Sifting through the ashes of the Great Fire

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The Monument, Great Fire, LondonOf all the thousands, or millions, of memorials in Britain, there is just one arrogant enough to be known by the definite article.  The Monument is in London and, for the benefit of those bursting to know, it is the monument to London’s Great Fire of 1666.  The Great Fire is so much a part of London’s wallpaper that it is easy to forget what a huge event it was.  It raged from the morning of 2 September until 6 or 7 September.  By the time it had finished, between one hundred and two hundred thousand people were homeless, more than 13,000 houses and 87 churches had been destroyed, and most of the old medieval City of London was gone forever.  (One account, which will amuse a certain type of pedant, said that it “decimated four-fifths of the city”.)

Great Fire of London, MonumentIn addition to The Monument, there are signs of and sites associated with the Great Fire all over the City of London.  Glazed blue plaques commemorating some building or other ‘destroyed in the great fire of 1666’ are common in the Square Mile and there is no shortage of walks, guided and otherwise, that take in some of the interesting locations.  A Bit About Britain’s Great Fire of London Trail is detailed below.  Before outlining that, though, let’s hear a bit about the fire itself.

A bit about the Great Fire of 1666

Firstly, you might be thinking how remarkable it is that something like the Great Fire of London hadn’t happened before – what with all those open fires, nice combustible timber-framed houses clustered cosily together, and all.  Well, something like it had, several times.  The most notable accidental fires before 1666 were in 1135 and 1212; and probably the most famous intentional inferno was when an angry Boudicca destroyed London in 60AD.  In the last two examples, it is likely that the death-tolls exceeded that of the Great Fire of 1666 by a considerable margin. Indeed, it is one of the miracles of 1666 that so few people died – or, at least, that has always been the view.  Most traditional sources quote 8 or 9 deaths, but it has been suggested more recently that fatalities must have exceeded that.  At particular risk were those that may have struggled to escape the flames – like the very young, the very old and the infirm.  Record-keeping was not 100% accurate in the 17th century and, anyway, many records were destroyed in the flames.  Besides, who knew exactly who was in the city at the time?  It is also likely that, given the extreme temperatures, some bodies would have been so badly burned as to make them very hard to identify as human.  Furthermore, additional people probably died afterwards – of disease or exposure in camps.

Pudding Lane, Great FireFull accounts of the Great Fire are understandably dramatic.  We are lucky to have several primary sources, not least the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.  The fire began in the early hours of Sunday morning, 2 September, in Thomas Farriner’s (or Farynor) bakehouse just off Pudding Lane, close to London Bridge.  Farriner and his household were forced to escape across the rooftops, leaving behind a poor, nameless, maid, who was scared of heights and too afraid to follow; thus she became the fire’s first victim.

Accounts also tell of frightening levels of confusion and disorganisation, which might be considered surprising given that the authorities were well aware of the risks of fire.  The lord mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, woken from his beauty sleep to be told of the conflagration, famously dismissed it with “Pish! A woman might piss it out,” before returning to his slumbers.  It would have had to have been a very large lady.  Bludworth’s descendants no doubt went on to reject the Beatles and JK Rowling – but, to be fair, initially Samuel Pepys appeared equally unconcerned.  By mid-morning, however, fuelled by flammable goods like oil, rope, tar, hides and spirits stored in riverside warehouses, fanned by a strong wind and with the benefit of a dry summer behind it, the fire threatened to consume the entire city.  An anxious Pepys learned that 300 houses had already been destroyed and went to see what was happening from a vantage point on the Tower of London.  He saw that London was well alight and, from a boat on the river, watched as anxious residents tried to save their possessions.  Pepys took the news to the King, Charles II, at Whitehall.  The King instructed the creation of firebreaks by pulling down houses.  But when Pepys got back to the City, he found the flustered lord mayor had lost control, saying “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.”

Great Fire of LondonIt was not until Thursday that the blaze was brought under control – partly by using gunpowder to create firebreaks – and it was still burning on Friday.  Some fires smouldered even longer.  It had almost reached Temple Bar in Fleet Street, the boundary between the City and Westminster.  Amidst all the panic and chaos, there was looting – and some people were robbed.  There must have been some unsung heroes too.  One hero we know about was the King’s brother, the Duke of York, who organised much of the fire fighting.  Later, as King James II, he was unceremoniously booted off the throne in the revolution of 1688.  King Charles himself was seen helping soldiers, and directing efforts to stop the fire spreading.  He was also concerned to relieve the distress of the homeless survivors, many of which camped with what few possessions they had salvaged in the open spaces around Finsbury and Moorfields. Arrangements were made to bring bread to special markets, public buildings were opened for the temporary storage of rescued goods and, just like today, an appeal fund was launched.

