Dave the Taxi Driver's
Guide to London
The Great Fires of London
The Great Fire of London which took place in September 1666 is generally regarded as the one and only great fire to afflict the capital. This has been the biggest fire to date, but since Roman times there have been a considerable number of fires which have devastated the city or areas within it and which were attributable to a variety of causes.
AD 60/61 the First Great Fire
Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe, wife of her deceased husband King Prasutagus reeked her vengeance on Rome by raising a large army, attacking the Roman City of Lundinium, killing all inhabitants and burning the City to the ground.
King Prasutagus had been a Client King of Rome, that is he received Roman protection for his allegiance against other ancient tribes of Britannia. It is said that before his death Prasutagus had agreed his kingdom should be shared between his family and Rome. The Romans considered him a traitor, as it was expected that Rome would have entire control over his kingdom. Not only did the Romans steal his lands and those of his nobility, but they cruelly flogged his wife Queen Boudicca and publicly raped their two daughters.
“Hell hath no fury etc.. ..was certainly true in this case. Perhaps Shakespeare got the idea from this story. Boudicca, like the rest of the ancient Celtic race was very tall, over six feet, reputedly with red hair reaching down to her hips. She is said to have had swords attached to the wheels of her chariot to cut off the legs of any assailant. A formidable leader and enemy. The main body of the Roman Army was away committing genocide against the Druids in Wales. Having heard of the destruction of the city of Colchester and Boudicca’s march on London, the Governor, Suetonius Paulinus travelled to Lundinium, but realising that the troops he had with him would be heavily outnumbered, he withdrew and left the people and merchants (around 30.000) to their fate. There is a layer of red and blackened earth under the London streets which is testament to this onslaught ,which has been discovered during building and archaeological works.
AD122 -130 The Hadrianic Fire
So called because this fire took place during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. The cause is unknown and it might have been a series of separate fires which had never been properly extinguished. This or these took place sometime after 122. Having been rebuilt after the revolt of the Iceni, London was once again destroyed. There is a layer of red and blackened earth from this fire under the London streets to go with the other one of sixty years earlier.
In AD 675 the wooden building of St.Paul’s was destroyed together with a large area of the city.
In 959 St.Paul’s was severely damaged again and in 1087, during the reign of William Rufus another fire destroyed most of the city and St.Paul’s was again a victim.
In 1133 or maybe 1135 a fire which is supposed to have started on London Bridge spread through the city as far as St. Clement Danes in Westminster.
In 1176 London Bridge had been rebuilt in stone by Peter de Colechurch. King John had given permission for houses to be built on the bridge, the rents being allocated to the upkeep of the bridge. In 1212 a fire began in Southwark, just south of the River Thames. Many people fled onto the bridge to escape the flames but the strong southern wind had been blowing burning embers to the north side of the bridge, which also caught fire. Thousands of people were trapped on the bridge. In the panic that ensued around 3000 people died. They were either trapped on the bridge or drowned by falling into the River Thames, having tried to escape. Many also climbed into boats which had come to help. Many of these were overloaded and sank. This fire consumed St. Mary Overie ( now Southwark Cathedral), all the houses on the bridge and much of the city. This was known as the Great Fire of London until 1666.
In Rome there had been bands of fire fighters known as ‘vigiles’ (from where we get the word ‘vigilantes’), who used to patrol the streets keeping watch for any signs of fire. It is surmised that a similar force was established in the Roman City of London (Lundinium) during the Roman occupation from AD 43 until AD 410, when the occupation ended. After the Romans left, this system was abandoned.
It was not until the reign of King William I (the Conqueror, 1066-1087) that any similar attempt at fire control was established. He introduced the rule that all fires and lights should be extinguished by nightfall. This was known in French as ‘couvre-feu’ which eventually became the word ‘curfew’. Fire fighting continued as a disorganised, ill equipped, haphazard affair with no official regulations or organisation.
By the seventeenth century London had grown so much that the population had risen to about half a million. The Trained Bands of Militia, who were active in military campaigns throughout the century formed a body of men called the Watch, This comprised 1000 watchmen who patrolled the streets at night keeping a lookout for any dangerous fires that had started. These were also known as ‘bellmen’.
By law every parish church had to keep a supply of fire fighting equipment. Locals were alerted to a fire by the muffled peal of the church bells, whereupon they would assemble and attempt to put out any fire using the equipment which consisted of leather buckets to carry water, ladders, axes, spades ,‘fire hooks’ and squirts, which were like giant syringes, held a gallon of water and were operated by three men. The fire hooks were used to pull down buildings which were on fire in order to create a firebreak to stem the flames.
