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Sunday, 11 September 2016

History in Focus: Great Fire of London

Painting depicting the Fire
From September 2nd to September 5th 1666 a fire swept across London in what has since been called the Great Fire of London. Three hundred and fifty years later in London a small recreation of the progress of the fire was made, (which can be seen here), in memory of the event. The fire succeeded in destroying huge areas of London, including St Paul's Cathedral, and, it almost spread to Westminster. Before we look at the fire itself we first have to look at London in the seventeenth century.

17th Century London
During the seventeenth century London was Britain's largest city having a population exceeding half a million people. Although not as large as Paris or Constantinople London was one of the largest cities in Europe as well. London originated as a Roman settlement called Londinium, and for centuries after the Roman withdrawal from Britain the settlement continued to grow within the defensive Roman wall which had defended the settlement. However, London's growth was not a planned growth so buildings and houses were often put up without much city planning. Thanks to this many houses which were built happened to be built virtually on top of one another creating squalid slums. Unlike her Scottish counterpart, Edinburgh, London expanded outside of the city walls instead of building more storeys on each building, which in turn, brought nearby slums into the confines of the city. When the Fire broke out in 1666 the area bounded by the walls, called the City proper, only supported a fraction of London's population, having around 80,000 people. Despite London's large size it was still very much a medieval city which virtually all the buildings outside the City being built of wood with thatched roofing. Prior to the Great Fire there had been several fires which had devastated areas of London, such as in 1633. The cramped, squalid, dirty slums also allowed disease to rapidly spread through the city, and in 1665 England's last great epidemic of the bubonic plague, named the Great Plague of London, broke out.

There were also political issues in London. London was the capital of England, as it is today as well as being the capital of the UK. The English Parliament was, and currently remains, located in London, at the Palace of Westminster, and in the 1660s King Charles II's residence of Whitehall was located in London. However, the ruling elite in Whitehall and Westminster were located far from the dirty, polluted, cramped, and plague-ridden slums of the City. There was great division, politically, in London. The city had been the epicenter of republicanism during the English Civil Wars, (1642-1651), which resulted in the execution of Charles I, (Charles II's father), and, the establishment of a brief republic under Oliver Cromwell. When Charles II was restored when republicanism was abandoned in 1660 his position was not very strong. The aristocracy, who favored the monarchy, lived in the country away from the grime and disease filled city, Charles owed his crown to the Parliament, and there were still republican sympathies in the city. In this tinder box of disease, wooden houses, slums, and political rivalries the Great Fire would be lit.

The Great Fire
A modern sign of the street where the fire started
On September 2nd 1666 after a drought lasting since the November of 1665 a fire broke out in the bakery of Thomas Farriner at midnight on Pudding Lane. Farriner and his family managed to escape the burning building, but, they could not stop the blaze which quickly spread between the dry, thatched roofed, tightly packed buildings. The local parish constables wished to demolish several nearby buildings in order to prevent the fire spreading but to do so required the permission of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. Bloodworth was not a good politician and owed his position to being a yes man, although this view of him could stem from contemporaries being angry over his actions during the Great Fire. Noted diarist Samuel Pepys, whose diary gave us most of the details about the Great Fire, said that upon seeing the fire said 'Phish! A woman could piss it out!' and refused to let buildings get destroyed to contain the fire. Pepys was watching from the Tower of London and estimated that 300 houses, as well as several parishes churches, had been consumed by the fire by Sunday morning. Pepys wrote: 
where people come about me, and did give them an account dismayed them all, and word was carried in to the King. So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of Yorke what I saw, and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, 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.

James, the Duke of York and Charles's younger brother, even offered the use of the Royal Life Guards to help battle the flames. Despite efforts the fire was spread further by the prevailing winds, and the size of the fire engines meant that they could not be taken down the many narrow streets where the fire raged. 
Seventeenth Century fire engine
Charles actually went down to the City without soldiers to inspect the area to do his civic duty. He knew that by helping fight the fire it could help dispel republican ideas. By the afternoon of Sunday the fire had managed to grow in size as it was forced down small streets and alleys. This created a vacuum under the flames forcing oxygen in which fed the flames. Despite Charles ordering houses to be torn down the fire spread because of its size. On the Monday the fire continued to spread and ended up destroying areas inhabited by the rich, including Lombard Street where many bankers lived. The Royal Exchange also went up in flames, as well as the General Letter Office and the printing presses of The London Gazette. With the situation growing worse Charles overrode the city authorities and placed his brother James in charge who began press-ganging men into becoming fire fighters. The price of barges rose to 40 shillings as people became desperate to flee via the River Thames. Also, with the Gazette taken out an atmosphere of fear swamped England. Many believed the fire had been started by Catholics for another plot like the Gunpowder Plot, (a Catholic plot to assassinate Parliament and Charles's grandfather, James), while others blamed the Dutch as England was embroiled in a war against the Dutch. They thought this was part of, or a precursor to, a Franco-Dutch invasion of England. 
St Paul's on fire, ca.1670
On Tuesday 4th September St Paul's Cathedral was gutted by the conflagration as the wooden scaffolding on the building, for restoration, made the thick stone walls redundant. On Wednesday 5th the winds dropped and the fire was contained. Upon inspecting the last areas which the fire had consumed Pepys described it as 'the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw'. The mood had become volatile. A light over Fleet Street generated a story that a Franco-Dutch army of 50,000 had landed and was massacring any Londoner who had escaped the flames. This caused mobs in a fit of violence and xenophobia to start murdering any foreigners which they found. The mob only dispersed thanks to militias and the court. Fearing a republican uprising Charles ordered bread markets to be placed in the city, although the bread had to be bought.

Accounts state that the Great Fire killed around eight people which is staggering considering the size of the fire. However, many more died through the xenophobic mob riots and exposure or hunger following the fire. Around 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches and 44 Company halls all burned as well as St Paul's Cathedral, the Customs House, various prisons, Bridewell Palace, the General Letter Office, and three of the wall gates, (Aldersgate, Newgate, and Ludgate), reaching a staggering £10,000,000 in damages, (or £1 billion in today's money). Initially a simple-minded French watch maker called Robert Hubert was arrested for starting the fire. In the midst of anti-French hysterics he was found guilty and was hanged. Shortly after his death it was revealed he was on a ship in the North Sea when the fire broke out. The Dutch claimed it was divine retribution for the English burning a Dutch coastal town during their war. It would take some time before the real origin was found. Following the fire there were many plans to rebuild the city in a Baroque style to rival Paris which were abandoned in favor of the old city plan but with some changes: wider roads, houses not obstructing the river, better access to wharves, better sanitation etc. A monument was made on the orders of Charles to commemorate the fire which was finished in 1677, however, for many years it bore an anti-Catholic inscription:
Here by permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city.....the most dreadful Burning of this City; begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction...Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched...

Aside from a brief stint during the reign of Charles's brother James the inscription remained on until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Although not fully destroyed it was decided that St Paul's Cathedral should be rebuilt, and Sir Christopher Wren, (who was in charge of restoring the cathedral before it set on fire), was placed in charge of creating the new cathedral. Construction of the cathedral lasted until 1697, 32 years after it was commissioned. Since then it has remained a hallmark of London.
Modern St Paul's Cathedral
Sources are as followed:
-A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky
-The Stuart Age: England, 1603-1714 by Barry Coward

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