When London burned: 1666’s Great Fire
Thomas Farriner was a baker who served King Charles II, supplied bread to the Royal Navy, and lived in Pudding Lane, London. All regular, until he went to bed on the night of September 1, 1666 leaving the fire that heated his oven still burning.
As a result, in the early hours of the following morning, sparks from the fire caused flames that soon engulfed the entire house. Farriner, sometimes spelt Faryner or Farynor, escaped with his family by climbing through an upstairs window, but his maidservant, Rose, died in the fire.
She was one of only 16 people recorded to have died in what became known as the Great Fire of London, which caused colossal damage to the city’s infrastructure. And although official casualties were mercifully few, it is likely that there were many more unknown victims, their bodies being literally “cremated” in the blaze.
As the fire spread and raged day and night for four days, 80 per cent of London’s buildings were claimed by the flames, in an esteem that included over 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, 52 Livery Company halls, the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange and St Paul’s Cathedral. London of 1666 was a city of medieval houses made mostly of oak timber. Some of the poorer houses had walls covered with tar, which kept out the rain but made the structures more vulnerable to fire. Streets were narrow, houses were crowded together, and the firefighting methods of the day consisted of neighborhood bucket brigades armed with pails of water and primitive hand pumps.
Sparks from Farrinor’s bakery leapt across the street and set fire to straw and fodder in the stables of the Star Inn. From the Inn, the fire spread to Thames Street, where riverfront warehouses were packed full with flammable materials such as tallow for candles, lamp oil, spirits, and coal. These stores lit aflame or exploded, transforming the fire into a hell.
In the words of the great diarist Samuel Pepys: “Medieval London is now all in dust.”
His diary entry for this day, September 2, 1666 reads: “Jane [his maid] called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown, and went to her window; and thought it to be far enough off, and so went to bed again.
By and by Jane comes and tells me that the fire is now burning all down Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I walked to the Tower [of London]; and there got up upon one of the high places; and did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the end of the bridge.
So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the water-side, and there got a boat and there saw a lamentable fire, every body endeavouring to remove their goods, and 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 [stairway] by the waterside, to another.
I saw a fire as one entire arch of fire above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses are all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made and the cracking of the houses.
Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, I to White Hall, and did tell the King what I saw; and that, unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down [to create fire-breaks], nothing could stop the fire.”
Like Pepys, the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, was initially not too disturbed. “A woman could piss it out,” he allegedly replied when told that the fire was a cause for concern.
In any case, after his meeting with Pepys the King took charge of the operation to save the city and create fire-breaks: this meant knocking down perfectly good buildings but starving the fire of the wood it needed to burn. However, it had been a hot, dry summer, and a strong wind further encouraged the flames.
Fortunately, by the fourth day, the wind that had helped the fire spread turned on itself and drove the flames back into what had already been burned. So the fire had nothing new to ignite and gradually died out by itself.
Ironically, the fire brought a great blessing: It had destroyed the filthy streets associated with the Great Plague of the year before and slums were simply burned away. Moreover the River Fleet, a tributary that flowed into the River Thames, that was nothing more than an open sewer associated with disease and poverty, was effectively boiled by the fire that sterilised it.
The task now was to re-plan and re-build, and Christopher Wren, one of England’s most highly acclaimed architects, was called in to mastermind the project. He made his stunning re-designed St Paul’s Cathedral the centrepiece of a new London. To prevent future fires, most new houses were built of brick or stone and separated by thicker walls. Narrow alleyways were forbidden and streets were made wider. Permanent fire departments, however, did not become a fixture in London until well into the 18th century.
And Samuel Pepys?
As the fire spread he personally carried items from his home to be taken away on a Thames barge. On the second evening, he records in his diary, “I did dig another [hole], and put our wine in it; and my Parmazan cheese, as well as some other things.”
Luckily for him, his house was spared from the fire, but as for the fate of his expensive Italian Parmesan cheese together with wine, we’ll never know, as he did not record in his diary whether he recovered it or not….