It was about this time that an early form of fire engine emerged but despite the manufacturers’ claims of manoeuvrability, only a few of the engines had wheels, most of them being sleds. They were not conveniently located in the event of a fire and because of the extremely narrow streets could easily get stuck and not reach the fire at all.
Surprisingly It was not until 1833 that an official fire fighting force was formed. That was the London Fire Engine Establishment, with the formation of the London Fire Brigade following in 1865.
1666 The Great Fire
Seventeenth century London was a mass of filthy, narrow streets and lanes crammed with wooden houses and squalid tenements, many with overhanging sections known as jetties, breathing down the necks of the ramshackle wooden and tar paper walls of the next overcrowded hovel next door.
There were blacksmiths, foundries, candle makers, glaziers, bakers and heaps of straw and rubbish. There were stores of flammable goods in cellars--tar, pitch, spices and hemp. All over the city were piles of black powder left over from the Civil War, and kept by the former soldiers for the next time it might be needed. It only needed one spark to set the whole of the city alight. That spark landed on a pile of kindling left near the oven of the King’s Baker, Thomas Farynor of Pudding Lane, in the early hours of 2nd. September 1666.
The spread of the Great Fire was chronicled by the diarist Samuel Pepys (pronounced Peeps) worked at the Naval Office and lived close to Pudding Lane. He began:-
“Some of our maids sitting up last night to get things ready against our feast today, called us, about 3 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 the window, and thought it to be on the backside of Mark Lane; but being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again and to sleep”
Pepys lived in Seething Lane which is towards the Tower of London from where the fire started in Pudding Lane. It is evident that he did not think much of the fire as fires were a regular occurrence.
Under oath Thomas Farynor stated that he ‘drew’ his oven in his ground floor shop at around 10.00 p.m. on the evening of the 1st September and left a bundle of kindling close by for use the following morning.
At 2.00a.m. Farynor’s servant awoke choking and found the house to be full of smoke. He woke the rest of the household. The fire had taken hold so Farynor, his wife, daughter and servants made their escape via a garret window and across the roof to a neighbour’s house. His maid, paralysed with fear, refused to cross the 2 or 3 foot gap and so she became the first victim to perish.
At first the fire did not spread very quickly. It quietly burnt down Pudding Lane and Fish Street Hill. There was strong east north easterly wind fanned the flames. The Star Inn stood in Fish Street Hill. It was a travellers’ inn and had stables and piles of hay in its yard. It wasn’t long before it was ablaze.
The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth was informed by the Parish Constable. He was so put out at being disturbed from his sleep that he dismissed the fire as a trifling matter, uttering the now infamous line “ Pish! A woman might piss it out”
By the time Pepys awoke at 700a.m. London Bridge was on fire, the ancient church of St.Magnus the Martyr was in ashes and 300 houses had been destroyed. Pepys went to Whitehall to consult with the King (Charles II) and a plan to pull down buildings to create firebreaks was put into action.
The Lord Mayor was in a state of despair as he realised his terrible mistake. This plan had already been suggested to him but he questioned “Who would foot the bill for rebuilding?”.
People were not trying to put out the fire but escaping with their belongings. The fire continued to rage along the river bank through the warehouses. One of them stored metal. The intense heat caused it to melt and flowed through the streets. The fire had now become a firestorm. The was pandemonium everywhere. People were fighting their way through the busy streets choking and blinded by the acrid smoke. Buildings began to collapse.
The Watermen and Lightermen who plied their trade on the river could name their price to ferry people across the Thames. Some unscrupulous ones even stopped in midstream to demand more money from the victims, with reports that people and possessions were thrown into the river if they wouldn’t pay.
The King’s brother, the Duke of York and the Duke of Monmouth took control of operations and the hapless Lord Mayor was relieved of his responsibility.
Pepys made his way to the Anchor Ale House in Bankside (still there) and later wrote about the fire “ It made me weep to see it. Churches, houses and all on fire, and a horrid noise the flames made”.
London was visible as a glow in the sky from forty miles away.
Monday 3rd September dawned bright and sunny but the sun shone in vain behind a yellow pall of thick smoke which hung over the City. The fire mercilessly devoured its way through the streets, making its way westwards and northwards towards the richer areas, Cornhill and Lombard Street.
Some beautiful and important buildings had already been reduced to ashes, among them The Royal Exchange, a gift to the City by Sir Thomas Gresham in 1566. This had been filled with rich and varied goods from around the world. Baynard’s Castle was ablaze by 9.00p.m.
