Tuesday 4th September – The Fire at full fury!
Now begins the practice of blowing up of houses in Tower-streete, those next the Tower, which at first did frighten people more than anything, but it stopped the fire where it was done, it bringing down the houses to the ground in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it, though it kindled nothing almost. W. Hewer this day went to see how his mother did, and comes late home, telling us how he hath been forced to remove her toIslington, her house in Pye-corner being burned; so that the fire is got so far that way, and all the Old Bayly, and was running down to Fleete-streete; and Pauls is burned, and all Cheapside. I wrote to my father this night, but the post-house being burned, the letter could not go. Samuel Pepys Diary for 4th September 1666.
Tuesday 4th September 1666 was the worst day of the Great Fire of London. The strong wind was still blowing north and west and was driving the inferno onwards. This was the day when panic really began to set in at Westminster. The king’s court began making plans to evacuate even though the fire was still some distance away. Yet there was hope even in the midst of unbelievable destruction.
The Fire Jumps the River Fleet
James, Duke of York and his men were working flat out to try and stem the westward flow of the fire. They had hoped that the River Fleet – a refuse filled sliver running south towards the Thames – would be a barrier to the fire. This was a vain hope as the fire jumped the river and ignited buildings on its west bank and then advanced on towards the Temple and the Inns of Court. Despite the disappointment, James carried on pulling down buildings, trying desperately to create a fire break in the west.
The Great Church Burns
St Paul’s Cathedral was one of the wonders of the Christian World. Its spire (which fell down after a storm some years before) had been one of the highest in the world and it still loomed over the city. It was natural that people should put their faith in its vastness. As the fire rolled west towards the cathedral that Tuesday those living in the area, including the booksellers that populated the region around it hurried to push belongings into the vault and interior and up against the walls hoping the churchyards and the stone walls would protect them. This proved a vain hope.
The church had been neglected during the years of the Commonwealth and in 1666 Christopher Wren had erected scaffolding to help him restore it. That same scaffolding caught fire. the fire spread to the roof and soon the structure was inflames – a vast fireball in the centre of the flaming city.
The fire was so hot that the roof tiles melted and lead ran down the street. The tombs and coffins burst asunder and corpses literally fell and leapt out of them including a remarkably preserved bishop of two hundred years before who landed on his feet and became, after the fire, a celebrity visited by celebrities and common folk.
Samuel Pepys lends a hand.
The first glimmer of hope that the fire could be contained started when parties of soldiers, one led by Samuel Pepys, rolled barrels of gunpowder from the Tower into the streets nearby and started blowing up whole blocks of housing. This proved one of the only effective means of stopping the fire. In the east – where the fire had been approaching the Tower itself – the fire was under control but in the west the fire incinerated Cheapside and the city markets and rolled on by the Cathedral and seemed as unstoppable as ever.
In the fields around the city a vast population settled down to sleep rough through the third night of the fire, many believing that the end of the world had truly come.
See: Monday 3rd September - The Fire Spreads
Tomorrow: Wednesday 4th September – Hope at last!
This article is one of a series connected with the release in August of the new paperback of The Last Seal my historical fantasy set during the Great Fire of 1666.