6 Thomas Vincent, God’s Terrible Voice in the City 7 John Dryden, Annus Mirabilis, verse 229, lines 914−916. The ‘hallow’d quire’ refers to St Paul’s Cathedral.
Those who could afford to left the City, and the streets fell silent: ‘no rattling coaches, no prancing horses, no calling in customers, nor offering wares; no London Cries sounding in the ears: if any voice be heard, it is the groans of dying persons, breathing forth their last.’ 6
Within less than a year, one Londoner in five had died, leaving a weakened population less able to fight the fire when it broke out.
At the time fire-fighting techniques involved cutting into the pipes supplying water from the New River reservoir at Clerkenwell to the north, while to the south water was pumped up from the Thames by waterwheels at London Bridge. These waterwheels, however, were soon put out of action when the bridgehead caught fire. There were a few fire engines with powerful pumps, but they were cumbersome and unwieldy in the narrow streets of London. One even fell into the Thames as it attempted to fill its reservoir. Hand-held ‘squirts’ were not much better, being capable of delivering only four pints at a time.
John Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis describes how:
Some run for buckets to the hallow’d quire: Some cut the pipes, and some the engines play; And some more bold mount ladders to the fire.7
The ‘hallow’d quire’ refers to St Paul’s Cathedral. The only really effective method of fire-fighting was to create fire-breaks by removing houses in the path of the fire, either pulling them down with hooks on long poles, or blowing them up with gunpowder. But home-owners were – not unnaturally – reluctant to allow their houses to be sacrificed as fire-breaks. As Evelyn explains: ‘this some tenacious and avaritious men, aldermen &c. would not permitt, because their houses must have ben of the first.’
Only King Charles had the authority to order houses to be pulled down – Pepys tells how he went to the King to report on the fire and told him that:
unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire . . . and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him and command him to spare no houses but to pull down before the fire every way . . . at last met my Lord Mayor in Canning Streete, like a man spent, with a hankercher about his neck. To the King’s message, he cried like a fainting woman, ‘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 then we can do it.’
AFTER THE FIRE