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Feature essay

The great fire of London

An expanding city

Restoration London was a thriving, growing city, with a population that the pioneer demographer John Graunt estimated at 384,000. The metropolis, consisting of London, Westminster, and Southwark, was by far the country's largest and richest city, and it contained the principal royal palace, the court and parliament, and the courts of law. Its growth since the mid-sixteenth century, when its population had been roughly 120,000, had brought problems of overcrowding and shoddy housing, with buildings subdivided and gardens and yards obliterated. The City's first building controls were issued around 1200 and developed thereafter to regulate construction standards and materials, eradicating the use of thatch. Alarmed at London's inexorable growth and following a proclamation issued in 1580, successive governments also gave orders to limit the erection of new buildings, prohibit the subdivision of houses, and maintain standards of construction.

  Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) by John Hayls, 1666 Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) by John Hayls, 1666
Fire was a serious and frightening danger in a crowded urban environment, but the regulations concerning hazardous practices, such as inadequate chimneys and the storage of fuel, enforced by the local officers, reduced the risks. Firefighting equipment consisted chiefly of stocks of leather buckets and, from about 1640, fire-engines, which were widely praised. Writing in 1657, James Howell was confident that ‘There's no place … better armed against the fury of the fire; for besides the pitched Buckets that hang in Churches and Halls, there are divers new Engines for that purpose’ (J. Howell, Londinopolis, 1657, 398). Water supplies had kept pace with population growth. From the 1580s wells and conduits were supplemented by river water raised to street level by waterwheels, first built by Peter Morris and placed between some of the arches of London Bridge, and—by a scheme implemented by Sir Hugh Myddelton—from a canal that brought water from Hertfordshire. But when a fire began the watchmen had to raise the alarm promptly, especially in dry and windy weather and at night. A swift response was essential, for once a blaze had taken a firm hold, it was very difficult to control.

In a society in which divine intervention in human affairs was generally accepted, accidents were attributable to God's wrath, sent as a punishment for sin, and the city could escape disasters only by repentance. Some puritan writers saw no such repentance and so issued dismal prophecies warning sinful London of a fiery fate. They included Thomas Reeve in 1657, Daniel Baker in 1659, and, most specific of all, the Quaker Humphry Smith, who in 1660 predicted a fire that could not be quenched. The plague epidemic that struck in 1665 killed roughly one-fifth of Londoners and was seen as divine punishment, but the danger was not yet past, for 666 is the number of the beast, who could bring fire from heaven, and so 1666 was anticipated with foreboding. Richard Edlin, an astrologer, had forecast the plague and now warned of great destruction by fire. Even the naval administrator Samuel Pepys expected ‘a year of great action, but what the consequence of it will be, God knows’ (Pepys, Diary, 7.55). He may have feared an uprising by those desperate to replace the monarchy of Charles II with a godly republic, or perhaps defeats in the war against the United Provinces and France. In fact the naval campaigns went well, but towards the end of August a fierce easterly gale sprang up which drove the English fleet out of the North Sea. The summer had been hot and dry.

The great fire

Some time after one o'clock on the morning of Sunday 2 September 1666 a fire broke out in the Pudding Lane premises of Thomas Farriner, who held the post of conduct of the king's bakehouse and supplied the navy with ship's biscuit. He later denied that fuel left there to dry had ignited, but by the time that the family realized what was happening they could not get downstairs and had to escape across the roof. Their maidservant did not follow them and was killed. The blaze soon attracted the attention of the watchmen and they alerted the lord mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, even though it was his birthday. For whatever reason, his judgement of the threat that the fire posed was to comment dismissively that a woman could piss it out. He would not order the demolition of buildings to create a firebreak, asking who would pay the compensation for them.

