Here by ye permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city.
Original Engraving on the Great Fire Mounment
Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . . Samuel Pepys Diary for 2nd September 1666
In 1666 London was a bonfire ready to light. It was built of wood and thatch buildings – teetering tenements that leaned close together. It was full of foundries and bakers, glaziers and tanners all with fires. Its warehouses stored vast quanities of combustible material. It had little in the way of effective fire fightingÂ procedures. The summer had been long and hot and the city was dry. All it took was a spark.
Thomas Farriner (or Faynor) was the King’s baker on Pudding Lane near London Bridge. He baked ships biscuits for the Navy. On Saturday 1st September he had retired to bed but someone – himself, his maid or his journeyman had forgotten to put out the fire. Wood, ready for the mornings baking was stacked nearby. Between midnight and 1am on Sunday morning 2nd September it is assumed that a spark from the fire must have ignited the wood. This spread and soon the bakery was in flames. Thomas and his family escaped out of an upstairs window BUT their maid did not escape. Afraid to cross the gap to the roof behind she stayed behind and perished.
Call the Mayor
The fire spread quickly and soon the entire street was on fire. Around the time that Pepys was woken on Seething Lane a little to the east, the Mayor Thomas Bloodworth was summoned and on inspecting the fire made the quote that wouldcome back to bite him later: “Pish! A woman could piss it out”. He returned to bed without giving any orders to pull down any houses to creat fire breaks.
Those trying to fight the fire struggled on but effort were hampered by the fact the pump nearest Pudding Lane was broken. There was some attempt to bring fire engines to the scenes but these were huge and heavy and could not reach the scene.
Pepys takes action but the Mayor does not!
In the morning Samuel Pepys realised that the fire was spreading fast and would soon by out of control. He hurried to White Hall to see the king. Charles II ordered him to tell the Mayor to pull down houses and to take the offer of extra troops from The Duke of York’s guards (commanded by his brother, James). Pepys hurried to see Bloodworth. he found the mayor in a state of hysteria, complaining that no one would obey him. Bloodworth refused the offer of troops. This was because the City had deep suspicions about the crown and indeed had been strongly for parliament during the civil war of only 20 years before. City officials had a fear of royalist troops in the city and wanted to avoid that. Bloodworth also ignored the king’s orders about pulling down buildings, fearful that he would be held financially responsible.
The King views the scene
The King sailed down the river in the afternoon and was apalled at the spread of the fire and even more astonished that his orders had been ignored. He overrode the authority of the mayor in the area west of the fire and started the process of having house pulled down.
Even the King’s intervention was too late. Strong winds from the south and eats was driving the fire on. In the evening Pepys took a boat to an alehouse on the south bank of the Thamas and stayed there till darkness fell. He wrote later that they could see the fire on London Bridge and across the river, “as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it.”
Tomorrow: Monday 3rd September – The Fire Spreads
This article is one of a series connected with the release of the new paperback of The Last Seal my historical fantasy set during the Great Fire of 1666.