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London's Greatest Historical Tragedies: 1665 and 1666

In the early months of 1665 London was again visited by the Pestilence. Since the country’s first outbreak in 1348 the Black Death, the plague, or whatever you wish to call the bacterial infection known today as Yersinia pestis, regular visits had caused Londoners to be cautious. Some outbreaks were very harsh and others quite mild by comparison. So, when the first few deaths occurred in the Parish of St Giles, just south of where you will find today’s New Oxford Street, few were alarmed. As late as May of that year the outbreak was still considered mild and was no cause for concern.

Houses with an infected family member were shut tight. A red cross was painted on the door and sometimes accompanied by a message such as ‘Lord, have mercy upon us.’ The house would be locked for forty days as in Roman times. Incidentally, an Italian translation of this forty-day lockdown is how we get the modern word ‘quarantine’. A member of the watch (forerunners of the modern police) would be posted outside to ensure no one escaped. Locals organised a rota to leave food on the doorstep for the family.

By July 1665, however, the infections had spread to the west. The diarist Samuel Pepys recorded that his waterman (the man who rowed Pepys across the Thames in his water taxi) had buried a son and was ill himself. Anyone with means left London. Pepys sent his wife and mother to the countryside and dismissed most of his servants so they could escape the capital. He even drew up a new will.

The new King Charles II had been returned to his martyred father’s throne in 1660 and he too fled the capital. Parliament was prorogued and most of the Ambassadors had fled. Notably, the Danish Ambassador had fled north to an open area that was later known as Copenhagen Fields (today a public park).

Authorities tried to do what they could and devised a plan to kill all dogs and cats to slow the spread of infection. Pepys estimated the numbers at 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats. Soon the weekly Mortality Bills were reporting 1,000 deaths a week which rose in short order to 7,000 per week (and please note that we are only counting Anglicans). Pepys reported that London was a ghost town.

When the cooler autumn weather turned to the last months of 1665 the infections had finally abated. London still had dead to bury and few people willing to do that work. By February 1666 the King had returned and life resumed to a kind of normality. In the end, the death toll was upwards of 80,000 in a pre-plague city of 460,000 or just under 20%.

By May of 1666 London had a calm rebuilding that lasted throughout that hot and dry summer. But the peace did not last. In the small hours of Sunday 2nd September, a fire broke out in the bakery of Thomas Farrinor. Farrinor was a typical London baker and his bakery on Pudding Lane just north of Billingsgate Fish Market was a place where you could buy pies and cakes.

He also had a contract with the Royal Navy to supply hard tack biscuits which was a standard ration for seamen. Bakers used wood-burning ovens and flour, when dissipated in the air, is highly flammable. Whatever happened that night at Thomas Farrinor’s we can never completely know but we can say for certain that there was an accident with an open flame or hot embers. The staff tried to put out the fire, but it got away from them. The family and staff escaped to an upstairs room and out onto the neighbouring roof. One servant, afraid of heights, would not climb out the window and died of asphyxia.

At 3 am Pepys was awoken by his servant at his house on Seething Lane. Fires were not uncommon in London and there seemed to be no great cause for concern. Famously, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bludworth, went to survey the fire and reportedly said: “Pish! A woman might piss it out.” Very little was done. The summer had been hot and dry, and the river Thames was notably running lower than normal. There was a strong westerly wind which was fanning the flames. By mid-morning, the fire had reached Lower Thames Street and the houses on the northern side of London Bridge. The fire had reached the wharves alongside the Thames. Many of the things stored there including coal and tallow, were highly flammable.

Pepys again went to survey the scene. He was an administrator for the Royal Navy and a Member of Parliament. He took a boat to view the fire from the riverside and when he saw that it was indeed quite a cause for concern, ordered his boat straight to Whitehall to inform the King. Pepys reported that King Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York (later King James II), had not heard anything about this fire. The party quickly went to the scene where Bludworth was ordered to tear down buildings to make a fire break.

Bludworth was a man who got his job more for his acquiescence to authority than for his leadership skills. He was easily bullied and was afraid of what would happen to him if he started to destroy property. He was noted as saying ‘who would pay?’ In a time when London needed a man of action, we had Bludworth who did nothing. All the while the fire raged westwards. By the evening it had reached Blackfriars, destroying everything in its path. The poet, John Evelyn, reported on the morning of Monday 3rd September that all of London was ablaze from the Thames to Cheapside. Further north, the Royal Exchange was on fire. Pepys returned to his home, sent his valuables to a friend’s house, and put his furniture in a ferry sent downstream. Again, twice in two years, his wife was evacuated from London. Pepys wrapped his parmesan cheese and buried it in his garden.

The fire was not done with London yet. On the following day, Tuesday 4th September 1666, the winds changed direction and eased a little. But it was so ferocious now that there was little chance of stopping it. The fire reached the gothic St Paul’s Cathedral.

Opened in 1204 and built of wood and stone the church was in a poor state of repair. A young architect from Oxford named Christopher Wren had been tasked with a survey and restoration. Wren wrapped the building in a wooden scaffold to do the work. The flames tore up the scaffold in little time and the church was burned to the ground. Further east the fire had breached the Fleet Ditch. Guards at the notorious Fleet Prison ran in horror. Luckily for the prisoners inside, they had left the doors unlocked. It was only now that the attempt to make fire breaks took off in earnest. At Fetter Lane, houses were blown up with gunpowder. Today you can see the buildings of Staples Inn, some of the only original medieval wood buildings in the Capital. To the east, Admiral Penn blew up the houses in front of All Hallows by the Tower.

If you visit the church, you can see a bust of him in thanks for his efforts. Admiral Penn’s son was baptised in this church, young William went on to found the Colony of Pennsylvania.

On the morning of Wednesday 5th September, the fire had mostly died out. Pepys went to All Hallows by the Tower and climbed the steeple. There he surveyed the devastation. He wrote in his diary: “It was the saddest site of desolation that I ever saw.” He looked straight across the capital as there were no buildings left to hamper his views. In the end, London lost 13,000 houses, 87 parish churches, 52 livery halls and about 80% of its buildings. Some 70,000 people were made homeless.

You are more than welcome to come to one of my London Self-Guided Walks to visit the places and people mentioned in the post. Of course, in this two-hours experience, you will find plenty of other amazing stories as well.


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