Monday, 2 September 2013

The Great Fire of London and its Aftermath

September 2nd  - On this day in 1666, the Great Fire of London broke out in the bakery of Thomas Faryner in Pudding Lane.

The associated Monument is visited on our Thursday morning walk “Aldgate, Bishopsgate and beyond – Priories and Playhouses” and on our Friday afternoon walk “Tower to Temple – The Heart  of the City".

Map showing the area destroyed by the Great Fire (shaded), and the surviving structures (numbered)

The Great Fire of London 
(extract taken from “The Lost City of London” - see our website for further details )

On the evening of Saturday 1st September, 1666, the king’s baker Thomas Farriner or Faryner or Farynor, whose premises were on Pudding Lane, went to bed leaving the fire that heated his oven still burning, in contravention of the curfew law passed six hundred  years previously  by William I, “the Conqueror”  (the word curfew deriving from the Norman French “cover-feu”, meaning, literally, “cover fire”).  In the early hours of the following morning, a spark from the fire settled on a pile of firewood stacked nearby for use on the following working day, and set it  alight. Flames soon engulfed  the house,  and although  Farriner  and his family were able to  escape by climbing through an upstairs window and along the outside of the building to a neighbouring one, his unfortunate maid-servant  stayed put, and burned to death, becoming the first of reportedly mercifully few to die in what was still yet to become the Great Fire.  Her name was Rose.

The fire soon spread from Farriner’s bakery to nearby Fish Street Hill, burning down the “Star Inn”, where flammable faggots and straw were stacked up in the yard, and the church of St Margaret Fish Street Hill,  the first to be destroyed; and thence on to Thames Street, where wood, cloth sails, rope, tar, coal and other flammable materials were stacked up on the river-front.  It  went on to take a firm hold of the City, largely built of wooden houses, weatherproofed with pitch, and separated by only a few feet at ground level, and even less at roof level (on account of the construction of successive storeys further and further out into the street, affording more space, a practice known as jettying), allowing flames to  leap from one to another with ease.    The  spread of the fire was further facilitated by the weather, with the strong easterly wind that had been creaking and rattling shop signs on their hinges now fanning it and carrying it towards the heart of the City;  and everything in its path tinder dry from the preceding exceptionally long, hot, dry summer (which also meant that the supply of water with which to fight it was short).  Fortunately,  its  spread across the river to Southwark was halted at a gap in the buildings on London Bridge that formed a natural firebreak  - ironically,  the result of another fire some thirty years previously.  Nonetheless, Pepys (*1) wrote that he “did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire”, and “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”.  On seeing this, he travelled to Westminster to advise the King that the situation was getting out of hand, later recalling “Having stayed, and in an hours time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, ... to Whitehall and there up to the King’s closet in the Chapel, where I did give them an account that dismayed them all, and the word was carried to the King.  So I was called for, and did tell the King ... 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 spare no houses”.  And at the King’s behest, he returned to the scene, and “At last met my Lord Mayor in Canning Streete ... with a hankercher 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 pull[ing] down houses.  But fire overtakes us faster than we can do it’”.  Pulling down or even blowing up buildings to create further firebreaks did indeed prove a partially successful strategy in fighting the fire, saving the churches of All Hallows Barking and St Olave Hart Street, but unfortunately it was also one that was implemented too late to make much of a difference to the eventual outcome (possibly for fear of law-suits from property owners).  The fire eventually essentially halted in its own tracks, spent, after the wind dropped, on the fourth day.

