The Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London

by Stephen Porter


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The Great Fire of London was the greatest catastrophe of its kind in Western Europe. Although detailed fire precautions and firefighting arrangements were in place, the fire raged for four days and destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and 44 of the City of London’s great livery halls. The great fire of 1666 closely followed by the great plague of 1665; as the antiquary Anthony Wood wrote left London "much impoverished, discontented, afflicted, cast downe." In this comprehensive account, Stephen Porter examines the background to 1666, events leading up to and during the fire, the proposals to rebuild the city, and the progress of the five-year program which followed. He places the fire firmly in context, revealing not only its destructive impact on London but also its implications for town planning, building styles, and fire precautions both in the capital and provincial towns.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752450254
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 06/01/2009
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Stephen Porter is the author of Destruction in the English Civil Wars and The Great Plague.

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The Great Fire of London

By Stephen Porter

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Stephen Porter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7570-7



There's no place ... better armed against the fury of the fire; for besides the pitched Buckets that hang in Churches and Halls, there are divers new Engines for that purpose.

James Howel, Londinopolis, 1658, p. 398

During Lemuel Gulliver's stay in Lilliput around 1700 a fire broke out in the imperial palace when one of the empress's maids of honour fell asleep while reading a romance and presumably knocked over a candle. By the time Gulliver arrived at the scene the Lilliputians had set up ladders against the walls of the empress's apartments; they also had plenty of buckets for carrying water to the fire. But he soon realised that because 'the flame was so violent' and the water had to be carried 'some distance' their efforts were likely to be defeated and the whole palace, not just the apartments, would be burnt down. In this emergency he took drastic action and extinguished the blaze by urinating violently and extensively over it.

Readers of Swift's brilliant satire would have recognised many of the elements of this tale; how a minor domestic accident at night could lead to widespread destruction, how a fire could overcome the efforts of the fire-fighters even though they had plenty of equipment, and the difficulties caused by the lack of a good supply of water close by. Although Gulliver's timely action saved the palace, it was illegal to make water within the precincts, and after some intrigues by his enemies he faced impeachment. This, too, may have struck a chord with contemporaries, for fire-fighters who took it upon themselves to pull down buildings to create a fire-break and so check the progress of the flames were liable to find themselves taken to court by the owners of the property and compelled to pay the cost of rebuilding. Many readers would also have been aware of the parallel between the fate narrowly escaped by the imperial palace in Lilliput, which had 'cost so many ages in erecting', and that of Whitehall Palace, part of which was gutted in a blaze in 1691 and the whole of the remainder, except for Inigo Jones's Banqueting House, by a fire in 1698. Gulliver's adventure must also have brought to mind the Great Fire of London of 1666, only sixty years before the publication of Gulliver's Travels, when Sir Thomas Bludworth, the lord mayor, called to the early stages of the fire, was said to have remarked that 'a woman might piss it out'.

The conflagration that developed from the fire which Bludworth treated so dismissively was London's greatest single disaster and has come to be regarded as one of the major landmarks in English history, ranking in popular awareness with events of national importance such as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It was all the more devastating because it came as the city was recovering from a severe outbreak of plague in the previous year, which, with high mortality levels from other diseases, had claimed almost 100,000 lives, nearly six times the normal death rate. There is something poignant in the fact that these two calamities came so closely together, and they have tended to be associated. Yet there were important distinctions between an epidemic and a conflagration. The most obvious one was that an epidemic brought death, and fire physical destruction, and so they affected the urban community in quite different ways. Their social impact also varied. Plague struck the poorer areas more heavily than the wealthier ones, not so much as a result of overcrowding and the conditions which it produced in the more impoverished districts, but rather because the better-off were able to leave the city for the duration of an outbreak, while the poor lacked that flexibility. Fire, on the other hand, destroyed everything in its path; both the premises of wealthy merchants and the hovels of the poor were consumed by the flames. While the risk of a fire breaking out may have been greater in the overcrowded areas in which the poorer citizens lived, once it had taken hold it swept through rich and poor districts alike. The only avoiding action that a householder could take was to remove as many of the most valuable items as possible before the flames could reach them.

A further distinction was that in many years the danger from plague was much less immediate than that from fire. Although the plague had been endemic since the first onset of the Black Death in 1348, the outbreaks causing high mortality were intermittent. The worst death tolls from plague in seventeenth-century London came in 1603, 1625, 1636 and 1665, and during many of the intervening years there were so few deaths from the disease that many citizens may not have felt threatened by it. Only fifty-nine plague deaths were recorded in the Bills of Mortality during the five years before the outbreak of 1665. But fire was an ever-present danger, perhaps slightly lessened during the damp winter months, but still there, as the conflagration at Nantwich, Cheshire, in December 1583 demonstrated.

