The date was Sunday 2 September 1666, and Samuel Pepys was enjoying a good night’s rest. The previous day he’d been to the theatre, avoided someone he didn’t like and repaired to Islington. He ate, drank and became “mighty merry”, before singing all the way home, writing some letters and falling into bed. Hardly surprising, then, that when his maid called him at three o’clock in the morning to look at a fire across town, he decided it was far enough away not to worry about and went straight back to sleep.
The Great Fire of London: key facts
When did it start?
2 September 1666
When did it end?
5 September 1666
How much damage did it cause?
It is thought that the Great Fire of London destroyed up to four-fifths of the City of London, including most of the civic buildings, old St Paul’s Cathedral, 87 churches, and around 13,000 houses
How many people died?
“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,” says historian Rebecca Rideal
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Pepys wasn’t the only one. The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, took one look at the blaze, declared “a woman might piss it out,” and dived back under the covers. In the days that followed, his weak leadership added fuel to a fire that became one of the greatest catastrophes the city has seen. A spark from a baker’s oven grew into an all-consuming monster that lasted four days. The immediate aftermath was homelessness and ruin for thousands, but the effects can still be seen today.
“The Great Fire is such a well-known disaster it becomes a myth rather than a story,” says Meriel Jeater, curator of the Museum of London’s ‘Fire! Fire!’ exhibition. Modern archaeology, X-ray and microscopic techniques are still uncovering secrets. “We want to reveal the personal stories, we have actual burnt, melted things and fascinating, less-well-known accounts.”
The myth began when someone in Thomas Farynor’s Pudding Lane bakery failed to securely damp down the oven before going to bed. By Monday evening, 300 houses had burned – the final toll would top 13,000.
Mystics, fortune tellers and especially Puritans had predicted doom for the city’s modern, sinful ways even before the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. London, led by the decadent Charles II, enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and was, according to the deeply religious, ripe for a tumble. It was, they claimed, already happening. The Great Plague had taken 100,000 lives the previous year and invasion by the Dutch seemed to be only a matter of time.
The ‘666’ number had not gone unnoticed either. In 1597, an anonymous pamphlet, Babylon is Fallen, had suggested 1666 would be the Year of the Beast, perhaps even the time of Christ’s second coming. Oddly, afterwards, it was commemorated by poet John Dryden as an annus mirabilis (‘year of wonders’).
Restoration London was frivolous and worldly, bustling and cosmopolitan. On narrow, dirty and dark streets, rickety houses were built from wood and thatch. Their protruding upper storeys, ‘jetties’, almost met at the top. Filth rained onto unwary pedestrians from upstairs windows. Inside, people lit their houses with candles and cooked with open fires. There was hay in the stables, pitch on the roofs, tar in the shipyards and even gunpowder in many homes, as Cromwell’s soldiers retained their muskets from the civil wars. Given the city’s flammability, doom-mongers’ predictions of an apocalyptic inferno could hardly be deemed radical.
Test your knowledge of the Great Fire of London, which broke out on 2 September 1666…
We have several eye-witness accounts of the fire. The most famous is that of Pepys, whose access to famous figures such as the King, the Duke of York and the Lord Mayor make his version pivotal. Pepys’s friend John Evelyn, another diarist, lived in Deptford but came to town to see the kerfuffle. Letters and memoirs from ordinary people provide glimpses of what went on below the surface. Sir Edward Harley’s account mentions Farynor’s bakery maid, who, he says, was too scared to climb onto the roof next door with the rest of the household and became the fire’s first victim. Unless in the fire’s immediate path, people didn’t panic – at first. Strong winds from the east, however, fanned the flames, and disagreement and indecision allowed things to get out of hand. Postmaster James Hickes was forced to flee from the post office, but not before taking as many letters as he could carry. With no reliable information, rumour and hearsay took over.
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Firefighting was the job of the Watch, ‘bell-men’ who patrolled the streets at night. Every church stored basic equipment – fire hooks (long poles to demolish precarious buildings), ladders, leather buckets, axes and ‘squirts’ (the 17th-century Super Soaker). The few ‘fire engines’ were clumsy and the river had no quays, so firefighters had to trundle them to the water as best they could. Several toppled into the Thames.
