Friday, 2 September 2016

A Potted History of The Great Fire of London 1666

On this very day, 350 years ago, The Great Fire of London began
 "It made me weep to see it" Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys 1633-1704 painted by John Hayls in the year of the Great Fire
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Old London Bridge by Claude de Jongh
Autumn 1665 was the start of an exceptional drought which continued throughout the winter, then spring, and into summer 1666. London's bridges, and timber framed buildings with their straw thatched roofs, were built very close together and all became tinder dry. 
In the early hours of Sunday 2nd September 1666, Thomas Farynor of Pudding Lane, master baker to the King, was awoken by his workmen who could smell smoke. He had forgotten to put out the fire in his oven.
The family were trapped upstairs, the only escape route was by jumping through a window into the house next door. Their maid was too scared to make the leap and became the first casualty of The Great Fire.
Fire brigades were non existent so the locals had to fight the flames with the help of soldiers. Fire-hooks were used to pull the burning thatch from the roofs, and buckets of water were thrown at the flames. Eventually it was decided to demolish houses by blowing them up with gunpowder in order to create 'fire breaks'. It wasn't until the wind dropped on the third night that the fire began to loose its hold.
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The Great Fire of London - Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg
The fire burned from the early hours of Sunday until late evening on the following Wednesday completely consuming the medieval City of London built within the Roman city walls. 13,200 houses were destroyed, 87 parish churches including St. Paul's Cathedral, and most of the buildings belonging to the City authorities. 
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Old St. Paul's in Flames - Wenceslaus Hollar 1607-1677
It is estimated that 70,000 of the City's 80,000 inhabitants lost their homes. It is recorded that only six people died but it is known that the deaths of poor people were never recorded. It is most likely that the heat from the fire would have cremated many victims leaving no recognisable remains. A melted piece of pottery discovered by archaeologists in Pudding Lane, and now housed in the Museum of London, shows that the temperature reached 1700℃.
The Aftermath
During the C17th the Bubonic Plague was a recurring problem in London, and it is believed that the fire may have been largely responsible for eradicating the epidemic. As a result of the fire there was a great renaissance in both the arts and sciences in England.
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St. Paul's Cathedral designed and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the English Baroque style
Sir Christopher Wren painted by Godfrey Kneller in 1711
Altogether Christopher Wren designed 51 new city churches and was appointed surveyor of the royal works which effectively gave him control of all government buildings in the country.
The Monument an engraving by Sutton Nicholls C1750 
Monument to The Great Fire commonly known simply as The Monument - Christopher Wren and colleague, Dr. Robert Hooke, provided a design for a colossal Doric column in the antique tradition. It is 61 metres high - the exact distance between it and the site in Pudding Lane where the fire began. Should you be visiting London it is possible to visit the Monument and climb up it's twisting stairway to get a great bird's eye view of London.
Eventually, like the Phoenix, a new city built of brick and stone emerged from the ashes to become the financial capital which many of us love today.

44 comments:

  1. That must have been a hell on earth that fire. Because of the wooden houses and churches there were many fires in the old cities in Europe those days. I am glad the houses are now made of bricks or concrete.

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    1. It must have been very frightening for the inhabitants especially as they had no specific resources with which to fight the fire.

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  2. Hello Rosemary, You have given us a real feel for what it was like fighting the Great Fire. Bad as the fire was, it provided a clean slate for much of the London that is now familiar. I have read reports about another rebuilding of London, after WWII, in which all layers of the city were revealed, including the medieval walled city, and back to London's primitive origins. I didn't know about the Monument to the Great Fire, but rest assured that it is now on my list for the next trip to London.
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim - the old city walls of Roman Londinium are now quite a feature in various parts of the city, and in fact the Museum of London which was set up in 1984 incorporates some of the old walls into its design.

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  3. A lovely piece on the anniversary of the Great Fire. I've just had a piece published on this very event in the online magazine, Discover Your Ancestors. Two good books on the subject are an old one, written during WW2 when London was again being flattened in the Blitz, and that is by T F Reddaway, and a modern one by Adrian Tinniswood, By Permission of Heaven.
    Margaret P

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    1. Dear Margaret as I mentioned in the title my post is just a simple potted history, but I appreciate your kind comment.
      I will check out the books you suggest - thank you very much

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    2. Hello, Rosemary, this is the first time I've seen your blog and already I love it, it's my kind of blog! Architecture, art, books ... I will certainly look in again! There some Great Fire of London stamps out today, too.
      Margaret P

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    3. I didn't realise that they had published some stamps - yes, please do call again.

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  4. Hard to picture the utter devastation. Where in London is the Tower?

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    1. It is actually on Monument Street quite near to London Bridge - the nearest tube is aptly called Monument on the Circle or District Line.

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  5. Hello, Rosemary. I didn’t know about the Great Fire of 1666. What an inferno and devastation! Interesting to know the frequent occurred plague was mainly rooted out by the fire. From the book “A Journal of the Plague Year” by Daniel Defoe (I haven’t read but only know the title), I have known about the plague.

    The time of the fire reminded me of what I learned in Japanese history, the Great Fire of Meireki in 1967 and I checked it. Edo, old Tokyo, was characterized by frequent big fires because the buildings were largely made of wood, straw, bamboo and paper. The 1657 fire levelled much of the city. There about 24000 firemen in the city.

    During my blogging break, you updated many. Don’t you have some symptoms by seeing computer monitor for long? Concentration on computer monitor for extended time makes me have slight seasick like feeling. But with slower pace, no problem, so anyway I’m happy to be able to be back here to see your post.

