10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Great Fire of London

One of the most famous disasters in London's history, the Great Fire of 1666 devastated the heart of England's capital, destroying more than 13,000 houses and badly damaging landmarks including St Paul's Cathedral and the Royal Exchange. But how much do you really know about the blaze?

An illustration depicting the Great Fire of London. (Getty Images)

Rebecca Rideal, author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire, shares 10 lesser-known facts about the Great Fire of London

Advertisement

On 5 September 1666, the 33-year-old Samuel Pepys climbed the steeple of the ancient church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower and was met with the “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning”. Leaving the church, he wandered along Gracechurch Street, Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street towards the Royal Exchange, which he found to be “a sad sight” with all the pillars and statues (except one of Sir Thomas Gresham) destroyed. The ground scorched his feet and he found nothing but dust, ash and ruins. It was the fourth day of the Great Fire of London and, though some parts of the city would continue to burn for months, the worst of the destruction was finally over.

First built in 1576, the Globe theatre burnt to the ground in 1613. During a performance of the play now known as 'Henry VIII', a set of stage cannons were fired and a piece of flaming material from one of the cannons landed on the theatre’s thatched roof, causing the fire. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Thanks in part to Pepys’s vivid diary entries, the story of the Great Fire is well known. Alongside the fortunes of Henry VIII’s wives, the Battle of Britain and the fate of Guy Fawkes, it forms part of a scattering of familiar islands in the muddy quagmire of British history. We all know, roughly speaking, what happened: during the early hours of 2 September 1666, a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse on Pudding Lane, which blazed and spread with such ferocity and speed that within a few days the old City of London was reduced to a charred ruin. More than 13,000 houses, 87 churches and 44 livery halls were destroyed, the historic city gates were wrecked, and the Guildhall, St Paul’s Cathedral, Baynard’s Castle and the Royal Exchange were severely damaged – in some cases, beyond repair.

Those with more than a passing knowledge of the crucial facts might be aware of accounts of King Charles II fighting the fire alongside his brother, the Duke of York; of Samuel Pepys taking pains to bury his prized parmesan cheese; or of the French watchmaker Robert Hubert meeting his death at Tyburn after (falsely) claiming to have started the blaze. Here are 10 more facts you may not know about the Great Fire of London…

1

It did not start on Pudding Lane

Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse was not located on Pudding Lane proper. Hearth Tax records created just before the fire place Farriner’s bakehouse on Fish Yard, a small enclave off Pudding Lane. His immediate neighbours included a waterbearer named Henry More, a sexton [a person who looks after a church and churchyard] named Thomas Birt, the parish ‘clearke’, a plasterer named George Porter, one Alice Spencer, a widow named Mrs Mary Whittacre, and a turner named John Bibie.

Billingsgate, London, pictured in 1598. Until boundary changes in 2003, the ward included Pudding Lane. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Billingsgate, London, pictured in 1598. Until boundary changes in 2003, the ward included Pudding Lane. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
2

The Great Fire of London was not Thomas Farriner’s first brush with trouble

In 1627, the then 10- or 11-year-old Thomas Farriner was discovered by a city constable wandering alone within the city walls, having run away from his master [it is not known why he had a master at this time]. He was detained at Bridewell Prison, where the incident was recorded in the book of minutes.

During the 17th century, Bridewell (a former Tudor palace) was a kind of proto-correctional facility where young waifs and strays would often be sent to receive a rudimentary education, many of them then cherry-picked to become apprentices to the prison’s patrons.

During the boy’s hearing, it transpired that he had attempted to run away from his master three or four times previously. Farriner was released, only to be detained once more in 1628 for the same reason. A year later he was apprenticed as a baker under one Thomas Dodson.

3

Far from levelling the city, the Great Fire of London scorched the skin and flesh from the city’s buildings – but their skeletons remained

The ruins of many of London’s buildings had to be demolished before rebuilding work could begin. A sketch from 1673 by Thomas Wyck shows the extent of the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral that remained. John Evelyn described the remaining stones as standing upright, fragile and “calcined”.

What’s more, the burning lasted months, not days: Pepys recorded that cellars were still burning in March of the following year. With plenty of nooks and crannies to commandeer, gangs operated among the ruins, pretending to offer travellers a ‘link’ (escorted passage) – only to rob them blind and leave them for dead. Many of those who lost their homes and livelihood to the fire built temporary shacks on the ruins of their former homes and shops until this was prohibited.

Old St Paul's Cathedral burning in the Great Fire of London, 1666. By Wenceslaus Hollar. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Old St Paul’s Cathedral burning in the Great Fire of London, 1666. By Wenceslaus Hollar. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
4

At the time of the Great Fire, England was engaged in a costly war with the Dutch Republic and was gearing up for one last battle

The conflict, known as the Second Anglo-Dutch War, was the second of three 17th-century maritime wars to be fought between the English and the Dutch over transatlantic trade supremacy. By September 1666 there had already been five major engagements: the battle of Lowestoft (1665); the battle of Vågen (1665); the Four Days’ Battle (1666); St James’s Day Battle (1666); and Holmes’s Bonfire (1666).

In the confusion of the blaze, some believed that the Great Fire of London had been started by Dutch merchants in retaliation for the last of these engagements – a vicious raid on the Dutch islands of Vlieland and Terschelling – which had occurred barely a month earlier. That attack had been orchestrated by Sir Robert Holmes (renowned for his short fuse and unpredictable nature) and resulted in the destruction of an estimated 150 Dutch merchant ships and, crucially, the torching of the town of West-Terschelling.

