Sunday, September 2, 2012

By Permission of Heaven - The Great Fire of London

by Richard Denning

Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . . 
Samuel Pepys Diary for 2nd September 1666

The 2nd of September 1666 was the day that the Great Fire of London started. Today I will give an overview of the fire.

Before the Fire – early 1666.
London, in early 1666, was a city still suffering from the great plague. The death rate was slowing down but new cases were still happening even up to the time of the fire. The King and his court had evacuated the city and the government was run from Oxford through the winter and early spring. Yet in the summer of 1666 life was returning to the city. The markets were open and trade was thriving once more. England was at war with Holland and France and that meant that in the summer the fleet put to sea looking for an engagement that would decide the war. That fleet needed provisions and one of the bakers that supplied the all important ship’s biscuit was Thomas Farriner of Pudding Lane. 

At the time accusations of conspiracy would fly around the city as rapidly as the fire itself. Catholics were to blame, or French or Dutch spies or maybe republicans. Then again maybe it was the will of God. London was a cesspit of sin and the wrath of God would be visited upon it. That at least was the predictions of astrologers before the fire. This year – 1666 – was full of portents of doom and the unrighteous would soon suffer hell fire. That is what people said. 

Eventually the truth came out. It was not the judgement of heaven or the evil act of malicious enemies. No it was merely a baker forgetting to put out his ovens. Thomas Farriner was to blame. Not that he ever admitted to this himself of course.

But we should not blame Farriner. Really it was the case that the city of London in 1666 was ready for this disaster. Most houses in this crowded and congested city were wood and thatch leaning precariously towards each other. The city contained hundreds of workplaces, many of which were fire hazards- foundries, smithies, glaziers and was full of warehouses which had stores and cellars of combustibles. That summer of 1666 had been one of the hottest in living memory making the buildings dry as tinder. Finally there was a strong wind blowing north westerly for the first three days fanning on the fire.

Here then is an outline of the key stages in the fire:

Day 1: Sunday 2nd September 

Extent of Fire damage on 2nd September (with thanks to Wikipedia for the image - reused under commons agreement)

Circa 1am the fire starts at the Bakers on Pudding Lane. 4am Lord Mayor Bludworth visits but down plays it and goes back to bed! Later that day he fails to act decisively. Samuel Pepys goes to see king and gets royal orders back to Mayor so he starts to pull down houses BUT it is already too late. The fire is spreading fast and Londoners start to flee. Getting his priorities right, Pepys buried a big cheese and wine in his garden!

Day 2: Monday 3rd September 

Extent of Fire damage on 3rd September 
About four oclock in the morning, my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, to Sir W. Riders at Bednall-greene. Which I did riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart; and, Lord! to see how the streets and the highways are crowded with people running and riding, and getting of carts at any rate to fetch away things.
Samuel Pepys Diary for 3rd September 1666.

The fire spread throughout the 3rd, despite the efforts of the Duke of York who was given command of fire-fighting that morning and began to bring better organisation to the fight. The only success came at Leadenhall in the north-east, were a combination of low wind and the leadership and wealth of one citizen which enabled him to hire sufficient labour to create a working firebreak stopped the blaze advancing. Paranoia over suspected plots meant that people start attacking foreigners in the street. James is forced to spend a lot of time saving foreigners from attacks by the London mob. 
James Duke of York - who led the fire fighting efforts
“the whole City in dreadful flames near the water-side; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames-street, and upwards towards Cheapside, down to the Three Cranes, were now consumed” 
John Evelyn

Day 3: Tuesday 4th September 

Now begins the practice of blowing up of houses in Tower-streete, those next the Tower, which at first did frighten people more than anything, but it stopped the fire where it was done, it bringing down the houses to the ground in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it, though it kindled nothing almost. W. Hewer this day went to see how his mother did, and comes late home, telling us how he hath been forced to remove her toIslington, her house in Pye-corner being burned; so that the fire is got so far that way, and all the Old Bayly, and was running down to Fleete-streete; and Pauls is burned, and all Cheapside. I wrote to my father this night, but the post-house being burned, the letter could not go. 
Samuel Pepys Diary for 4th September 1666.

