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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Great London Fire by Katherine Pym

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London Fire reached Ludgate, September 4, 1666

I understand this is a subject that may have been slightly overdone, especially since 2016 marked the 350 year anniversary of the vast destruction that occurred within a short 4 day timespan. To celebrate, London had a lovely old city effigy burned on a barge in the Thames. BBC had a television show on how it happened, where it started. It looks like Pudding Lane wasn’t quite where we thought it was all these years. The bakery was a block or so farther away. A marker that shows where it was is in a nice, clean street where cars now parallel park.

My current work in progress (WIP) takes place in London 1666. Since the fire was a big event in that year, I cannot not mention it, now can I? The reader would wonder why I’ve listed every other important moment but not that one, which to this day marks many souls as a living catastrophe.

In 1666, England was at war with the Dutch (fought entirely at sea). It was really a merchant’s war, caused by skirmishes over ports of call in the East and West Indies. The English felt the Dutch should share in the profits of spices, new fabrics (cotton), exotic fruits, differently manufactured furniture and fine pottery. After all, the Indies included vast areas of land and people. It wasn’t fair that one country take everything. 

Fighting fire with a 'squirt'. It held 4 pints of fluid, and took 2 men to operate.

Almost 18 months into the war, as the English fleet prepared to meet the enemy in a pitched battle, on September 1, 1666, a gale entered the Channel. A wind so strong, it felled the fleet. Sails ripped from masts. Bowsprits shattered. Ships collided and listed. Gun ports were closed to keep the seas from flowing onto the gun decks, swamping everything in its wake. The winds tore the fleet to shreds, then moved onto England. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, September 2, London winds whipped a spark and London began to burn.

The fire was so fierce, it created its own weather. Lightning slashed, thunder boomed. Warehouses along the Thames contained oils, pitch and tar, which burned fiercely.

People weren't this calm as they ran
Most homes were squeezed along narrow, dark lanes, cantilevered so that top stories were only inches apart. Made of half-timbers, wattle and daub, a material that if maintained did not burn easily, many houses were not maintained. Leased houses and shops were the responsibility of the renters. They had to fix anything that broke, burnt or toppled over. They were responsible for the walkway and road outside their doors. Not many followed these regulations. And with the winds so fierce, it was fodder for fire.

People took their goods to neighbors’, thinking the fire wouldn’t reach them. They took furniture and clothing to churches, thinking the walls were too thick for fire to burn them. As the fire moved west along the river and northwest through town, people removed what they had stored and moved them farther away, into a neighborhood they were sure would not burn.

Black smoke could be seen over 56 miles away. The city looked like daylight when it was nighttime. A contemporary wrote the firestorm sounded like “a thousand iron chariots beating on stones”. It was deafening. Stone facades exploded like bombs. Church steeples engulfed in flame toppled over onto streets and houses.
Booksellers lived in the vicinity of St. Paul’s Cathedral. They sold their wares in Paul’s Yard. Their parish church was St. Faith’s located under St. Paul’s church in the undercroft. They called it St. Faith’s under St. Paul’s. They took their presses, paper and books to St. Faith’s knowing with the massive pillars of Paul’s it would never burn. By the time the flames licked Paul’s outer walls, St. Faith’s was stuffed. St. Paul’s was filled with goods up to the choir loft.

St. Paul’s was in disrepair. Over time, the heavy, lead roof had spread its walls outward. Pillars were crumbling. Scaffolding supported some of the pillars and the outside of the church. Just a few days prior, a meeting had been held to discuss renovation of the building. 

The Burning of St. Paul's Cathedral

By 8 o’clock Tuesday evening (September 4), fiery debris had fallen on Paul’s roof. Shoddy repairs of timber caught and burned so hot, a gentleman who stood over a mile away saw the inferno.

“Large parts of the roof, both stone and burning timber fell in, and the Cathedral became a roaring cauldron of fire…”

“Molten lead dripped in silvery beads from the roof, raining down upon the broken stones and tombs that strewed the Cathedral floor, and there collecting, ran out into the streets in a stream.”

Paul’s choir and lower floor crashed into St. Faith’s. When St. Paul’s collapsed, the whole building exploded with an earsplitting roar. Burning papers and books sailed in the air, some of the pages landing miles away in the English countryside.

St. Paul’s was a mass of smoking ruins within an hour.

London after the fire. It poured beyond the old Roman walls into west London.

Many thanks to Wikicommons, public domain,

By Permission of Heaven, the True Story of the Great Fire of London, by Adrian Tinniswood, Riverhead Books, NY 2004

The Story of London’s Great Fire by Walter G. Bell, Butler & Tanner, Ltd., Frome and London, 1923

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