The Great Fire of London started on this date in 1666. It burnt until 5 September, gutting the medieval City of London inside the old Roman City Wall. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster, Charles II’s Palace of Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. The death toll is unknown but traditionally thought to have been small, as only six verified deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded, while the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims leaving no recognizable remains.
After two rainy summers in 1664 and 1665, London had lain under an exceptional drought since November 1665, and the wooden buildings were tinder-dry after the long hot summer of 1666. Construction using wood and thatch had been banned in the city for centuries, but the laws had not been enforced. The London of early September 1666 was therefore nothing more than a rabbit warren of kindling waiting for a match.
A fire broke out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane a little after midnight on Sunday 2 September. The family was trapped upstairs, but managed to climb from an upstairs window to the house next door, except for a maidservant who was too frightened to try, and became the first victim. The neighbors tried to help douse the fire; after an hour the parish constables arrived and judged that the adjoining houses had better be demolished to prevent further spread. The householders protested, and the Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who alone had the authority to override their wishes, was summoned.
When Bloodworth arrived, the flames were consuming the adjoining houses and creeping towards the paper warehouses and flammable stores on the river front. The more experienced firemen were clamoring for demolition, but Bloodworth refused, on the argument that most premises were rented and the owners could not be found. Bloodworth is generally thought to have been appointed to the office of Lord Mayor as a stooge of the rich, rather than because he had any qualifications for the job. He panicked when faced with a sudden emergency. Pressed, he made the often-quoted remark “Pish! A woman could piss it out,” and left. After the City had been destroyed, Samuel Pepys, looking back on the events, wrote in his diary on 7 September 1666: “People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity [the stupidity] of my Lord Mayor in general; and more particularly in this business of the fire, laying it all upon him.” It is quite likely that his inaction stemmed from his belief that he would be held personally liable for the properties that were pulled down. Fortunately for him, other scapegoats were found.
On Sunday morning, 2 September, Pepys, who was a senior official in the Navy Office, ascended the Tower of London to view the fire from a turret, and recorded in his diary that the eastern gale had turned it into a roaring conflagration. It had burned down several churches and, he estimated, 300 houses, and had reached the river front. The houses on London Bridge were also burning. Taking a boat to inspect the destruction around Pudding Lane at close range, Pepys describes a “lamentable” fire, “everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.” Pepys continued westward on the river to the court at Whitehall, “where people come about me, and I did give them an account [that] 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.” Charles’ brother James, Duke of York, offered the use of the Royal Life Guards to help fight the fire.
The fire spread quickly in the high wind. By mid-morning on Sunday, people abandoned attempts at extinguishing the fire and fled; the moving human mass and their bundles and carts made the lanes impassable for firemen and carriages. Pepys took a coach back into the city from Whitehall, but only reached St Paul’s Cathedral before he had to get out and walk. Handcarts with goods and pedestrians were still on the move, away from the fire, heavily weighed down. The parish churches not directly threatened were filling up with furniture and valuables, which would soon have to be moved farther afield. Pepys found Bloodworth trying to coordinate the firefighting efforts and near to collapse, “like a fainting woman,” crying out plaintively in response to the King’s message that he was pulling down houses. “But the fire overtakes us faster then [sic] we can do it.” He refused James’s offer of soldiers and then went home to bed. King Charles II sailed down from Whitehall in the Royal barge to inspect the scene. He found that houses were still not being pulled down, in spite of Bloodworth’s assurances to Pepys, and overrode the authority of Bloodworth to order wholesale demolitions west of the fire zone. The delay rendered these measures largely futile, as the fire was already out of control.
The fire pushed north on Monday into the heart of the City. Order in the streets broke down as rumors arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires. Such rumors came about because sparks and burning materials were borne to new areas by the wind where they ignited new fires, which the people around falsely believed were being deliberately set. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England’s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War. Immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence. On Tuesday, the fire spread over most of the City, destroying St. Paul’s Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II’s court at Whitehall, while coordinated firefighting efforts were simultaneously mobilizing.
