This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
Samuel Pepys was fast asleep when, at three in the morning of Sunday 2 September 1666, one of his maids, Jane Birch, banged on the door with the news that there was a “great fire” in the City of London. “So I rose and slipped on my nightgowne,” Pepys wrote later, “and went to her window.” There he saw the telltale tinge of red in the distance. In fact, the fire had already been blazing for a couple of hours, having broken out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane. The parish constables thought they should demolish the neighbouring houses to stop it spreading, but the lord mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was not convinced. “Pish!” he famously remarked. “A woman could piss it out.” To be fair, he was not alone in his view that the fire would soon be contained. From his window in Seething Lane, Pepys thought little of it, “and so went to bed again and to sleep”.
By seven in the morning, when Pepys woke again, it seemed that the worst must be over; from his window, he “saw the fire not so much as it was and further off”. But then Jane reappeared with bad news. Almost 300 houses, she said, had burned down already; now the fire had reached Fish Street, near London Bridge. Alarmed, Pepys pulled on his clothes and walked to the Tower, where he went up to get a better view. “And there,” he recorded, “I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge.”
His heart overflowing with worry, he scurried down to the waterside and called for a boat, and now the full scale of the disaster became clear. The Thames presented a spectacle of calamity, “everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; 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.” Even the pigeons, he noticed, seemed transfixed by the catastrophe: “loth to leave their houses,” they “hovered about the windows” until their wings caught fire and they fell to earth.
By now it was mid-morning. Whipped up by the eastern wind, the flames were leaping from house to house, consuming all in their path. Built from wood and straw, clustered together in tight alleys, London’s tenements were the perfect tinderbox, their overhanging jetties making it easier for the fire to move from street to street. At Whitehall, a frightened Pepys warned Charles II that “unless his majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire”. Clearly much troubled, the king ordered him to find the lord mayor, and to tell him “to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way”.
But when Pepys caught up with Sir Thomas Bloodworth in Canning Street, the mayor was like “a fainting woman”, with a handkerchief tied around his face to protect him from the smoke. “Lord! what can I do?” Bloodworth cried. “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.”
And so the fire burned on. In Thames Street, stores of pitch and tar were ablaze; in neighbouring streets, warehouses of oil, brandy and wine were up in flames. Pepys himself went off for dinner, which, he recorded, was “extraordinarily good”. But when he emerged, it was to scenes of utter chaos, the streets full of weeping families and soot-stained refugees. That night, he and his wife went for a drink on the South Bank, the City glowing red in the night. “It made me weep to see it,” Pepys wrote. “The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins.”
The inferno blazed on, all Monday and all Tuesday, only dying down when the wind fell on Wednesday. In the long run, it was the making of modern London: without the fire, there would be no St Paul’s and far fewer Wren churches. But at the time, there seemed no consolation. The smouldering city seemed like a vision of the Apocalypse, wrote the diarist John Evelyn. “London was, but is no more.”
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.