Samuel Pepys

Pepys’ account of the fire is fascinating. He describes packing his house up, burying a valuable parmesan cheese in his garden, scorched pigeons falling from the skies, people flinging their belongings into the river – even a cat being pulled alive from a chimney with all its hair burned off.  Yet there is a puzzling lack of urgency in his account at times; at one point he watches the fire from a pub on the south bank.

Pudding LaneIt is generally accepted that the fire was accidentally started by a negligent baker, who didn’t put his fire out properly on Saturday night.  However, many Londoners thought it was arson, a deliberate act of terror perpetrated by foreigners, particularly French or Dutch; or by Catholics; or by any combination thereof – or indeed by anyone who didn’t look or sound Protestant and English.  England was at war with both France and the Netherlands at the time and, just weeks earlier, a naval force had raided the Dutch coast, burning over 100 merchant ships along with the village of West Terschelling.  This devastating act is known as ‘Holmes’s Bonfire’ after the English commander, Rear-Admiral Robert Holmes.  Was the Great Fire an act of revenge? Rumours spread of Dutch or French troops landing.  Sickeningly, ignorant Londoners indiscriminately and viciously attacked innocent foreigners.  Lack of education, fear and bigotry feeds mob rule.  Later, a French watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed to starting the fire and was hanged at Tyburn.  However, he was probably deranged, and certainly innocent.

So, that’s what The Monument commemorates.  It is situated on the north end of London Bridge, on the corner of Fish Street Hill and Monument Street and on the site of the incinerated church of St Margaret’s.  Nearest tube? – it’s Monument; did I mention that?

A visit to The Monument is always worthwhile, as is wandering across London Bridge.  But, if you want a broader experience, you could follow A Bit About Britain’s suggested ‘Trail of the Great Fire’.  This could take you anything from an hour or so to all day, or longer, depending how interested or diverted you are along the way, or how much you decide to omit. Take some water, wear comfortable shoes and remember to keep your eyes open for blue plaques.

Great Fire, walk

ABAB’s Trail of the Great Fire

Take the tube to Tower Hill. Spot a bit of the Roman city wall and spend some time at the Tower Hill Memorial. This commemorates more than 35,800 members of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets from two world wars who have no grave but the sea.  The building behind you is the headquarters of Trinity House, a corporation founded by Henry VIII that, among other things, looks after the lighthouses around England and Wales’ shores.  Then see if you can find the site of the scaffold where traitors were publicly executed.  Head west to Byward Street, keeping the Tower of London on your left.

All Hallows by the TowerAll Hallows by the Tower

On 5 September, Samuel Pepys climbed the tower of this old church its tower and watched his city burn.  The church of All Hallows by the Tower is the oldest church in the City of London, founded in 675AD.  An arch from this original church remains and, beneath that, a fragment of Roman pavement. The church has looked after the bodies of those beheaded on nearby tower hill, including Thomas More’s.  The founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, was baptised here and notable weddings included those of John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the USA, and Judge Jeffries, famous for his ‘bloody assizes’ in the aftermath of the Battle of Sedgemoor of 1685. All Hallows survived the Great Fire, thanks to the efforts of Pepys’ friend Admiral Penn, but was fairly comprehensively bombed during WW2 and rebuilt in the 1950s. A long-serving vicar of the church was ‘Tubby’ Clayton, founder of ‘Toc H’, the rest and recuperation centre for troops in Belgium during WW1.

Carefully cross the road and head north along Seething Lane.  Pepys used to live and work here.

St Olaves Hart StreetSt Olave’s, Hart Street

St Olave’s, Hart Street is on the corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane.  It is one of the smallest churches in the City of London and one of a handful to survive the Great Fire – thanks again to the efforts of Sir William Penn (father of the founder of Pennsylvania). It was Samuel Pepys’ favourite church – he is buried, with his wife, under the nave and his bust is in the churchyard. Some say St Olave’s is built on or near the site of the legendary Battle of London Bridge in 1014, in which Olaf II of Norway fought alongside Ethelred the Unready against the Danes. Anyway, the church is dedicated to St Olaf, the patron saint of Norway. It was gutted by bombing during WW2 and restored in 1954. It has some lovely memorials and a fascinating medieval crypt chapel, with a well. It also has an interesting back door – as you can see.