Tuesday was the day of greatest destruction. The Duke of York’s command post at Temple Bar, where Strand meets Fleet Street, was supposed to stop the fire’s westward advance towards the Palace of Whitehall. Making a stand with his firemen from the Fleet Bridge and down to the Thames, James hoped that the River Fleet would form a natural firebreak. However, early on Tuesday morning, the flames jumped over the Fleet, driven by the unabated easterly gale, and outflanked them, forcing them to run for it. There was consternation at the palace as the fire continued implacably westward.
Working to a plan at last, James’s firefighters had also created a large firebreak to the north of the conflagration. It contained the fire until late afternoon, when the flames leapt across it and began to destroy the wide, affluent luxury shopping street of Cheapside. Everybody had thought St. Paul’s Cathedral would be a safe refuge, with its thick stone walls and natural firebreak in the form of a wide, empty surrounding plaza. It had been crammed full of rescued goods and its crypt filled with the tightly packed stocks of the printers and booksellers in adjoining Paternoster Row. However an enormous stroke of bad luck meant that the building was covered in wooden scaffolding as part of a general restoration by a then relatively unknown Christopher Wren. The scaffolding caught fire on Tuesday night. The flames crept round the cathedral and the burning scaffolding ignited the timbered roof beams. Within half an hour, the lead roof was melting, and the books and papers in the crypt caught with a roar. “The stones of Paul’s flew like grenados, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them,” reported John Evelyn in his diary. The cathedral was quickly a ruin.
During the day, the flames began to move eastward from the neighborhood of Pudding Lane, straight against the prevailing east wind towards Pepys’s home on Seething Lane, and the Tower of London with its gunpowder stores. After waiting all day for requested help from James’s official firemen, who were busy in the west, the garrison at the Tower took matters into their own hands and created firebreaks by blowing up houses in the vicinity on a large scale, halting the advance of the fire.
The wind dropped on Tuesday evening, and the firebreaks created by the garrison finally began to take effect on Wednesday. Pepys walked all over the smoldering city, getting his feet hot, and climbed the steeple of Barking Church, from which he viewed the destroyed City, “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw.” There were many separate fires still burning themselves out, but the Great Fire was over. Pepys visited Moorfields, a large public park immediately north of the City, and saw a great encampment of homeless refugees, “poor wretches carrying their goods there, and every body keeping his goods together by themselves.” He noted that the price of bread in the environs of the park had doubled. Evelyn also went out to Moorfields, which was turning into the main point of assembly for the homeless, and was horrified at the numbers of distressed people filling it, some under tents, others in makeshift shacks: “Many [were] without a rag or any necessary utensils, bed or board… reduced to extremest misery and poverty.” Evelyn was impressed by the pride of these distressed Londoners, “tho’ ready to perish for hunger and destitution, yet not asking one pennie for relief.”
Encouraged by king Charles, radical rebuilding schemes for the gutted City poured in. If it had been rebuilt under some of these plans, London would have rivaled Paris in Baroque magnificence (see Wren’s and Evelyn’s plans below — click them to enlarge). The Crown and the City authorities attempted to establish “to whom all the houses and ground did in truth belong” to negotiate with their owners about compensation for the large-scale remodeling that these plans entailed, but that unrealistic idea had to be abandoned. Exhortations to bring in workers to measure the plots on which the houses had stood were mostly ignored by people worried about day-to-day survival, as well as by those who had left the capital. It proved impossible to secure workers for the purpose either in the city or farther afield.
With the complexities of ownership unresolved, none of the grand Baroque schemes for a City of piazzas and avenues could be realized; there was nobody to negotiate with, and no means of calculating how much compensation should be paid. Instead, much of the old street plan was recreated in the new City, with improvements in hygiene and fire safety, wider streets, open and accessible wharves along the length of the Thames with no houses obstructing access to the river, and, most importantly, buildings constructed of brick and stone, not wood. New public buildings were created on their predecessors’ sites. Perhaps the most famous is Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and its smaller cousins, known as “Christopher Wren’s 50 new churches.” Although Wren’s city plans were not put into effect, the rebuilt London bore his stamp, and does to this day.