    Yoko

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    1. Welcome back Yoko - I was interested to learn about the fire in Edo, old Tokyo, and to learn that it too suffered from being made of wood, straw, bamboo and paper.
      No, I don't have any unpleasant feeling from looking at the computer monitor, but must confess that it doesn't take me very long to write and illustrate a blog post.

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    2. Oh, my… I don’t know why I wrote “1967” instead of “1657”, but you seem to have found it a simple mistake from the context. Thank you. It takes long for me to read and write in English. But blogging is one of the ways to keep learning English language.

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    3. Your English is brilliant Yoko♡

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  6. The Great Fire of London was one of the most famous incidents we know about England.An unbelievable disaster for the city and a real tragedy for its citizens.Good to commemorate this dramatic event.

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    1. I sometimes think how lovely it would be if we could see Old London Bridge covered with those wooden houses, it must have looked very picturesque according to the painting by Claude de Jongh.

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  7. It must have been just horrible, so scary. The aftermath too, with so many businesses and homes lost.

    Discovering the meaning of the word pudding in Pudding Lane, was not as tasty as I first imagined. ;-)

    I loved this Pudding Lane production 17th century London before the fire.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPY-hr-8-M0

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    1. I am just going to take a look at your suggestion on youtube Catherine - thank you

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    2. I have just watch a documentary on Nexflix called Filthy Cities. The first episode was Medieval London. It focused on the variety of filth (raw sewage) dumped in the streets during that time. Included in that stew was what the butchers contributed "pudding" (a medieval word for offal). Which was thrown into the streets or fell off carts. Of course then they addressed the plague and how that first got started. Cities were not the place to be in those times. The smell should have been enough to kill you.

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    3. That period of history was not as romantic as people like to imagine - in the Middle Ages wealthy people carried pomanders containing oranges studded with cloves inside a silver case. An orange was though to be a protection against disease and smells. In the Regency period and through to the Victorian era the wealthy carried a small gold or silver vinaigrette in their pocket or on a chain. It had a small sponge inside soaked in vinegar under a pierced lid. They would open up the little box and hold it under their noses if the smell was too bad and as a protection.
      I remember reading about Queen Elizabeth l and how she would wear a net over her hair whilst eating because of the nits dropping into her food!!!
      The little silver and sometimes gold vinaigrettes are very popular antiques over here, they are small, often beautifully engraved and very collectible.

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  8. What a major catastrophe! At least some good came out of it eventually, but how people must have suffered in the interim.

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    1. There were no hospitals, fire brigades, or emergency rescue workers then - it must have been very frightening.

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  9. Did you see the television drama about it Rosemary - it was very good, it showed Pepys in not a very good ligh - not sure how accurate it was but it made for good viewing.

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    1. No, I am sorry that I missed that Elaine - was it on recently?

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    2. It was longer ago than I remembered 2014.

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    3. Thanks for letting me know - I thought it might have been on recently - I was going to check it out on BBCiplayer

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  10. Dearest Rosemary,
    What an inferno that must have been for so many people involved and losing everything they owned...
    But indeed, it also kills diseases so there was at least one positive aspect.
    Sending you hugs for the weekend and a happy September,
    Mariette

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    1. Dear Mariette - you are right, so often good comes from bad in many instances.
      Hope your weekend is warm and happy too

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  11. I learnt about this event at primary school and the huge devastation it caused. I can't remember however about the rebuilding afterwards so thank you for completing the story! Belated birthday wishes I hope you had a wonderful celebration. Sarah x

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    1. Thank you Sarah - the weather was lovely then, we ate all of our meals out of doors,which is surprising given the weather today. However, hot weather, we are told, is coming back next week.

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  12. Dear Rosemary,

    I remember studying the great fire of London at school in history so it was good to read your post and see photos. Thank you for sharing.
    Have a great Sunday
    Hugs
    Carolyn

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    1. Thank you Carolyn - Sunday is looking rather dull, but the good news is that hot weather is once again heading our way during the coming week.

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  13. You can say that out of something very bad came something very good.

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  14. I too remember studying about this fire, but your blog gives much more ( and interesting) information. I can't imagine that the majority of the town lost their homes.

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    1. Thanks Janey - just my brief description of the event which would be so much more difficult to envisage if it had not been portrayed so vividly by the artists at that time.

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    2. Dear Rosemary, Your 4th photo of a drawing/woodcut tells all, the panic, the urgency and the terrible loss. Great post and great selection of photos.

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    3. Dear Gina - it is one of those important moments in our history - a selection of stamps have been produced using a comic formatt which tell the story very well.

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  15. Hello Rosemary,
    How terrifying those days must have been for the citizens of London. I can hardly imagine a temperature of 1700 degrees. How ingenious of them to blow up some houses in an effort to control the fire. A great piece of history and thank you for this

    Helen xx

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    1. Hello Helen - I am pleased that you found it interesting - although there were no records like we would have today i.e. film, photos etc, there were written eye witness accounts and also paintings which dramatically recorded the event.

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  16. A super potted history, Rosemary. It goes without saying that it must have been very hard living through the plague and then the fire in just a couple of years. I do wonder how those people who had lost everything were able to live afterwards. It's fortunate for us, though, that individuals like Wren were there to re-build. We couldn't imagine a London without St Paul's now.

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    1. I was always aware that Wren had designed and built many churches in London but didn't realise that they numbered 51 which is quite an extraordinary achievement.

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  17. We did read about the anniversary of the fire in our paper, but your version with the amazing paintings is of course much, much better! I was amazed to see the buildings on the bridge - and to learn more about the solutions to Britain's smelly era! History of the world is so amazing.


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    1. Dear Mary - wouldn't Old London Bridge covered in those quaint wooden Tudor houses look picturesque if it was all still in situ today?

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