Make your way east by way of Mark Lane, Great Tower Street and Eastcheap to Monument tube station. You can head south down Pudding Lane or Fish Street Hill to reach the Monument.

Monument, Great Fire, London

The Monument

The Monument is 202 feet high, located 202 feet from where the fire started and topped off with a flaming urn of gilded copper.  Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, it took 6 years to build (1671-77) and is the tallest free standing stone column in the world.  Climb it (there’s a small entrance fee).  There are 311 lung-busting steps the top, which was enclosed with a mesh case in the 19th century to prevent suicides.  The views are great, but don’t go up if you are uncomfortable with heights or narrow spiral staircases. One of my photos shows what looks like someone wearing a crash helmet peering over the top of the flaming urn; I think it’s some kind of weather station (or maybe a Big Brother surveillance device).

Views from the MonumentThe Monument, 311 stepsTake a moment to admire the sculpture and read the panels.  An inscription blaming the fire on the “treachery and malice of the Popish faction” was removed in 1830.

The Monument, Great FireIf you have time, look south across Lower Thames Street to the church opposite.

St Magnus, the Martyr. LondonSt Magnus the Martyr

The church of St Magnus the Martyr (a Viking Jarl born c1075), is a bit of a surprise.  It is located on a part of the Thames foreshore reclaimed by the Romans and for 700 years stood at the northern end of London Bridge – so everyone arriving or leaving the City via the bridge would have passed by its door.  Until Putney Bridge opened in 1729, London Bridge was the only road-crossing of the Thames downstream of Kingston upon Thames. The church was one of the first casualties of the Great Fire, was rebuilt by Christopher Wren and suffered again during the Blitz of 1940.  The interior is quite high church, and includes an incongruous life-size model of a Viking (intended to represent St Magnus). Among its many fascinating treasures is a wonderful model of Old London Bridge as it was in the 16th century, its great clock, dating from 1700 – and a section of Roman pier timber.

From Monument, head north-west up King William Street to Bank.  The Bank of England is on your right. Cross the busy junction via the subway to Princes Street; keep going until you reach Lothbury, where you turn left.  This becomes Gresham Street, named for the Elizabethan financier Thomas Gresham, where you will find the City of London’s Guildhall on your right.

Guildhall, London, amphitheatreGuildhall

London’s Guildhall mostly survived the Great Fire and claims to be the only secular stone building dating from before 1666 still standing in the City.  It was built in the 15th century and is still home to the City of London Corporation.  Unless there’s an event on, it is possible to see inside the Great Hall – which is very impressive and scene of many historic speeches.  Under your feet are the remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre, which you can visit at the same time as looking at the Guildhall Art Gallery on your right.

From the Guildhall, head south along King Street and then turn right onto Cheapside.  King Street was one of the very few new streets constructed after the Great Fire.  Cheapside has been a busy market street since medieval times and was part of the traditional royal processional route between the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster.  A little way along on your left, you’ll come to St Mary-le-Bow.

Cheapside, St Mary le Bow, Victorian LondonSt Mary-le-Bow

Mary-le-Bow is the site of the famous Bow Bells – anyone born within earshot of them can be said to be a Cockney.  There has been a church here since Saxon times, though the current one is about the 4th version, rebuilt by Wren having been destroyed by the fire, and bombed during WW2.  One part of the crypt is medieval; the plain square outside used to be its churchyard.  Inside, it is very grand.

Carry on west along Cheapside to St Paul’s Cathedral. Don’t miss St Paul’s Cross in the churchyard – it has been a place of assembly and preaching since the middle ages. It was from here that the Reformation was preached – though the 20th century cross is not exactly in the same place as the original.

Paternoster SquareSt Paul’s Cathedral

Because it was made of stone, Old St Paul’s (which was huge) was thought to be a safe refuge during the Great Fire. Consequently, people brought their goods in for safety – including the publishers who worked in nearby Paternoster Row.  On the Tuesday evening after the fire had started, sparks set light to the roof and spread to the rest of the church.  The combustible goods and materials brought into the church helped feed the fire.  At its height, the heat was so intense that molten lead from the roof flowed down Ludgate Hill and flames shot 300 feet into the air.  There is believed to have been a church on the site since 604AD.  The present Baroque cathedral designed by Wren was built between 1675 and 1708, famously survived the Blitz of 1940/41 and is the burial place of two of Britain’s greatest heroes, Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.  The funeral services of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were held here. St Paul’s is an architectural masterpiece – and visitors are charged an entrance fee to see inside.