It is indeed self-evident that fire is one of the principal threats to man's social and economic arrangements with its capacity to completely destroy both buildings and their contents in a relatively short time, leaving only scorched earth and charred remains. It is in cities and towns where the greatest damage can be done by fire, because of the concentration of buildings and the goods stored in and around them. That concentration makes it difficult to halt a fire once it has become established, with the blaze spreading from building to building, their fabric and contents providing ample fuel for the flames. But fire is also a menace to rural communities, for it can destroy houses, barns, stables and crops, both those harvested and in store and those standing in the fields, together with pasture, orchards and woodland.

The city's population in the 1660s contained not only native Londoners, but also migrants from provincial towns and the countryside, all of whom would have been aware of the risk of fire. Yet an individual's vigilance did not bring complete security, for everyone depended on the care taken by their fellow-citizens as well as by themselves. A drunken or careless neighbour was to be feared and arson was regarded as one of the worst criminal offences.

However alert the citizens were, or tried to be, a degree of carelessness was inevitable and some accidents were unavoidable. Indeed, Londoners were periodically shaken out of their complacency by destructive blazes, both in the metropolis itself and elsewhere. Between 1600 and 1665 there were at least seventy substantial fires in English provincial towns. The most destructive of those which occurred in the years preceding the Great Fire destroyed 224 houses at Marlborough in 1653, 238 houses at Southwold in 1659 and 156 houses at Newport, Shropshire, in 1665. Although the numbers of houses gutted in such fires were relatively small compared to the losses in the Great Fire, a high proportion of the buildings in each town was destroyed, and the disasters attracted much attention.

Of more immediate impact were the fires in London itself. A fire which began in an inn stable in Southwark in 1630 destroyed fifty houses before it could be controlled. This was followed by a potentially even more serious fire in February 1633, when a blaze among the buildings at the northern end of London Bridge spread out of control and not only wrecked about a third of the houses on the bridge itself, but also nearly eighty more in the parish of St Magnus the Martyr. This fire was a frightening event on a prominent site and, as some of the houses at that end of the bridge were not rebuilt, the visible evidence of the destruction served as a reminder of the disaster. From time to time other fires did damage on a smaller scale, involving few houses, but no doubt causing much alarm in the neighbourhood. In May 1643 three houses in Aldermanbury were burned down, for instance, and in the April of the following year a fire in the parish of Christ Church destroyed houses and goods valued at £2,880. Gunpowder stored both in buildings and on ships presented a particular danger. In January 1650 the detonation of seven barrels of powder on the premises of Robert Porter, a ship's chandler in Tower Street, began a fire which raged for two hours, wrecked fifteen houses and damaged twenty-six others so badly that they were uninhabitable. At least sixty-seven people were killed in this disaster, an unusually high death toll that was attributable to the explosion rather than the subsequent fire. Smaller, but still serious, accidents occurred in July 1654, when two ships on the river blew up on successive days. The mid -1650s also saw fires in Threadneedle Street and Fleet Street, both of which were described as 'a great fire'.

The news of fire disasters was transmitted by word of mouth and in correspondence, and also through the system by which funds were raised to help the victims of fire, flood, plague or other calamity. An application was made to the lord chancellor, who, if satisfied of the truth of the claim, authorised the issue of a brief describing the disaster, often in graphic terms, and asking for funds. The brief, a printed form, was then distributed over a specified area and collections were taken, usually as the congregation left church after a service, but in some cases by collectors going from house to house. The system was well developed by the 1660s, although not everyone reacted favourably to the number being presented, inviting their charity. After attending church on 30 June 1661 Samuel Pepys noted that 'the trade of briefes is come now up to so constant a course every Sunday, that we resolve to give no more to them'. Whatever the response, the numbers issued during that period can only have served to increase the awareness of accidental fires. As well as briefs and pamphlets, the development of newspapers during the 1640s and 1650s provided a further means of publicising a fire and appealing for aid, both through news reports and notices placed by the victims. This process, still in its infancy in the 1660s, was to become one of the major methods for raising funds after a disaster, especially with the growth of provincial newspapers in the eighteenth century.

Reaction to such disasters was to regard them as instruments of the vengeful hand of God. They were punishments inflicted on a sinful generation and warnings to repent and reform that should be heeded before it was too late. This was the interpretation thundered from the pulpits and recorded in the many sermons published in order to reach a wider public than the congregations who heard them. A fire at Banbury in 1628 destroyed over 100 houses, perhaps as much as one-third of the town. The rector, William Whateley, was a well-known Puritan with a reputation for long sermons delivered in a style which can be judged from his epithet 'the roaring boy of Banbury'. The fact that the fire had begun in a malt-house on a Sunday gave him ample scope to draw his parishioners' attentions to some moral lessons, which were stressed in his sermon on the disaster, pointedly entitled Sinne no More, Banbury. The Puritan reformation at Banbury had already been under way for some time, for Whateley had been rector since 1610, whereas it was the particularly destructive conflagration at Dorchester in August 1613 which proved to be the stimulus for a similar movement there. Under the influence of its minister, John White, acting with the cooperation of civic leaders who were sympathetic to his aims, in the generation following the fire Dorchester was much 'improved'. The town was thought to have benefited from the disaster, not only morally, but also materially, 'knowledge causing piety, piety breeding industry, and industry procuring plenty unto it'.