By sunrise September 4th, the fire was at its peak, an estimated ten times as strong as twenty-four hours previously. The success at Leadenhall was repeated on the 4th by other teams – one led by Samuel Pepys who now used gunpowder to clear great gaps in the city and build fire breaks In the east, the fire was stopped before reaching The Tower of London. However, in the north the flames remained unchecked, surging with avarice across Cheapside and the city market, and in the west they jumped across the River Fleet in spite of attempts to clear the bridge and nearby buildings. People ran and pushed goods and belongings into St. Pauls or up against the walls hoping it would protect them. It did not! By the midnight of the 4th/5th September, St. Paul’s Cathedral was surrounded and literally melting: the lead roofing flowed down the streets and building stones exploded from the heat.

Day 4: Wednesday 5th September Day 5: Thursday 6th September
On the 5th two events conspired to save London: firefighters started to actively use gunpowder to clear firebreaks on a wider scale. More crucially, the powerful east wind dropped. There was still a great struggle. Pepys reports than even the King was seen helping carry buckets, but the tide had turned. Small fires still burnt by midday on Thursday 6th 1666, but they were soon under control.

The Aftermath
There was something of a witch hunt during and after the fire looking for the culprits and the London mob chased down any foreigners or just someone who looked a bit odd. A mentally ill Frenchman admitted to causing the fire and although it was shown that he could not have done so he was still hung. In the end calm prevailed and it was realised by those in government that it had just been an accident made worse by the condition of the city.

The destruction was vast. It is estimated that the destruction included 13200 houses, 87 churches, 44 Guild Halls, St Pauls Cathedral, Baynards Castle, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and many other important sites. Maybe 1 person in 3 or 4 of greater London was made homeless. Something like £14 Billion of damages in today’s terms was caused. For some this was an opportunity. Unscrupulous bankers made a fortune giving loans at huge rates of interest to assist rebuilding. Landlords discovered that they would insist on the properties they had rented out being rebuilt at the tenants cost and usually ended up with buildings of greater value. A massive legal process ensued with court cases going on for years. Others had higher aims. John Evelyn and Christopher Wren both submitted plans for rebuilding the city. The warren of streets would be swept away and broad avenues and squares echoing the glories of Italian cities brought in. In the end though landlords insisted on their houses being rebuilt and the best that Wren achieved was the contract to design and rebuild London’s churches including the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Monument

Near the site of the original bakery where the fire had started a monument was constructed. On it read the words:
Here by ye permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose on this protestant city.

The Monument depicted in a picture
by Sutton Nicholls, c. 1753

A modern version of the monument (near the Underground Station that shares its name) is still there today.
Richard Denning is a historical fiction author. His main areas of writing are the early Anglo-Saxon years. For more details go to his website: The Great Fire of London is of particular interest to him. It was the back drop to his historical fantasy The Last Seal, and he published a boardgame based wound the events of the Great Fire: The players are men of wealth and standing who own property around London. They can use the trained bands to fight the fire, use demolitions to destroy blocks of housing to prevent the fire flowing or turn a blind eye and allow the fire to spread and damage rival’s property. Victory can belong to the player with the most property left but putting out fires can give you a boost. In addition each player will have several hidden objectives which might include helping another player or protecting parts of the city.


  1. A lovely tribute on the fire's anniversary-there is a small statue of John Donne in St Pauls which survived the fire intact apart from scorch marks on the base.

  2. A really interesting post, and I found the graphics about the extent of the fire helped me understand and follow the scope of it. There's much here for any of us writing about pre-industrial revolution city life, where fire was an omnipresent danger.

  3. I have the Adrian Tinniswood book by this same title about the fire right here on my bookshelf :) Excellent read if folks want even more about the fire.

  4. I remember going to Kensington Palace Museum when I was a child. I was fascinated by the replica that had been built showing London on fire. It amazed me every time I saw it.


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