While the attack was celebrated with bonfires and bells in London, it appalled the Dutch, and there was rioting in Amsterdam. Aphra Behn – at that time an English spy stationed in Antwerp – wrote how she had seen a letter from a merchant’s wife “that desires her husband to com [sic] to Amsterdam home for that theare [sic] never was so great a desolation & mourning”. Behn was supposed to travel to Dort to continue her espionage, but declared that she “dare as well be hang’d as go”.

5

Though we do not know exactly how many people died as a result of the Great Fire of London, it was almost certainly more than commonly accepted figures

In the traditional telling of the Great Fire story, the human cost is negligible. Indeed, only a few years after the blaze, Edward Chamberlayne claimed that “not above six or eight persons were burnt,” and an Essex vicar named Ralph Josselin noted that “few perished in the flames.” There was undoubtedly enough warning to ensure that a large proportion of London’s population vacated hazardous areas, but for every sick person helped out of their house, there must have been others with no one to aid them. What’s more, parish records hint at a far greater death toll than previously supposed.

At the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, for example, the number of burials increased by a third (presumably a result of citizens from destroyed parishes using this surviving church). Interestingly, there was a disproportionate rise (by two-thirds) in the number of deaths due to being “aged” and an increase in deaths attributed to “fright”. Likewise, the parish records of St Boltoph Bishopsgate show that the mean age at the time of death rose by an astonishing 12 years, from 18.3 to 31.3. This suggests either that older people were more likely to die in the month of September or that, in an age in which infanticide was rife, the deaths of young infants were not being recorded – perhaps even both.

The diarist John Evelyn certainly believed that the foul smell in the air at the time of the fire was caused by the bodies, beds and other combustible goods of “some poor creatures”, and the poet John Dryden – who, it must be said, was out of London at the time – wrote of “helpless infants left amidst the fire”. When reports reached France, a substantial loss of life was implied: “The letters from London speak of the terrible sights of persons burned to death and calcined limbs, making it easy to believe the terror though it cannot be exactly described. The old, tender children and many sick and helpless persons were all burned in their beds and served as fuel for the flames.”

6

Louis XIV of France offered to help

It took more than a week for news of the fire to reach the French royal court in Paris, but when it did there was talk of little else. The Venetian ambassador in the French capital declared that “this accident… will be memorable through all the centuries.”

Privately, Louis XIV must have been thrilled. It was wrongly believed that the fire had destroyed England’s magazine stores and that the English navy would be forced to retire. Because of a 1662 treaty with the Dutch Republic, France had been obliged to enter the Anglo-Dutch War on the side of the Dutch, but the French king had neither the appetite nor the navy to play an active role.

Louis XIV publicly ordered that he would not tolerate “any rejoicings about it [the Great Fire], being such a deplorable accident involving injury to so many unhappy people”, and offered to send aid in the shape of food provisions and anything else that might be required to relieve the suffering of those left destitute.

King Louis XIV of France, c1690. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
King Louis XIV of France, c1690. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
7

There had been a genuine plot to burn the City of London

In April 1666, a group of parliamentarians led by John Rathbone and William Saunders were tried at the Old Bailey and found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Charles II, overthrow government and fire the City of London, letting down the portcullis to keep out assistance. The trial was recorded in the London Gazette, which revealed that the plotters purportedly had the support of a conspirator in Holland and had planned to execute their “Hellish design” on the anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s death, 3 September.

8

People let their imaginations run away with them

By 6 September, news of the fire had travelled as far as Berwick, where local soldiers claimed that they had seen visions of “ships in the air”. Reporting the phenomenon back to Whitehall, one Mr Scott assured his contact that he believed it to have just been their imaginations. As he travelled across Wiltshire to gather more information about the fire, Bulstrode Whitelocke bumped into his friend Sir Seymour Pyle who had “had too much wine”. Pyle claimed that there had been a huge fight between 60,000 Presbyterians and the militia, which had resulted in the death and imprisonment of 30,000 rebels. Whitelocke soon discovered that Pyle had been “drunke & swearing & lying att almost every word”.

London Bridge on fire during the Great Fire of London, 1666. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
London Bridge on fire during the Great Fire of London, 1666. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
9

The Great Fire of London was predicted

A few weeks before the fire, one Mr Light claimed to have been asked by a “zealous Papist”: “You expect great things in ’66, and think that Rome will be destroyed, but what if it be London?”

Meanwhile, five months before the fire Elizabeth Styles claimed to have been told by a Frenchman that at some point between June and October there would not be “a house left between Temple Bar and London Bridge”.

In 1651, an astrologer named William Lilly created a pamphlet entitled Monarchy or No Monarchy that contained illustrative predictions of the future state of England. The images depicted not only a city blazing with fire, but scenes of naval warfare, infestations of rodents, mass death and starvation. Unsurprisingly, Lilly was called in for questioning following the fire of 1666.

10

The Great Fire wasn’t the only blaze in London in 1666

London was thrown into a panic during the evening of 9 November when a fire broke out in the Horse Guard House, next to Whitehall Palace. It was believed that the blaze had been caused by a candle falling into some straw. According to Samuel Pepys, the whole city was put on alarm by the “horrid great fire” and a lady even fell into fits of fear. With drums beating and guards running up and down the streets, by 10pm the fire was extinguished, with little damage caused.

Rebecca Rideal is a specialist factual television producer and writer whose credits include The Adventurers’ Guide to Britain, Bloody Tales of the Tower and David Attenborough’s First Life. She runs the online magazine The History Vault and is currently studying for her PhD on Restoration London during the Great Plague and the Great Fire at University College London.

Advertisement

This article was first published on History Extra in September 2016