The Army were called in to get some kind of order and fight the fire by pulling down buildings. The equipment which by law had to be kept in churches proved to be virtually useless. Much of it had perished through lack of maintenance and the squirts were far too inadequate to have any effect on the flames, even if anyone could have got close enough. In addition there had been a long hot summer and a drought. The River Thames was very low as were the wells. The water pipes which were made of elm wood had been dug up and broken to fill fire buckets and these now lay dry and useless. Fire posts of 100 soldiers were set up controlled by Parish Constables. The men were paid in bread, cheese and beer and received one shilling a night for their work.
Many suspected that the fire might have been started by Papists as part of a plot against the people and to overthrow the King. Foreigners were rounded up and imprisoned for their own safety. Unfortunately some were unlucky. More than one Frenchman was hit over the head by an iron bar and another was dismembered by the mob.
By Tuesday 4th September half the City was ablaze. Newgate Jail was well alight. The debtors were released but murderers and the like were left inside to die.
St. Paul’s which had stood on Ludgate Hill for six hundred years and was much larger than the present cathedral, was surrounded by timber scaffolding due to a refurbishment. Londoners tried in vain to stem the flames and the scaffolding caught fire. The enormous amount of lead which covered the roof of St.Paul‘s-- about six acres of it, began to melt , igniting the old timbers the molten lead cascading as burning rain through the building. St.Paul’s burned from the top down. The lead formed a scalding river that flowed down Ludgate Hill and into the river. Traces of this can still be seen on the south eastern side of St. Paul’s in the churchyard.
By now all roads out of the City were jammed and 100.000 were homeless.
Having seen their families to safety, men started to return to help those fighting the fire.
Samuel Pepys had sought and gained permission from the King to command the fire fighting to the east of the City. Helped by his friend, work colleague and neighbour Sir William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania they took command of the sailors and proceeded to blow up the houses adjacent to the Tower of London to protect the naval supplies kept there.
King Charles himself rode in to encourage the efforts, distributing gold guineas as a reward , sometimes dismounting and getting stuck in clearing debris with a spade, up to his ankles in mud.
By Wednesday 5th September the fire had reached near to where Pepys lived. He moved his family and gold to Greenwich but when he returned he found his house he found it untouched.
Pepys commented as he viewed from the church tower of All hallows “…. and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw. Everywhere great fires”.
By late afternoon though, the fire had been beaten. The firebreaks had worked.
By the dawn of Thursday 6th. September the fire had been extinguished at last.
Amazingly there were only nine recorded deaths, apart from the prisoners in Newgate and they didn’t count. Later many died from cholera, typhoid, hypothermia and exposure as they were forced to live in camps in the open air during the severe winter that was to follow.
The fire destroyed 13.200 houses, 87 churches, 52 City Livery Halls, many fine buildings, treasures and much of the recorded history of England. The cost was estimated at over 10 million pounds but that did not include the rebuilding of the City or St.Paul’s.
Robert Hubert, a Frenchman confessed to having started the fire in the baker’s shop. He was tried, convicted and hanged at Tyburn. Later it was established he was insane.
A commemoration of the Great Fire stands at the top of Fish Street Hill. The Monument is 202 feet high being 202 feet from the bakers in Pudding Lane where the fire started.
The Great Fire was seen as an act of God and attributed to the sin of gluttony. There is a symbolic saying which describes the fire’s beginning and end, “from pudding lane to pie corner”. The statue of Golden Boy of Pie Corner is in Giltspur Street (EC1) where the fire ended its northwards progress.
Sir Christopher Wren, the famous architect who rebuilt St.Paul’s Cathedral and many other fine London buildings, planned to rebuild the City as a wide open plan system but the city fathers had other ideas and built it once again with its narrow streets and alleyways, but this time in stone, necessary by law. His plan was never introduced but today if you want to see what London would have looked like, his plan was copied in Washington DC.
1834 The Houses of Parliament
On 16th October 1834 a parliamentary clerk was told to dispose of a load of unwanted ‘tally sticks’ which had been used by the Exchequer. He put them into a stove and left the building for home. The wood burned so fiercely that it set fire to the chimney and by the time the fire was discovered at 6.20 p.m., the whole of the upper floor of the House of Lords was alight. On this occasion there was strong westerly wind. This fanned the flames to such an extent that by 11.00 p.m. it looked like the end for Westminster Hall. At 11.30 a floor collapsed killing a fireman and injuring several others. Then the gable wall of Westminster Hall collapsed and the House of Lords was reduced to ashes.