The pamphlet describing the fire at Dorchester was entitled Fire from Heaven, which succinctly expresses the contemporary view of the true nature of the disaster. Sinfulness, especially sabbath-breaking, was seen to have provoked the wrath of the Almighty, who 'out of just vengeance and judgement on the committers thereof hath often punished with fire'. There was ample testimony for this in the conflagration at Tiverton in 1612, which burnt 290 houses, and the 'sad and wonderfull fire' which swept through 'that seat of wickednesse the City of Oxford' in October 1644, destroying over 300 houses. These were among the most destructive blazes in provincial towns in the seventeenth century and both occurred on Sundays. The Book of Jeremiah warns that the consequence of sabbath-breaking will be a fire that 'shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched'.

Failure to observe the sabbath was not the only transgression likely to be punished by fire, however. The whole range of sins could provoke divine wrath. Yet it did not follow that the actual victims of fire were especially sinful. This was recognised by the wood-turner Nehemiah Wallington with respect to those whose homes were destroyed by the fire at London Bridge, who were not to be regarded as 'greater sinners than all the rest of the City of London because they suffered such things', any more than those who escaped such a catastrophe could be regarded as innocent of sin. The author of the pamphlet describing the conflagration which destroyed four-fifths of Northampton in 1675 wrote of the reasons for that disaster in much the same terms. The citizens of Northampton were not 'sinners above all Men', but their town had been turned into 'a burning Beacon' as a warning to other cities and towns of their fate 'except they receive and obey his Laws, and cease to provoke him, by their tolerated Disobedience'. Similarly, the spate of fires in London in 1655 was interpreted by one preacher not in terms of specific shortcomings, but as the beginning of God's judgement on the world, which would be destroyed in the following year.

Some allowance has to be made for an element of conventional piety in the accounts of fires, especially those which were intended primarily as appeals for relief. It was advisable for the sufferers to appear to be repentant and to strike the correct note in order to attract sympathy and assistance. But this should not disguise the underlying sincerity of the reports of disaster victims, for providentialism, derived from Calvinist theology, was not simply the orthodoxy of many of the clergy in seventeenth-century England. Divine intervention in human affairs was generally accepted, a part of the common psychology of the time that was expressed in private correspondence and personal diaries, as well as in publications.

Divine wrath could not only help to explain why fires had occurred, but also provide the basis for predictions of conflagrations to come. The late 1650s and early 1660s saw a number of gloomy prophesies specifically for London that were couched in these terms. Many Puritan preachers regarded it as the sinful city par excellence and characterised it as Babylon, or the bloody city. They anticipated a fiery end for London in the near future and graphically expounded their fears in their sermons. In 1657 Thomas Reeve, in his God's Plea for Nineveh, foresaw 'kindling sparks that will set all in a flame from one end of the city to the other' and two years later Daniel Baker's Certaine Warning for a Naked Heart, after condemning London's evil ways, predicted 'a consuming fire ... which will scorch with burning heat all hypocrites, unstable, double-minded workers of iniquity'. The most detailed depiction of the city's fiery fate came in the Quaker Humphrey Smith's Vision which he saw concerning London, published in 1660. Smith wrote of a fire which none could quench and 'the burning thereof was exceeding great ... All the tall buildings fell, and it consumed all the lofty things therein ... And the fire continued, for, though all the lofty part was brought down, yet there was much old stuffe, and parts of broken-down desolate walls, which the fire continued burning against'. Smith did not live to judge how accurately his prophesy came true, for he died in Winchester gaol in 1663.

Those who had been apprehensive for London's safety during the 1650s because of its wickedness must have been seriously alarmed after the Restoration. With the return of the court and its adherents, moral standards fell considerably and publicly. The character of Charles II's court was in marked contrast to that of his father, which had been chaste and aloof, and to that of Cromwell. Indeed, the king's own lechery was a byword. Many of the returned Royalists who contributed to the general air of depravity were simply at a loose end. Sir William Coventry explained this in terms of their having been excluded from public business for the previous twenty years and so being unable to apply themselves to it. In his view the best of them were attending to their estates and family matters and the rest had given themselves over to debauchery. Attention was focused especially on the theatres, which in many ways epitomised the new atmosphere in London. Closed since 1642, they were now reopened, with the novelty of actresses taking the female roles and apparently proving irresistible to 'severall young noble -men and gallants'. John Evelyn's opinion was that the Restoration theatre was 'fowle & undecent'. Many evidently shared his view, but their collective indignation had no effect. Even protests by senior Anglican clergymen at the deplorable standards of behaviour were either ignored or ridiculed.


Excerpted from The Great Fire of London by Stephen Porter. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Porter. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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