Recriminations rapidly followed, with  the Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth or Bludworth singled out for criticism over his initial complacency and subsequent indecisiveness (when first informed of the fire, he is reported to have remarked that a woman might have pissed it out, which indeed she might, if she had acted promptly, but he did not, and must soon have come to rue his rash words).  The rudimentary fire brigade was also criticised, for acting in an un-coordinated fashion, and,  in its desperation, digging up roads and cutting pipes to get at the water to fill its  buckets, in so doing cutting off the supply to others.  However, given the chaotic situation they found themselves confronted with, and the tools at their disposal with which to deal with it, including primitive fire engines that looked and likely  handled more like tea trolleys, they would appear to have performed perfectly admirably.   In the  end, everything was essentially ascribed  to an act of God, albeit one that the wit and hand of man would attempt to ensure was never repeated.  (Many, though,  falsely believed the fire to have been deliberately set, by  a fanatical Papist or Dissenter, or by a Dutch or French saboteur; and indeed a Frenchman, Robert Hubert, was executed for having set it, after a confession obtained under duress, and  a “show trial” presided over by members of Farriner’s family - who had their own  reasons to  attach  the blame to  such a convenient scapegoat).

The  stark fact remained that the fire had largely destroyed the City that had witnessed so much history in the making.  As intimated above, loss of life appears to have been comparatively low, although it may have been higher  than reported, given that the fire had evidently been sufficiently hot  as to have  burned bodies to ash within as little as an hour or two (hot enough to melt not only the lead on the rooves of the churches (300degC), but also iron bells (1200degC), glass (1500degC), and even pottery (1700degC)). However, eighty percent of the area within the walls was more or less completely burnt out, and only the extreme north and east had survived substantially  intact (the walls had essentially confined the fire to the City within, although some areas without to the west had also been affected).  Around 13000 private residences and places of business within and immediately without the walls of the City were either essentially or entirely destroyed, alongside 85 parish churches and St Paul’s Cathedral, 45 Livery Company Halls, the Custom House, the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange, the Royal Wardrobe and Castle Baynard.  Damage to property and trade was on an entirely unprecedented scale, as was associated homelessness and loss of livelihood.  Around  100000 persons were made homeless, and had to be temporarily rehoused in camps, like the one on Moorfields, or in those - still substantial - parts of what we might think of as Greater London that were  not affected by the fire.  There would appear to have been a certain amount of profiteering by landlords at this time, and a little later, as rebuilding work began, by builders’ merchants, although the general mood would appear to have been  one of shared hardship and public-spiritedness, somewhat akin to that of the Blitz of the Second World War.

(*1) Aside from Pepys’s  vivid eye-witness account, for which we can perhaps forgive him the infamous “parmazan”  episode, there are a number of  contemporary paintings of the fire at its height, one of which, attributed to Waggoner, survives,  in the Guildhall Art Gallery; and another, by an anonymous artist, in the Museum of London.  A panorama of the aftermath of the fire, by Hollar, survives in the British Museum.  Other  graphic images of the fire and its aftermath also survive, although mainly outside London.  A significant proportion are by Dutch artists, one of whom entitled his work “Sic Punit”, or “Thus He Punishes”  -  remember that England was at war with Holland at the time of the fire.

(extract taken from “The Lost City of London” - see our website for further details)

Would the City ever be rebuilt, or be the same again?     

Well, of course it would, not least because the prosperity of the City was essential not only to that of the country as a whole but also to that of powerful men with vested interests, watching anxiously from the sidelines as “day by day the City’s wealth flowed out of the gate” to other boroughs. 
The Lord Mayor initiated the process essentially straight away, within weeks commissioning a detailed survey of the fire-damaged area of the City to assist with the assessment of compensation claims, and to use as a  template for reconstruction plans.  The survey was undertaken by the Bohemian Wencesla(u)s Hollar (1607-77), who had travelled widely before eventually settling in London, and  earned a reputation as an engraver and print-maker of some skill, specialising in landscape scenes.  Other surveys were undertaken, and maps made, by Doornick, Leake, and Ogilby and Morgan. 