St Paul's CrossLeave St Paul’s Churchyard by turning right (north) through Temple Bar (which used to mark the western boundary of the City) and go across Paternoster Square to Newgate Street.  Opposite, you’ll see the ruins and garden of Christchurch Greyfriars. Go past this and turn right up Giltspur Street. Behind you is the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court.

Giltspur Street was where young Richard II met Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.  It is possibly named from the one-time presence of spurriers (spur makers), whose products were needed for jousting tournaments held at nearby Smithfield.  It was allegedly once also called Knightsriders Street, for the knights that rode to the tournaments.  Here you’ll find London’s first drinking fountain, a memorial to Charles Lamb (best known for his ‘Tales from Shakespeare’) and the site of the Giltspur Street Compter, a small debtors’ prison located there from 1791 to 1855.

But we’re looking for a golden boy…

Golden Boy, Pye Corner, Great Fire

The Golden Boy at Pye Corner

The Golden Boy at Pye Corner is a carved wooden figure covered in gold on the corner wall of a building at the junction of Giltspur Street with Cock Lane. The statue marks the extent of the Great Fire.  As it says below, the statue “was erected to commemorate the staying of the Great Fire which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the Sin of Gluttony when not attributed to the papists as on the Monument and the Boy was made prodigiously fat to enforce the moral he was originally built into the front of a public-house called the Fortune of War which used to occupy this site and was pulled down in 1910.”

Golden Boy, Great FireIt is a highly contrived mental leap to link Pudding Lane, where the fire started, with Pye Corner, where it ended, in such a way as to conclude that the disaster was due to gluttony; but there you go.  Pye Corner was the name given to the junction, it is thought perhaps because there used to be an eating-house there, the Magpie.  The Fortune of War pub was a place where resurrectionists (body-snatchers) would display their freshly dug wares for the surgeons at nearby St Barts’ to inspect.  Cock Lane has an interesting history, being predictably associated with brothels – Shakespeare knew Pie Corner as a place of prostitution – or fighting cocks (possibly both) and the site of a famous haunting in 1762 (at No 25, in case you’re interested).

From Pye Corner, keep heading north into the Elms, Smithfield, or ‘smoothfield, once a place for fairs – and London’s oldest public execution site and reputedly one of the most haunted sites in London.  Most of those who died here were slaughtered for the crime of heresy.  A plaque commemorates the gruesome execution of Scottish hero, William Wallace, in 1305. Spot the lovely timber-framed gateway; this is St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, a rare survivor from Tudor London.  Beyond it is the magnificent medieval church of St Bartholomew the Great.  It was established as an Augustinian priory and hospital in 1123 – hence the foundation of St Bart’s Hospital next door.  Nearby, at 41-42 Cloth Fair, is the oldest house in the City of London, built between 1597 and 1614.

Take the street called Little Britain, first in a south-east direction and then east, to the Museum of London at the Barbican.  On your way, you might like to pop into the charming little Postman’s Park.  It is on the site of the former churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s Aldersgate.  The garden was popular with workers from the old General Post Office nearby – hence its name – and is home to the unusual Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. Turn left up Aldersgate to the Museum of London.

The Museum of London

The excellent and popular Museum of London tells London’s long story and has a permanent exhibition that features the Great Fire.  It’s a great place to end your trail.  Or, of course, you could do it the other way round.  To get home, your nearest tube station is St Paul’s, at the southern end of St Martins-le-Grand.

NB The Museum is due to move to West Smithfield – latest news HERE.

 

The Great Fire of 1666 of course shaped the London we see today.  However, though it swept aside the medieval city, it did not entirely replace it – as you have seen.  In the aftermath of the fire, some progressive souls saw an opportunity for a beautiful elegantly planned city of wide boulevards, but (mainly) issues of land title proved too problematic.  However, new regulations did mean that all future building had to be in stone or brick; and no longer would houses be allowed to jut across streets as was common in medieval times, leaving a small gap between them that a fire could easily leap.  But the streets of old London are still pretty much where they had been before, and many still retain their old names too.  It’s a paradise for anyone interested in history, with a story under every stone and round every corner.

59 thoughts on “Sifting through the ashes of the Great Fire

  1. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – that’s really interesting and a thorough summary … so pleased to be able to read it. While the map and walk through can only help us all – should we ever get to do it. I’ve always loved the entry into the diary about the Parmesan cheese .. and how much it was worth then – like a gold bar today … excellent post – thanks … cheers Hilary

  2. April Munday

    I am that amused pedant. Thank you 🙂

    What little I’ve read of Pepys’ diaries have made me reassess my views about James II, not least the tale of his bravery during the fire.