The Museum of London holds an incomplete fire engine from around 1678. As part of the ‘Fire! Fire!’ project, they commissioned Croford Coachbuilders to rebuild the missing parts. “It wasn’t until we put it together again that we could see how it would work,” explains Jeater. “Now the wheels are back on we’ve realised it’s really difficult to turn corners.” The default fire-fighting technique was demolition, but faced with that prospect, the Lord Mayor demurred. He may have feared being personally held to account for the damage, but, whatever his reasons, Bloodworth became a hate figure.
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Pepys described him as “a silly man”. In one of Pepys’s proudest moments, he was called to court to describe the fire to the Kingand the Duke of York. He advised a troubled Charles that buildings must be pulled down. “The King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way. The Duke of York bid me tell him that if he would have any more soldiers he shall.” Pepys made his way back, noting “every creature coming away loaden with goods to save, and here and there sicke people carried away in beds”.
When he found Bloodworth, the mayor was “like a man spent, with a handkercher 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 pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’” Bloodworth refused the Duke of York’s soldiers and disappeared to “refresh himself, having been up all night”. Disgusted, Pepys reflected he appeared to be “a very weak man”.
People moved valuables to nearby ‘safety’, then again, and again as the flames licked closer. “I did remove my money and iron chests into my cellar, as thinking that the safest place,” recounts Pepys. “And got my bags of gold into my office, ready to carry away, and my chief papers of accounts.”
It wasn’t long before he would bury his wine and parmesan cheese, for safekeeping. The diarist was helped by the wife of a colleague, Sir William Batten, when, at 4am on Monday 3 September, she sent a cart to carry his things to the safety of a house in Bethnal Green. Pepys didn’t like the Battens – and is regularly rude about them in his diary – but for once he was grateful. Most Londoners weren’t so lucky.
The city streamed with people trying to get out, gridlocked by narrow streets and bottlenecked by the eight gates in the old Roman wall. The river jammedwith boats. “Here we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges & boates laden with what some had time & courage to save, as on the other, the Carts &c. carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with moveables of all sorts, & Tents erecting to shelter both people & what goods they could get away,” writes John Evelyn who, on hearing the news, couldn’t resist taking his wife and son to Southwark to watch the carnage from the South Bank.
Pepys notes one-in-three boats boasted a pair of virginals (a keyboard instrument) and most of the saved goods were, unsurprisingly, luxuries. One witness, Robert Flatman, writing to his lawyer brother, tells him his chambers are down – but his books are safe. The Museum of London holds a half-finished embroidery and set of bed-hangings said to have been saved from the flames.
Most burned. Excavations have fetched up crusty, rusted lumps which, under X-ray, reveal themselves as a padlock and several keys, fused together in London’s furnace. A large iron lump turned out to be a heavy-duty waffle iron, just like ones used today. Archaeologists found, in a building two doors from Farynor’s bakery, melted hooks and eyes, as we might use on clothes, along with heattwisted window glass and partly-melted ceramic floor tiles. “We understand it must have been at least 1,200 degrees to do that,” says Jeater.
However chaotic the flow out of town, it was almost as busy going towards the blaze. With carts and boats suddenly at a premium, it didn’t take long for country folk to realise they could charge extortionate rates to desperate refugees. The fire brought out the worst in some. Fourteen-yearold schoolboy William Taswell, who roamed the ruins, describes his father being robbed by people pretending to help, and mobs attacking foreigners, who were increasingly blamed for the disaster.
But while the Lord Mayor dragged his heels, first-hand reports describe King Charles up to his ankles in water helping to fight the flames. Londoners were impressed at the King’s “labouring in person” and if, to modern ears, his later declaration that no one had lost more than himself doesn’t sound too diplomatic, they knew what he meant.
Fire and brimstone
The conflagration raged on, encouraging Evelyn to join a group of firefighters near Fetter Lane. “The stones of Paules flew like granados, the Lead mealting down the streetes in a streame, & the very pavements of them glowing with a fiery rednesse, so as nor horse nor man was able to tread on them,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Pepys, who had initially taken a boat to watch, before “fire drops” raining from the sky made it too dangerous – had his family’s safety in mind. When his wife Elizabeth woke him at 2am with the flames at the bottom of their lane, it was time to get out. “Lord what sad sight it was by moone-light to see, the whole City almost on fire that you might see it plain at Woolwich,” he wrote, having taken a boat to the nearby port.