On the king’s initiative, a Monument to the Great Fire of London, designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke (click here), was erected near Pudding Lane and known simply as “The Monument.” It stands at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill, 202 ft (62 m) tall and 202 ft (62 m) from the place where the Great Fire started – so if you were to lay the column flat towards Pudding Lane its top would mark the exact spot where the fire started. Constructed between 1671 and 1677, it is the tallest isolated stone column in the world and was built on the site of St. Margaret’s, Fish Street, the first church to be burnt down by the Great Fire. There is a spiral staircase inside allowing visitors access to the top. I climbed the 311 narrow steps as a boy, but I am not sure I am up for it again even though the vista of London from the top is magnificent. Wren and Hooke built the monument to double-up as a scientific instrument. It has a central shaft meant for use as a zenith telescope and for use in gravity and pendulum experiments. Vibrations from heavy traffic on Fish Hill, however, made it unsuitable for such experiments. The steps in the shaft of the tower are all exactly six inches high, allowing them to be used for barometric pressure studies.
Another monument, the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, marks the point near Smithfield where the fire stopped.
It was sometimes claimed that the fire was started while the baker, Thomas Farriner, was baking “small cakes.” The claim is flatly contradicted by Farriner who testified that when the fire broke out he and his family were asleep, convinced that the oven fires had been correctly extinguished. Nonetheless, the story gives me the opportunity to present a recipe for small cakes from Sir Kenelme Digby’s, The Closet of Sir Kenelme Digby Opened (1669). The original recipe (for a large household) is as follows:
EXCELLENT SMALL CAKES
“Take three pound of very fine flower well dryed by the fire, and put to it a pound and half of loaf Sugar sifted in a very fine sieve and dryed; Three pounds of Currants well washed and dryed in a cloth and set by the fire; When your flower is well mixed with the Sugar and Currants, you must put in it a pound and half of unmelted butter, ten spoonfuls of Cream, with the yolks of three new-laid Eggs beat with it, one Nutmeg; and if you please, three spoonfuls of Sack. When you have wrought your paste well, you must put it in a cloth, and set it in a dish before the fire, till it be through warm. Then make them up in little Cakes, and prick them full of holes; you must bake them in a quick oven unclosed. Afterwards Ice them over with Sugar. The Cakes should be about the bigness of a hand-breadth and thin: of the cise of the Sugar Cakes sold at Barnet.”
There is no leavening in this recipe which looks to me very much like Scottish shortbread with a few additions. Modern conversions I have seen of this recipe all use self raising flour, which I think is wrong and will produce more of a soft cookie than a dense, rich cake. For some reason they also use melted butter which is not what the recipe requires. I have tried to stick reasonably close to the original in my interpretation. I have cut the amounts by one-third, but you could halve my ingredients again. On advice from my sister, who was an excellent professional baker for many years, I have seriously reduced the quantity of raisins. I have not tried this recipe out so I’d be interested in feedback. I see no reason for it not to work. It should produce a slightly less crumbly, crisper version of shortbread.
© Sir Kenelme Digby’s Small Cakes
1 lb (500g) all purpose flour
1 lb (500g) sugar
½ lb (250g) butter
3 tbsps light cream
1 cup currants
1 egg yolk
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tbsp dry sack sherry (optional)
caster sugar for dusting
Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy.
Add the currants, cream, egg yolk, and sherry (if used). Mix to blend.
Add the flour in thirds to the mixture, mixing thoroughly each time. Scrape the dough out of the bowl with a spatula on to a floured surface and knead until completely mixed. Let rest for 30 minutes to an hour.
Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C.
Form the dough into balls and then flatten them into rounds about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter and ½ inch (1 cm) thick. Prick them with a fork all over and place them on parchment lined or greased cookie sheets.
Bake 12-15 minutes, or until the centers are set when lightly pressed with your finger, and the tops are light golden.
Cool on wire racks and dust with caster sugar.