He wept for his city. — 2 September, 1666
On the night of 1 September while ‘most persons, especially the poorer sort, were newly in bed and in the first dead sleep’, a fire began on Pudding Lane. The street was was renowned for its bakers and pie makers and the previous day had been market day, ‘the day of receipts and payment, the markets last not then only all day but but some part of the night.’ Here Thomas Farriner, a baker of tack biscuits for the King’s Navy, raked the coals of the bakery oven before he went to bed, laying a few fitches of bacon to smoke and retired to bed, ‘leaving his providence with his slippers’.
During the dark morning hours the bakery began to fill with smoke. Within a few hours, sparks had risen on the wind from the flames and travelled to nearby plots. Another house was set alight, hay lying in the yard of the nearby Star Inn became a nursery for the growing inferno. On such occasions, the local community customarily followed an established fire drill that had been laid out in numerous proclamations and while still only a common house fire, Farriner’s flames should have been stamped out; tragically this did not happen.
When the family awoke with the fumes, finding their way through the ground floor barred, they scrambled over the leaning jutties of the house to the neighbour’s; only the maid refused to escape and became the first victim of the flames. After the alarm had been raised, the nearby houses were evacuated and the local authorities called; the constable was dragged from his bed, the church bells rung ‘backwards’ to call for help and the street was blocked off. A chain of fire-fighters was formed carrying buckets of Thames water to douse the flames while a number of engines, squirts and scoops were stationed in the nearby parish church to control the outburst. Yet, on this occasion, something went wrong.
As the fire strengthened it became imperative to stop the fire’s spread by bringing down the surrounding houses. The Lord Mayor, Thomas Bludworth, was called from the comfort of his home and escorted by coach to the top of Pudding Lane to survey the crisis and give the City’s permission to commence the destruction of private property. On arrival, the Mayor refused to descend from his carriage, batting away concerns that the fire was spreading, claiming that a woman could piss it out.
The Lord Mayor did not want to bring down the surrounding houses, because the cost of rebuilding them and, at this stage, the flames on Pudding Lane seemed little other than a local fire. Thus, according to Rege Sincera, the Great Fire began not with a single cause but multiple accidents: ‘the carelessness of a baker, the solitariness and darkness of the night, the disposition of the old ruinous buildings, the narrowness of the streets, the abundance of combustible and bituminous matter, the foregoing summer extraordinarily hot and dry, a violent easterly wind, and the waste of engines and water’.
As dawn broke on Sunday, September 2, the extent of the fire was first understood. Samuel Pepys, who lived eight streets to the east had been woken in the early hours to assess the crisis, had returned unconcerned to bed. In the morning, however, from the top of the Tower of London he was struck with fear as he watched the fire crawl beyond Pudding Lane and begin to attack the surrounding streets. Pepys took a boat upriver to Westminster to inform the King at Whitehall. When Charles II heard his report and immediately organised his barge to take him to the crisis.
Beyond the City walls, news of the fire arrived slowly. At ten in the morning the young Scholar William Taswell was standing by the Abbey on Westminster Yard when he ‘perceived some people below me running to and fro in a seeming disquietude and consternation; immediately almost a report reached my ears that London was in conflagration.’ Moving down to the Thames to catch more news, Taswell came in contact with the first victims coming up the river: ‘four boats crowded with objects of distress . . .scarce under any other covering except that of a blanket’.
Throughout the day, the fire gained power. From the epicentre at Pudding Lane, the outburst split into two arcs. Traveling northwards up Fish Street Hill towards the heart of the City, the flames rose into the air, a burning brand finding a home in the spire of St Laurence Pountney, ‘as if taking a view from that lofty place of what it intended to devour’. Then it set about the church, working its way under the lead of the steeple, entering the stone church which so many had hoped was a barrier against the advancing flames. The second arc worked its way downwards towards the Thames until it hit the river banks where citizens were already clambering at the steps, heaving their goods into boats or throwing them into the water so that soon the river became ‘covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save’. The fire made its steady path along the water front, attacking the mighty St Magnus Martyr’s that stood at the mouth of London Bridge, incinerating the church plate and pewter before the clerk had time to remove them.
The flames began to spread onto the Bridge, cutting off the only means to cross the river for the fleeing crowd. London Bridge had stood here since the twelfth century and was considered one of the finest monuments of the city for the houses that rested on the bridge’s edge and the covered thoroughfare that ran through the centre offering rowdy inns, chapels, and market stalls. Advancing from Bridge Foot it made its way towards the southern banks where only a break in the houses near the centre of the bridge halted the progress. A single brand made its way to the southern bank at Rotherhithe where it found fuel in a stable yard. The locals were swift to quash the flames and pulled down three surrounding houses to ensure that the flames were quenched.
By this time the flames had attacked the forcier, a vast wooden water wheel, that sat under the last ‘starling’ arch on the northern side of the bridge. The wheel had been a wonder of the city, invented by the Dutch engineer Pieter Morrice, who had shown off his noisy contraption in 1581, by pumping a spurt of water over the steeple of St Laurence Pountney. The wheel was vital in supplying water from the river’s edge into the heart of the city. As it slipped from its axle and ran into the mud flats that ribboned the river at low tide, the hopes for much-needed water to defend the City were dashed. The flames continued their progress westwards along the riverbank until it reached Thames Street, the heart of the maritime City, where the warehouses held the wealth of the merchants. Within the dry wood buildings all the paraphernalia of a maritime nation stood in stock — hemp, tar, coal, straw, pitch, resin, oil — and fed the hunger of the flames. In the nearby breweries, the beer boiled in the barrels, then burst, running down the streets.
Corn and timber from the Baltic, luxury good from the Mediterranean, the spices from the East, all the merchant goods from their voyages overseas were consumed and turned to ash. The flames became indiscriminate in their frenzy and began to attack the impressive stone houses of the City Guilds, the ancient centres of trade and tradition that stood on the water front. Ornate Fishmongers’ Hall, set around an elegant courtyard facing out to the river, was the first to succumb, the flames leaving no evidence of the Guild’s proud history behind.
That night, Pepys sat on board a ship on the Thames, watching the strange glow of the conflagration. He had seen many things that would haunt his dreams for days to come. Having left Whitehall he had taken a message to the Lord Mayor, who had broken down in exhaustion like a ‘fainting woman’, yet refused royal help. Above the flames he had watched as a pigeon, too scared to flee its perch, waited too long until its wings singed and plunged dead to the ground. From the boat Pepys could see that the flames had lost none of their appetite. He wept for his City.