Twelve fire engines and sixty four men were dispatched but there was little hope of extinguishing the fire which had taken such a hold. The old Houses of Parliament were left to burn themselves out while he firemen did what they could to save Westminster Hall. Having dragged pumps into the building they battled all through the night, cutting away the parts of the roof that were attached to the blazing house of the Speaker. Westminster Hall was saved.
1861 The Fire of Tooley Street.
In the nineteenth century Tooley Street (SE1), which is located just south of Tower Bridge was known as the ‘larder of London’. Ships from all over the world brought an endless variety of goods to London’s Docks.
After a sweltering June day, on a balmy evening, a bale of cotton in Scovell’s Warehouse spontaneously combusted. A runner raced to the fire station along the street, but by the time the necessary reinforcements arrived from the City, flames and smoke were belching from the upper floor of the warehouse. Within minutes the fire had leapt over to Cotton Wharf, then onto Hay’s Wharf and Chamberlain’s Wharf. Stored along the length of the river were oil, paint, sulphur, tallow, cheese, flour, rum and brandy. The fire now had a rich banquet on which to feed. Ships moored along the Thames had to make a run for it as rum and tallow floated on the water and burst into flames. Believe it or not there were sightseers in small boats sailing close by. These were engulfed by the flames and sank, the occupants being drowned.
The pumps in those days were manually operated by volunteers. The men who did this were paid in beer. “Beer-oh” was the singing cry of the pump operators which rang out through the smoke filled air as they strained to overcome the flames. The fire burned out of control for two days but it took weeks to finally subdue the smouldering ruins.
James Braidwood was the chief officer of the London Fire Engine Establishment. He had received reports that the boats fighting the fire were in trouble. With another senior officer he walked down an alleyway from Tooley Street to see for himself. On the way he paused to give his neckerchief to an injured man and made sure he was alright. As the two officers walked down the alley the wall collapsed onto them and they were buried and killed.
A memorial to James Braidwood stands on the corner of Cotton Lane (SE1), close to where he died. He is buried in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington (N16). He was given a full honours funeral with firemen from around the world lining the streets from his headquarters in Watling Street in the City, all the way to the cemetery. He had a military escort from his old regiment, The Rifle Brigade. That neckerchief he gave to the injured man is an honoured exhibit at the London Fire Brigade Museum in Southwark.
1940/41 The Blitz
In June 1940 after the French had surrendered to the Nazis, the Luftwaffe were installed in a line of airfields along the Channel Coast. The scene was set for the final attack that the Nazis believed would conquer Britain.
In July and August came attempts to knock out the coastal defences and disable the ports. In August, attention was focused on the air defences in Kent, Surrey and Sussex where most of the Fighter Command airfields were. In September the Nazis turned their attention to the non military targets and unleashed the mass aerial bombardment of London.
At around 5.00 p.m. on 7th. September 1940, waves of German bombers,600 in total, droned up the Thames dropping incendiary and high explosive bombs across east London. East London Beckton Gas Works and West Ham Power station were early targets, followed by Woolwich Arsenal, Millwall Docks, Lime house Basin, the Ford Works at Dagenham and the large complex of warehouses in Rotherhithe. The glow of the raging flames acted as a beacon for the successive waves of bombers. The small, slim incendiaries were fed by a succession of oil bombs. London was ablaze like it had been in 1666.
To make matters worse, the German High Command had timed the raids to coincide with an exceptionally low tide on the River Thames, so that it was impossible to use the fireboats as they could not get close enough to use their water jets. Men had to wade through the waters dragging hoses ashore and set up relays from the boats in mid-stream. Every fire appliance in London headed for the Docks. Water mains, gas mains, power cables and telephones were all out of action . There was no radio communication for the fire fighters in those days so motorcycle couriers had to be relied upon, many of which were women and young boys. As the night went on crews were brought in from as far afield as Birmingham, Nottingham, Swindon and Brighton.
In the preceding months the city had been quiet. Many children who had been evacuated to the country had returned to their family homes. During that first night of bombing 436 men, women and children were killed. 1600 were seriously injured.
London endured constant nightly raids from then on which were particularly destructive on the night of a full moon.
On the night of 29th December 1940, the attack was concentrated on the City of London. 1400 fires of all sizes converged to create two major conflagrations. As it was the Christmas holiday,the City was empty and buildings locked. Initially there were few people to fight the fires. The raids lasted for three hours.
Thanks to the brave efforts of the fire wardens and a large slice of luck St.Paul’s remained intact. On that night 163 people were killed and over five hundred were injured. The devastation was enormous. The City would be changed forever.
After the war documents were discovered that revealed that it was not the City that was the target, but the area around Piccadilly Circus. The bombers had dropped their bombs a couple of miles short of the intended target because of cloud cover.
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