we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire … an arch of above a mile long” (eyewitnesses of the Blitz have described that blaze in a similar way). Interestingly, he also described how it was he who convinced the King (Charles II) of the seriousness of the blaze, and he who conveyed the King’s orders to the Lord Mayor (who, to be frank, wasn’t really up to the job).

As an historian, I’ve long been intrigued by a few snippets of information about the Great Fire. One such is the role played by the King’s brother, the Duke of York (the future James II) – his role has, I feel, been downplayed in favour of his (much more popular) brother, but his leadership during the Great Fire was exemplary. It was he who was in charge of pulling down houses to create firebreaks and thus prevent the fire from spreading, and it was also he who ensured the rescue of those who, by virtue of their being foreign, Catholic or both, were threatened by the angry lynch-mobs that were after convenient scapegoats (James himself did not convert to his mother’s religion until 1668 or 1669, although he kept it a secret until the 1670s).

One surprising aspect of both of the things the Duke did during the Great Fire has always been a little surprising; no-one appears to have been killed in the (frankly dangerous) job of demolishing the houses – this would have involved using ‘fire-hooks’ to quite literally pull buildings down, as well as controlled demolitions using gunpowder – and very few died at the hands of the mobs.

In fact, according to the records few people appear to have died in the Great Fire, long seen as a destroyer of property rather than people (in contrast to the Great Plague which preceded it). The official records say that just six people died. Can this really be true? I wanted to look into this further, and my findings have been published on Londonist:

During my research, I managed to find a few more interesting pieces on information about this most momentous of events:
1)      The fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane – famously, the site is as far from the Monument as the Monument is tall (202 feet). Everyone – and this includes the Worshipful Company of Bakers, who put a plaque on the building that stands on the site of the bakery – seems to think that the baker, Thomas Farriner (or Farynor, Faryner, etc) was the King’s baker which leads one to think he was baking bread for Charles II. Not so – he actually had a contract to supply hardtack (ship’s biscuit) for the Navy.

2)      It didn’t bring about an end to the Great Plague; this had largely subsided by the time the fire broke out (it had been at its height during the previous year) and there were a few (but not many) instances of plague-related deaths after the Great Fire.

3)      Old St Pauls – that Medieval Gothic structure that was destroyed in the Great Fire – may well have been threatened with demolition in any case. It had been in decline for years – the spire had been destroyed after being struck by lightning in 1561 and there had been some restoration work done by Inigo Jones before the Civil War. After the Restoration, Christopher Wren was put in charge of restoring the cathedral and advised that it should be demolished – advice that was opposed by both the clergy and the people of London. At the time when the Great Fire broke out, the old cathedral was surrounded by wooden scaffolding – which, along with all of the books and pamplets that were stored in the crypt, greatly assisted the blaze. I can think of two models of the old cathedral that exist for those who want an idea of what it looked like – one is in St Paul’s (appropriately enough) while the other is in the Museum of London.

4)      Charles II was particularly concerned about the actions of the mobs that went on the rampage looking for scapegoats afterwards; remembering that London had backed Parliament during the Civil War, he was afraid that this would lead to a popular uprising against him. The need for a scapegoat would lead to one execution at Tyburn (that of a French watchmaker whose confession was dubious to say the least) and a plaque on the Monument that blamed the Great Fire on “the Popish faction” (ie. Catholics). This was removed during the reign of James II, put back after the Glorious Revolution and later removed for good when Catholics were given the vote in 1830.

5)      Some of the plans for rebuilding London were truly radical and would have resulted in a City of piazzas and wide avenues; in the event, much of the old street plan was retained – albeit with wider streets, better access to the River and a rule stating that new buildings had to be made from brick and stone (not wood).

6)      And finally, something about cheese. Pepys famously recorded burying “my parmazan cheese as well as my wine and other things” in a pit in his garden so that he wouldn’t lose them in the flames – not as crazy as it seemed, for Parmigiano-Reggiano was a highly valuable commodity in the seventeenth century, especially given the cost that would have been involved in transporting it from Italy. In the event, Pepys’s house – he lived on Seething Lane, not far from the Tower, at the time – wasn’t burned down, but he never did record in his diary whether he was able to recover his cheese and wine.

There are numerous ways in which the Great Fire is being commemorated (lots of London’s museums have special exhibitions going on), of which my favourite is the  large wooden sculpture of the City on the Thames which is to be set alight on Sunday afternoon. 

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