A number of revolutionary reconstruction plans for the City were submitted, by, among others, Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and John Evelyn (1620-1706), any one of which, if implemented,  would have given it a radically new look and feel, much more like  that of the great European cities of the day, and indeed of today, with their uniform architecture, broad boulevards and   open piazzas.  (Evelyn wrote that “In the disposure of the streets, due consideration should be had, what are the competent breadths for commerce and intercourse (!), cheerfulness and state”).  But these  plans were over-ambitious, apart from anything else, and were abandoned on the grounds of practicality in favour of  one requiring much less groundwork, and much more like the old one (although allowing of at least one concession to modernity, in the widening, and freeing  from encumbrance to the flow of traffic, of the streets).  The City that might have been never came to be, and  that that had been would come  to be again:  for the most part neither  particularly beautiful nor harmonious; but, rather,   “lived in” and fractious; and yet, familiar and loved.

The man selected to oversee and implement the chosen reconstruction plan was the aforementioned Christopher Wren, an architect and a  member of an aristocratic family who had finally found favour in the Restoration, after years in the wilderness during the Protectorate and Commonwealth: his assistants, the aforementioned brilliant but curmudgeonly Robert Hooke, memorably described by  Pepys as  “the most,  and promises the least, of any man in the world that I ever saw”; and the young and prodigiously gifted Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736).  Incidentally, Wren was an anatomist and astronomer as well as an architect (one wonders whether he, like Sartre’s autodidact, acquired his learning by reading an encyclopaedia, starting with the letter “A”); a follower of the “New Philosophy” of Francis Bacon (1561-1626); and a founder member of the Royal Society.  He was, in short, an archetypal (English)  Renaissance Man, and, most definitely, the right man, in the right place, at the right time - an unusually happy conjunction in the history of the City. 

Wren and his  office set about their reconstruction work as hastily, or rather speedily,  as practicable, so as to provide  the City with the opportunity of re-establishing itself with the minimum of delay and loss.  In all, they rebuilt 51 parish churches within and immediately without the walls, that is, around half of those that had been destroyed in the Great Fire (*2), together with St Paul’s Cathedral, and also rebuilt numerous other public and private buildings, many in the High (English) Renaissance or Early Baroque style - the cost of the entire enterprise being covered by a tax on coal.  The most glorious of Wren’s many glorious achievements was undoubtedly St Paul’s Cathedral.  The cathedral is faced in plain Portland Stone, wonderfully reflective of the City’s light and mood.  It is crowned with a glorious and iconic dome, making it unique among all the cathedrals of England.  Wren’s simple epitaph inside the cathedral reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, meaning “Reader, should you seek his memorial, look about you”.   On the pediment above the south door is a stone bearing the image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, and the inscription of the single word “Resurgam”, meaning “I shall rise again” (the inscription repeating  that on another stone found by one of Wren’s workmen among the debris of the  old, burnt-out cathedral - a positive portent if ever there was one). 

And so, out of the ashes arose  a new London.  And England was re-born. 

(*2) Of  these 51 churches, 30 are still standing, together with St Paul’s Cathedral, and 21 are not.  Of  the 21 that are no longer  standing, 17,   far more than one might have hoped, were demolished by our own over-zealous town planners and engineers in the pell-mell expansion of London following the Industrial Revolution – in some cases, at least marginally justifiably,  to  allow for development, but in many others simply because they were deemed, under the incomprehensibly philistine Union of Benifices Act of 1860, to be surplus to requirements!  Only 4, far fewer than one might have feared, were completely destroyed by German bombing during the Blitz of the Second World War.  However,  a number of others were also damaged to varying extents at this time, some of which were subsequently restored, and  some left as empty shells.   Two, St Mary Aldermanbury and St Stephen Coleman Street, were destroyed,  and 8,   Christ Church, St Alban, St Andrew by the Wardrobe, St Anne and St Agnes, St Augustine, St Bride, St Lawrence Jewry and St Vedast alias Foster, damaged, on a single, fateful night, Sunday 29th December, 1940, when thousands of incendiaries were dropped on an essentially unguarded City.

At  least many of the  original plans of these recently lost churches still survive, as do some later paintings and photographs.

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