Watch: Dan Jones talks to HistoryExtra about walking the route of the fire street by street, following its four-day trail of devastation as it raged through the city
His family safe, Pepys dashed back expecting to find his home consumed, but it wasn’t. The wind had changed, causing the flames to switch course. Pepys climbed the church tower (brave, given its clock had burned) “and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oylecellars and brimstone and other things burning”. He picked his way through the streets, his “feet ready to burn, walking through the towne among the hot coles”, and picking up a piece of glass as a souvenir “melted and buckled with the heat of the fire like parchment”. He watched “a poor cat taken out of a hole in the chimney, joyning to the wall of the Exchange; with, the hair all burned off the body, and yet alive”.
It wasn’t the only time he noted the animals: “The poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were some of them burned their wings, and fell down.” Then at Moorfields he witnessed human suffering. Refugees, who had lost everything overnight, camped in the open air. He described the “wretches”, remarking how prices had taken a sharp hike during the fire: “twopence for a plain pennyloaf”.
A city in ruin: the aftermath of the Great Fire
Probably due to the demolition-policy, the fire stopped at Pye (Pie) Corner on the west of the city, on 5 September, but London was decimated. St Paul’s Cathedral lay in ruins, joined by scores of churches, thousands of homes and the city’s only bridge, itself once covered in shops and dwellings.
People wandered, dazed, through the rubble, looking for their old homes and haunts. Evelyn moved “with extraordinary difficulty, clambring over mountaines of yet smoking rubbish, & frequently mistaking where I was, the ground under my feete so hott, as made me not onely Sweate, but even burnt the soles of my shoes”.
After the fire, the Parish Clerks’ bills of mortality, listing causes of death, were collated, with just six deaths appearing to have been fire-related. “It’s a mystery as to why more deaths aren’t recorded,” says Jeater. “There must have been more.” The true figure of deaths may never be known.
The small number of deaths, however, meant mass misery. Gigantic encampments of around 100,000 homeless people appeared outside the city walls. “The fields are the only receptacle which they can find for themselves and their goods,” writes witness Thomas Vincent, “most of the late inhabitants of London lie all night in the open air, with no other canopy over them but that of the heavens.”
As for Evelyn, he went north to Islington and Highgate, where “two hundred thousand people of all ranks & degrees, dispersed & laying along by their heapes of what they could save from the Incendium, deploring their losse, & though ready to perish for hunger & destitution, yet not asking one penny for reliefe”.
Relief, asked for or not, was on its way, by order of the King. On 10 October, people across the country went to church, fasted for the day and donated money to destitute Londoners. The new lord mayor, Sir William Bolton, for whom everyone had high hopes after Bloodworth, was in charge of administrating the £12,000 raised. It all ended in scandal, however, when he couldn’t account for £1,800 and had to resign. Pepys, no fan of his predecessor, called Bolton’s actions “the greatest piece of roguery that they say was ever found in a Lord Mayor”.
London was never be the same again. “I could not sleep till almost two in the morning through thoughts of fire,” Pepys wrote months later, in February 1667. Rebuilding, with fire-resistant bricks and mortar, had begun, but the mental scars would be harder to erase.
Paying the price: fire judges
Nobody agreed about who should pay for rebuilding. Many landlords required tenants to continue paying for homes that didn’t exist anymore – some even claimed tenants should rebuild their homes at their own expense. The Fire of London Disputes Act declared: “Every one concerned should beare a proportionable share of the losse according to their severall Interests,” but admitted that “wherein in respect of the multitude of cases varying in their circumstances, noe certaine generall rule can be prescribed.” To oversee disputes at the Fire Court, 22 men were recruited as firen judges. Speed was imperative, so they usually pronounced judgement within a day of hearing cases. They gave up their time free of charge and heard hundreds of cases. Between 1671-74, portraits of each judge were painted as a thank you.
From the ashes: rebuilding London after the fire
The ground may have been too hot to walk on, but that didn’t stop plans for rebuilding. First off the mark was Christopher Wren (not yet a ‘sir’) on 11 September, with a handsome peacock-tail grid of boulevards radiating from a central monument. He was followed by John Evelyn with a similar structure, containing an elegant kite-design at its centre. There were more radical suggestions, such as the severe, box-like grid of identical squares by Richard Newcourt, or retired army officer Valentine Knight’s terrifying ladderfest of tiny streets.