  3. marmeladegypsy

    I am always amazed at both your depth of research and thought put into these posts as well as your magnificent writing skills that not only explain but make the story come alive. It’s like having you along for the journey. This one may well go into the London 2020 file!

  4. Author R. Mac Wheeler

    Wow, my mind is decimated by a fifth, with all this history. Reeling.

    Thanks for this.

  5. Amy

    It must’ve been an incredibly scary event to happen back then, something of great magnitude but it’s made London what it is today.

  6. TheRamblingWombat

    This is the most digestible, yet comprehensive review I have ever seen on the Great Fire – complemented by a well structured walk. The move of the Museum of London was news to me ….. I hope they don’t go to high tech on the exhibits and concentrate on content (especially real historical artefacts) rather than technology and looks.

  7. derrickjknight

    A bumper London history issue, Mike. I used to time trial race a friend up and down the monument many years ago. I didn’t know about Boudicca’s fire, famous or not 🙂

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      I’m getting out of breath thinking about it, Derrick. Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, sacked Colchester, London and St Albans in c60/61AD. Archaeologists still uncover the layer of burnt material when they dig somewhere new in the City (apparently). If there’s anywhere new to dig…

  8. JGC

    Great post Mike very evocative. Amazing detail and insight. Makes me want to catch the next train to London and follow your trail!

  9. 56packardman

    Superb post, Mike! I was having flashbacks of one of the English Literature classes I took when I was attending University (I was an English Literature major), spending a happy semester reading Pepys among other figures of 17th Century English literature. As I read your post, I was also mentally retracing my walk through London in 2006 reading about the fire as I navigated the route in the guidebook I had at hand. • For those who’ve not seen it, St. Paul’s is most assuredly worth the visit! So much the better if you happen to be there when the church’s magnificent organ is being played!

  10. artandarchitecturemainly

    I read and write about Pepys, his wife and his diary from time to time.. an amazing set of contemporary notes that somehow survived the ravages of centuries. But I cannot imagine what the destroyed people, homes and churches looked like. We have tragic bushfires in Australia, but the heart and soul of a crowded city was different.

  11. M.B. Henry

    What a great tour through such a horrible and destructive fire. I can’t even imagine something of that magnitude. I know how bad it was here in California with the fires last year, it’s so hard to think of it being ten times worse!

  12. jmcheney

    Thank you so much again for a fascinating tour, breadcrumbs to follow & wonderful scholarship & photos when next I am ever there again.

  13. Peter Claussen

    Dear Mike, not born with English as my mothertongue (being a German) but in love with language and history and with very fond memories of my one year working in York many years ago I admire your use of the language, the incredible amount of historic and so on facts which makes every place and situation described alive – and the width of your Bits About Britain. I thoroughly enjoy reading your stories. Keep on writing, please.

  14. Clare Pooley

    Yet again you have rendered me speechless with admiration for your concise but also amusing and informative history of the Great Fire. I will certainly use your wonderful trail when I next have some time on my hands in the City. Well done, Mike!

  15. Judy@CranberryMorning

    Well I’m thinking that comments posted from my phone disappear into the netherworld – or somewhere. ANYway, this is a great post and I’m taking it with me next visit to London. I cannot believe that I wasted time eating noodles I didn’t want at Wagamama rather than visiting the nearby All Hallows Church! We did visit The Monument and found it sad and interesting. I’ve got a two-volume Pepys packed up to move to Wausau. Speaking of pedantic: I’ve always wondered if Pudding, as in Pudding Lane, refers to any dessert such as cake, pie, etc. or the cooked mushy stuff as in Jell-O or homemade pudding pudding. I’m hoping it is the former, but I can’t read ‘pudding lane’ without picturing the latter. I hope you and the lovely Mrs. Britain are doing well.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      You’d love all of those churches, Judy, if you haven’t visited them. Pudding, as in Pudding Lane, apparently either refers to unpleasant things like entrails, or something like black pudding (do you get that in the US?). This link is interesting – https://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/PUDD1.htm The lovely Mrs Britain is tickety-boo and is waving frantically in the general direction of the Pond right now! Hope all is good with Mr Cranberry and the assorted Cranberries… 🙂

  16. John

    Wow, such a horrid tragedy! Those people really suffered in many ways. All because of one nutter… Beautiful photography as always!!

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