The Great Fire devastated London 350 years ago. From its ashes arose St Paul’s Cathedral and fifty-two churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
The English poet John Milton was living in London when, after exceptional rain in 1664 and 1665, London experienced the long hot summer of 1666, which turned its wooden buildings tinder-dry. A fire was inevitable, although not its extent. According to The London Gazette (3-10 September 1666):
“At one o’clock in the Morning, there happened to break out, a sad and deplorable Fire in Pudding-lane, near New Fish-street, which falling out at that hour of the night, and in a quarter of the Town so close built with wooden pitched houses spread itself so far before day, and with such distraction to the inhabitants and Neighbours, that care was not taken for the timely preventing the further diffusion of it, by pulling down houses, as ought to have been; so that this lamentable Fire in a short time became too big to be mastered by any Engines or working near it. It fell out most unhappily too, that a violent Easterly wind fomented it, and kept it burning all that day, and the night following spreading itself up to Grace-church-street and downwards from Cannon-street to the Water-side, as far as the Three Cranes in the Vintrey.”
Thomas Farriner closed his Pudding Lane bakery on Saturday evening, 1 September 1666. He raked over the coals in the bake-house hearth, as he did every night, and went to bed. But something caught fire and Farriner’s manservant, who slept downstairs, woke soon after midnight to find smoke filling the ground floor. He struggled upstairs and roused Farriner, his daughter Hanna and the housemaid. But by now, there was no way down.
They decided to climb out of an upper window and into their neighbour’s bedchamber. Hanna was badly burnt, but she managed to scramble to safety along the eaves with her father. They were followed by the manservant. Only the maid was left in the house, too frightened of heights or too confused by the noise and the smoke. She died there, the first victim of the Great Fire. No one knows her name.
Samuel Pepys recorded in his famous diary (2 September 1666) being woken by his maidservant, Jane, who told him 300 houses had been destroyed. Pepys dressed and “rode down to the waterside … and there saw a lamentable fire … everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging them 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. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.”
Since 1664 England had been at war with Holland and just a few weeks earlier Londoners had celebrated a raid on the town of West-Terschelling in Friesland where English sailors burnt a thousand homes. In London, as gales fanned the flames westwards, word spread that the conflagration was an act of revenge; that the Pudding Lane bakery was owned by a Dutchman who had set fire to it deliberately; and that his countrymen were following his example as a prelude to invasion. Another false rumour blamed French Catholics, and until 1830 Charles II’s Monument commemorating the Fire carried a plaque censuring popery.
None of this was true, but a wave of xenophobic violence broke out. Instead of fighting the fires, mobs roamed the streets, beating up anyone – Dutch, Portuguese, French, and Flemish – who looked foreign. Looting was widespread, with people stealing from warehouses, shops, and private residences. London was gridlocked as those trying to escape the flames were obstructed by wagons and carts from the surrounding countryside, offering their services at vastly inflated prices. And soon, refugee camps began to spring up north and south of the River Thames.
It took four days to extinguish the fire and decades for the silver lining to become apparent: the rebuilding of London by Sir Christopher Wren.
In 1634, 30 years before the Great Fire, John Milton wrote “Comus”, a masque in honour of chastity. Lost on a journey through the woods, a character called the Lady encounters the drunken god of revelry, Comus, disguised as a villager. It is night time but she thinks she sees a glimmer of light:
“I did not err: there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.”