Sir  John Robinson (bap. 1615, d. 1680) by John Michael WrightSir John Robinson (bap. 1615, d. 1680) by John Michael Wright
Fanned by the strong easterly wind, the flames spread to buildings nearby and then to Thames Street and the wharves along the river, where stocks of coal, wood, animal oils and fats, with all kinds of other goods, had been accumulated for the coming winter, and they burned readily. By Sunday morning it was clear that a major disaster was in the making, but the response was sluggish because fewer people were up and about than on a weekday. William Taswell, a schoolboy at Westminster, was not aware of the conflagration until mid-morning. Pepys was off-hand at first, but became thoroughly alarmed and consulted Sir John Robinson, the lieutenant of the Tower, before hurrying to Whitehall to report to the king. In the afternoon Charles II and James, duke of York, went by barge to assess the situation and on Monday, as the fire spread remorselessly, the king ordered the establishment of eight fire posts from which the firefighters' efforts would be directed, putting the duke in overall control. Both were praised for their efforts in encouraging the firefighters and John Dolben, dean of Westminster, supervised the men who saved the church of St Dunstan-in-the-East. Despite a few similar successes and the attempts to create firebreaks, because of the heat and smoke, the congestion of buildings, burning debris blown ahead of the flames, the quantities of fuel and hay, the bustle of people trying to save their possessions, the debris from collapsed buildings blocking the streets and alleys, the increasing weariness of those struggling to douse the flames, and the relentless wind, the fires could not be contained and continued to burn until the wind dropped late on Wednesday 5th.

Arson by foreigners was strongly suspected and many were assaulted, especially French and Dutchmen. Robert Hubert [see under Farriner, Thomas], from Rouen, was arrested in Romford when he bragged of starting the fire and was later hanged, solely on the basis of his own unsatisfactory confession, even though the enquiries into the cause of the blaze concluded that it had begun accidentally. Some preferred to see it as divine retribution; Thomas Vincent enumerated twenty-five sins that Londoners had committed and even the Anglican John Evelyn thought that the disaster was ‘what we highly deserved for our prodigious ingratitude, burning Lusts, dissolute Court, profane & abominable lives’ (Evelyn, Diary, 500). On the other hand, courtiers such as Baptist May derived a certain smug satisfaction from the disaster suffered by the citizens, who had supported parliament during the civil war and failed to prevent the execution of Charles I in 1649.

 Extent of destruction by the great fire 1666 Extent of destruction by the great fire 1666
The City from the Tower to the Temple and as far north as the city wall was burnt. St Paul's Cathedral, eighty-seven churches, six consecrated chapels, fifty-two livery companies' halls, the Custom House, the Royal Exchange, Blackwell Hall, Newgate prison, Bridewell, two debtors' prisons, the Sessions House, and 13,200 houses were destroyed and the Guildhall was gutted. At least 65,000 and perhaps almost 80,000 Londoners were made homeless; for many of them the destruction of their homes was a shattering blow. Yet within a few days they found accommodation and some quickly built cabins among the ruins. Only six people were reported killed. According to Vincent, ‘The Fire … came on so slowly, that most of the inhabitants of London had time to remove themselves and the choicest of their goods: some livelihood was left, and materials for a future trade’ (T. Vincent, God's Terrible Voice in the City, 1667, repr. 1997, 160). Much of the wealth of the goldsmiths and merchants, such as Sir Thomas Vyner, Sir Richard Browne, and Edward Backwell, was in money and bills and was easily saved. It was the bulky goods, including oil, timber, and coal, that were lost, and when coal prices rose sharply those whose stock had escaped were condemned for profiteering, including Edmund Berry Godfrey, who, ironically, was knighted for his efforts during the fire. The booksellers and printers, concentrated in St Paul's churchyard, suffered badly; stocks of books by Edmund Castell, Sir William Dugdale, John Goad, and Christopher Merret among others were burnt. A plausible estimate of the value of the buildings, trade, and household goods destroyed is almost £8 million (almost £900 million today). No other accidental fire in a city in western Europe has been so destructive. Even so, four-fifths of the metropolis escaped untouched.

Rebuilding

Sir  Christopher Wren (1632–1723) by Edward Pierce, c.1673Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) by Edward Pierce, c.1673
Within a few days plans showing imaginative new street layouts were submitted to the king by Evelyn, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Peter Mills, and the cartographer Richard Newcourt the elder, who produced two. None was implemented: the practical, tenurial, and financial difficulties could not have been overcome. But accurate plans were needed as a basis for rebuilding. Immediately after the fire the king directed Wenceslaus Hollar and Francis Sandford to survey the City, and the corporation commissioned a team of surveyors, whose results were presented on a plan drawn by John Leake, completed in March 1667 and engraved by Hollar, who also produced contrasting views of the City from Southwark before and after the fire. John Overton [see under Overton family] and Robert Pricke also issued plans of the post-fire city, and a large-scale plan was undertaken by John Ogilby, who had been almost ruined by the conflagration, with William Leybourn as its principal surveyor. This was issued in 1676, after Ogilby's death, by William Morgan, his step-grandson.