The plans received varying levels of excitement by Charles II, but none found favour with Londoners. No landowner was prepared to see his few square feet consumed into a giant communal grid. So the medieval criss-cross of alleyways and courtyards was rebuilt, albeit with wider streets and one new road. Strict building regulations dictated construction. Sensible, straight-sided houses were to be built in brick and stone only, with no overhanging jetties. There should be guttering with pipes, not spouts, and the Thames was to have proper quays, accessible by fire engines. Smoke-producing and other dangerous industries were to be sited together, a plan that pleased Evelyn, who had written Fumifugium, one of the first treatise on air pollution in London, in 1661.
Royal surveyor Wren was put in charge of the complex rebuild, working closely with his friend Robert Hooke, the city surveyor (and another polymath, known as an inventor, physicist, astronomer, biologist and artist).
Some structures had survived. The church of St Katherine Cree acted as a canteen for the thousands of labourers building the new city. Its brand-new rose window had been based on one in the old St Paul’s and, today, provides an idea as to how the previous cathedral looked. The Guildhall needed a new roof, but was otherwise relatively unscathed. A merchant’s house, now the OldWine Shades in Martin Lane, and one of the city’s last half-timbered buildings, 41–42 Cloth Fair also survived both the Great Fire and the Second World War. Oddly, there are very few surviving private houses. Lack of good quality materials and poor workmanship ensured most fell down quickly. Wren was very fussy about his materials, ensuring the great public buildings of the time, including St Paul’s Cathedral, were built to last.
Man with the plan: Christopher Wren
Scientist, mathematician, architect, engineer, Christopher Wren was one of a growing group of 17th-century polymaths. The son of a rector, he had grown to prominence as a professor of astronomy, first at London’s Gresham College, then Oxford. He mingled with the great minds of the day and became a founding member of the Royal Society. When Wren visited Paris, he became inspired by continental baroque design, which, combined with his love of physics and engineering, created his own unique style.
Listen: Alexander Larman and Nicholas Kenyon discuss the events and legacy of the 1666 blaze
In charge of rebuilding London, Wren grew frustrated that his original plans were rejected, but he oversaw 51 new churches (23 still survive). His piéce de resistance was, of course, St Paul’s Cathedral. It was a building site before the fire, with piecemeal renovation ongoing instead of Wren’s requested wholesale demolition, which had been refused. But during the Great Fire, the wooden scaffolding surrounding the building created a mini-furnace – so Wren got his way after all. He was knighted in 1673 and went on to design many other famous London landmarks, including the royal hospitals at Greenwich and Chelsea.
London demanded a monument to the great disasters, and Christopher Wren was happy to oblige. He – and his friend Robert Hooke – couldn’t bear the idea of a useless pillar at a time stone was so precious, so the pair of fanatical astronomers sneakily created a precision-instrument, disguised as a classical column. Opened in 1677, its spiral staircase has an open centre, with a secret door at the gilded urn at the top. This meant that Wren and Hooke could sit in an underground room, with their zenith telescope pointed through the stairs and the open trapdoor towards the heavens. Sadly, the only thing the two scientists couldn’t control was the rumble of traffic on the cobbled streets outside, which made their telescope practically unusable.
Who was to blame for the Great Fire of London?
Everyone looked to blame someone for the fire, with Roman Catholics under most suspicion, followed closely by foreigners. The ‘Fire! Fire!’ exhibition includes a woodcut of the Pope, sitting on his throne in the Vatican with a giant pair of bellows fanning London’s flames. The Calendar of State Papers claimed, “the destruction of London by fire is reported to be a hellish contrivance of the French, Hollanders, and fanatic party”. Things got ugly.
Then, out of the blue, French watchmaker Robert Hubert confessed. His story was shaky – he claimed he started the fire in Westminster, despite the flames never even reaching that far, then changed his tale to Pudding Lane, the fire’s base. Hubert’s mental condition was clearly unstable. The Earl of Clarendon watched his trail and described him as “a poor, distracted wretch”. Even the judge didn’t believe him, but he stuck to his story and all they could do was hang him. After his death, it was discovered Hubert hadn’t even been in London when the fire started.
Much of the blame culture was so Londoners could avoid looking at themselves. Thomas Vincent, a Puritan preacher, published God’s Terrible Voice in the City by Plague and Fire in 1667, voicing what many secretly suspected – that God punished them for their sinful ways, not least those of Charles II’s extravagant court. In 1681, a plaque blaming papists for the fire was erected in Pudding Lane. It had to be removed in the 18th century, not as it offended Catholics, but as it caused congestion as people stopped to read it. An inscription on the Monument itself, also blaming the Roman church, wouldn’t be removed until the 1830s.
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed