THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON
1 John Evelyn, Diary, 3 September 1666 2 James Peller Malcolm, London Redivivum, vol. iv, page 74 3 Samuel Pepys, Diary, 2 September 1666
‘London was, but is no more!’ In these words John Evelyn summed up the destruction of the City of London in the Great Fire. Evelyn’s diary entry for 3 September 1666 reads
Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! . . . All the skie was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seene above 40 miles round about for many nights . . . the noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shreiking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of Towers, Houses and Churches, was like an hideous storme.1
The Fire started in the early hours of Sunday 2 September in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane, in the east of the City. Small outbreaks of fire were a common enough event, and when the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, was roused to deal with the fire, he dismissed it with the contemptuous phrase ‘a woman might piss it out! ’ 2 and went back to bed.
But once the fire got going, a fierce easterly wind quickly spread the flames to neighbouring houses. Samuel Pepys, Evelyn’s friend and fellow-diarist, wrote how he had ‘seen the fire rage every way . . . and the wind mighty high and driving it into the city, and everything, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches.’ 3
Many of the houses on both sides of the narrow streets were built with thatched roofs and overhanging jetties, whose upper storeys projected out over the street so their eaves were almost touching; in these conditions the fire could spread easily from one side of the street to the other.
It was bad enough that the closely packed timber-framed houses were all tinder-dry after a long hot summer; but soon the fire found more fuel in the warehouses along the river Thames, as Pepys explains: ‘the houses too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street – and warehouses of oyle and wines and brandy and other things.’
London Bridge, packed with shops and houses like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence today, was the only fixed river crossing, and led into the City close to Pudding Lane, where the fire had started. The bridgehead, and the nearby
AFTER THE FIRE