The king also appointed a commission to consider the rebuilding, consisting of Wren, Sir Roger Pratt, Hugh May, Hooke, Mills, and Edward Jerman. From their proposals emerged the Rebuilding Act of 1667 and orders by the corporation's common council. These measures specified that the new houses were to be built according to four types, or rates, and that their external walls were to be of brick or stone and their roofs covered with tiles. Some streets were widened, a new one was laid out leading from the Guildhall, and the market places were resited. To finance the public buildings a duty was imposed on coal landed in the port of London. Another act created a fire court, to settle quickly questions and disputes over ownership and tenure. The legislation was drafted by Sir Matthew Hale, chief baron of the exchequer, who sat as one of the judges.

  Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677) self-portrait, 1647 Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677) self-portrait, 1647
Money and credit were available to pay for the new houses and the livery companies' halls, but it took time to accumulate building materials, and Dutch naval successes in the summer of 1667 were also partly to blame for the sluggish start to reconstruction. The pace quickened thereafter. Most of the new houses were built by 1672 and the majority of the livery companies' halls by the late 1670s. The Royal Exchange, Custom House, Guildhall, and other public buildings were also rebuilt within a short time and the Monument—a slender Doric column erected close to the site of Farriner's house to commemorate the fire—was finished in 1676. The rebuilding provided a great opportunity for architects and builders. Wren and Hooke were the dominant figures, but others, like Jerman, Edward Pearce, Thomas Fitch, Joshua Marshall [see under Marshall, Edward], Thomas and Edward Strong, and Christopher Kempster, also made significant contributions.

A second rebuilding act in 1670 provided for the construction of fifty-one churches and St Paul's. Wren was given overall control and he, with Hooke, designed the new churches. All of them were in use by 1696, although some steeples and towers were added later. St Paul's was built to Wren's designs and took far longer; it was begun in 1675, and the first service was held there in 1697, but the building was completed only in 1710.

The poorest victims of the fire had to claim charitable help, for there was no insurance, for buildings or possessions. After the fire a scheme to insure houses was devised by the property developer Nicholas Barbon and was adopted in 1680, and other companies were founded later. The fire provided a more direct economic stimulus in the demand for materials and labour, which Sir William Petty estimated to have added £1 million to the economy in each of the four years when the new houses were being built. The need to replace the merchandise that had been destroyed also generated business on a scale that Daniel Defoe, writing early in the eighteenth century, found impressive: ‘It is incredible what a Trade this made all over the whole Kingdom, to make good the Want and to supply that Loss’ (D. Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722, ed. C. Wall, 2003, 214).

The legacy

Allegations that the fire was begun deliberately as part of a Roman Catholic conspiracy were exploited by opponents of the court as powerful political propaganda, especially during the Popish Plot and exclusion crisis later in Charles II's reign. A sentence added to the inscription on the Monument in 1681 blaming the fire on ‘Popish frenzy’ was not finally removed until 1831. The physical consequences were more attractive, at least to the Georgians, less so to the Victorians. The streets, buildings, and distinctive skyline produced by the rebuilding were recorded by such artists as Thomas Malton the elder, John Collet, Thomas Hosmer Shepherd [see under Shepherd, George Sidney], and Antonio Canaletto [see Canal, Giovanni Antonio], before they were slowly transformed, as the population of the City declined, with the piecemeal replacement of houses by offices and warehouses. Some buildings were burnt down and twenty-seven of the churches have been demolished or were destroyed during the Second World War along with other buildings. A number of the livery halls and several other post-fire buildings remain. However, it is the surviving churches, the Monument, and, most spectacularly, Wren's great cathedral, that are the striking legacy of London's great fire.

Stephen Porter

Likenesses  

W. Hollar, etching, 1647, NPG; Wenceslaus Hollar [see illus.] · J. Hayls, oils, 1666, NPG; Samuel Pepys [see illus.] · E. Pierce, marble bust, c.1673, AM Oxf.; Sir Christopher Wren [see illus.] · J. M. Wright, oils, Guildhall Art Gallery; Sir John Robinson, first baronet [see illus.] · map, extent of destruction by the great fire, 1666, repro. in F. Sheppard, London: a history (1998), 184 [see illus.]