Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Great Fire of London - Eye-witness Accounts

The pink areas indicate those parts of London destroyed in the Great Fire
This week it’s my brother’s birthday, a date he shares with the anniversary of another significant historical event –  the Great Fire of London in 1666. It seemed appropriate to mark his birthday on my blog with eye-witness accounts of the Great Fire, almost 350 years ago (OK, it was 347 years – but that doesn’t sound as momentous.)
Samuel Pepys- diarist
In the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666, Mr and Mrs Samuel Pepys were woken by their maid, Jane, to tell them of a fire within the city. Pepys was concerned enough to rise in his nightgown for a look but recorded:
“Thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again and to sleep.”

At 7am the news was not good:
“Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street by London Bridge.”

To investigate Pepys took to a boat on the Thames, to get the view from the river. He found a four acre area of light industry and warehouses ablaze. On a large scale people evacuated their houses and public order began to break down as they looked for someone to blame.

It seems London’s population turned against foreigners, and in particular the French, as the likely culprits for starting the fire. A schoolboy recorded a terrible incident where a blacksmith attacked ‘an innocent Frenchman’ with an iron bar. Another report was of a Frenchman ‘almost dismembered’ by a mob who thought he had firebombs (they were actually tennis balls.)

            The reason the fire was so severe was the medieval city of London consisted of closely packed wooden buildings with gables practically touching. That and a high wind that fanned the flames and that the city was dry for want of rain, added together to make an inferno.

“The wind got up mighty high…driving the fire into the city…and everything after so long a drought was proving combustible, even the very stones of the churches.”

            That Sunday evening (day 1 of the fire) Pepys and his wife sat in a wharf alehouse and watched the flames.
“An arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it.”
The Duke of York,
the future King James II
By Monday morning (day 2), that same alehouse had been destroyed. The brother of King Charles II, took charge. James, the Duke of York, recognised drastic action was needed and ordered whole streets to be demolished. But the fire continued to spread and the Royal Exchange, one of the landmarks of Elizabethan London, was gone by the afternoon.

John Evelyn -
described the fire and also proposed a layout for
the city to replace the one destroyed.
Tuesday(day 3) must have be terrifying indeed as the medieval cathedral of St Paul’s caught fire. Another famous diarist, John Evelyn, described a hellish sight.
“The melting lead [from the roof of St Paul’s] running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them.”

Evelyn also recounted how.
“The fall of towers, houses and churches was like a hideous storm.”

The Great Fire - by an unknown artist.
Tower of London on the extreme right
London Bridge on the extreme left
St. Pauls on the left amidst the highest flames
            The Duke of York had hoped the Fleet Ditch would provide a natural fire break but nature worked against him and a strong wind blew from the east and the fire leapt the ditch to arrive in Fleet Street. But later on Tuesday, the wind dropped abruptly and the fire-breaks held…dare they hope?

            The morning of Wednesday 5th September (day 4) Pepys set off to inspect the city. He wrote of his ‘feet ready to burn’ such was the residual heat. Some indication of the damage was shown as he wrote about picking up a souvenir:
“…a piece of glasse of [16th century] Mercer’s Chappell in the street…so melted and buckled with the heat of the fire like parchment.”

An early fire-engine - which would have been impotent
against the power of the Great Fire.
            But the fire had largely done its worst and that night Pepys ‘slept a good night’ – the first since Sunday.

            By all accounts on the Thursday, although the fire on burnt in localised areas, the heat radiating from scorched pavements and walls was fierce. No accurate figures existed of the number of deaths but although supposedly low, one wonders how many vagrants were burnt and went unaccounted for.

Pudding Lane in the modern day!
            After the fire, someone had to be blamed. A Frenchman, Robert Hubert, ‘a poor distracted wretch’ was executed as the culprit, but it later turned out to be a baker, Thomas Farynor of Pudding Lane. He had failed to put out his oven properly and an explosive aerosol of flour became exposed to the cinders, igniting the conflagration. In total, his negligence led to the destruction of the 13,000 homes, 87 churches and one cathedral that made up medieval London. 

John Evelyn's plan for rebuilding London on a structured grid pattern.
This never happened as Londoner's swiftly started rebuilding on the site of their ruined homes.


  1. What a great and interesting history lesson! I Love history and further Loved reading what you had to say on the fire! keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you for visiting, Janette, I'm so glad you enjoyed this post. It's the people who make history interesting - events really come to life when you realise how they affected the everyday lives of people around them.
      Hope to see you here again,
      Kind regards,
      Grace x

  2. Of course, they had to quickly execute someone over it....

    1. "If in doubt, execute someone" - needs thinking through before it could be adopted as a policy these days, don't you think? (At least I hope so!!! Maybe I'm being over optimistic!)
      G x

  3. Great post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
    One little mistake and someone gets executed:)


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