Leading on from my previous post which covered the Great Plague epidemic that struck London in 1665-1666 I am now going to look at the other defining event in the life of 17th Century London, an event which took place when the Plague was still dying down. If you haven't guessed it yet (or failed to notice the picture above) then I should tell you that I am of course referring to the Great Fire that burned four fifths of the old city to the ground in just four days and allowed for the complete rebuilding of London from the charred ground up, laying the foundations for the modern metropolis that we see straddling the River Thames today.
The story of the Fire of London is more than just about the destruction of a city, however. It also raises other issues of the day such as religious divisions and the tumultuous relationship between the English and their foreign neighbours. It even exposes the tense ties between London and the Crown that were ultimately healed as a result of this tragedy, a tragedy that began in the early hours of Sunday September 2nd 1666.
The Urban Firetrap
The factors that made old London susceptible to fire were pretty much the same ones that made it susceptible to diseases like the Plague, namely the densely-packed buildings built as part of an unregulated general urban sprawl that conspired to cram the highest number of people into the least amount of space. Thatched roofs had been outlawed after an earlier devastating fire in the Middle Ages but wood remained the primary building material.
"A great smoking wen. A place of fear and flames, disease and dread."
(A contemporary chronicler's description of 17th Century London)
Despite the Plague outbreak taking out a sizable chunk of its population, London in September 1666 was still home to some 300,000 people, roughly 1/16 of the entire population of England. Despite the obvious risks associated with the tightly-packed wooden buildings, the lives of most Londoners were dominated by fire and they used it for just about everything: cooking, boiling, baking, heating, lighting, burning. Many of the household industries that operated there were also dependant on fire in some way. Foundries, smithies and glaziers were tolerated in the City of London despite them being theoretically illegal. Warehouses along the riverfront were stocked to the rafters with imported combustible goods and highly flammable materials such as pitch, tar, hemp, rosen and flax had been used in the construction of houses. The city was, in essence, a giant bomb waiting for the fuse to be lit.
The restored King Charles II was only too aware of the potential risk of a major conflagration in London but his efforts to do anything about it were often blocked by the city authorities who harboured a long-standing grudge against the monarchy. During the English Civil War some 20 years previously, London was amongst the first areas to desert the Crown in favour of the Parliamentarian cause and the anti-royal sentiment in London remained strong amongst those of the Civil War generation who now occupied the top City government offices. This meant that Charles' authority over his own capital city was practically null and void. His 1661 royal decree forbidding overhanging upper-stories on buildings was ignored by the city magistrates whilst a warning letter he had written to the Lord Mayor also went unheeded.
Sunday September 2nd
The fire started in the early hours of the morning at the premises of the King's baker, Thomas Farynor in Pudding Lane, about one city block north-east of London Bridge. Farynor and his family were awoken and were forced to escape via an upstairs window but their maidservant was too frightened to jump and became the first official victim of the fire. At first the fire did not seem all that remarkable but the parish constables suggested that the adjoining houses, tinder dry after months of drought, ought to be pulled down in order to prevent it spreading. Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth, a typical example of the bolshy but ineffective types that governed the City during that period, soon arrived on the scene and quickly cemented his place in the history books by exclaiming that "a woman could piss it out!" before returning home to bed, totally unconvinced as to the seriousness of the situation. Driven on by a stiff easterly gale, the flames increased in ferocity and soon began to attack surrounding properties.
As you probably know already, one of the best accounts of the Great Fire comes from the diary of Samuel Pepys, a senior official in the Navy Office who lived on Seething Lane near the Tower of London, upwind of the growing fire. His accounts provide a wealth of information on the subject and tell the story far better than I or anyone else ever could so I shall be quoting him A LOT. At around 3am he was woken by a maid and informed of what was happening.
"(Lord’s day). Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast to-day, Jane called us 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 nightgown, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside 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." (Samuel Pepys)
Whilst Pepys snoozed away merrily the fire quickly got out of control and was spreading beyond the Pudding Lane locale. It claimed its first church, St Margaret's New Fish Street before moving south down Fish Street Hill, the main thoroughfare leading from London Bridge to the heart of the old city. St Magnus the Martyr guarded the entrance to the bridge and was the second church to fall to the fire. As dawn broke the houses on London Bridge were burning and a gap in the buildings created by an earlier fire was all that stopped this one from spreading to Southwark, then a small independent settlement on the south bank of the Thames. That morning Pepys, having been woken again by his concerned staff, witnessed the scene from the top of the Tower of London:
"By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street Hill, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michelle and our Sarah on the bridge."
At around this time the flames reached the warehouses along the river and the flammable materials inside gave an added ferocity to the blaze which was still being egged on by the wind. The burning warehouses prevented the volunteer firefighters from accessing water from the river itself. The fire then destroyed the water wheels beneath London Bridge which pumped river water up to a water tower in the centre of the city at Cornhill.
The burning of the water wheels caused a total failure of the piped water supply in the City of London, forcing the people to change their priorities. Most now abandoned any attempt to fight the advancing fire and instead focused on getting themselves and their belongings out of the Square Mile. Many tried to escape via the river but the services of the lightermen and their boats had suddenly become rather expensive. Opportunism was rife as anyone near London with a boat or a horse and cart flocked towards the city to exploit the desperate throngs. The price of hiring a cart suddenly shot up from two shillings to the small fortune of £40 (over £4000 in today's money).
Frustrated with what he perceived as a lack of effective action by the City authorities, Pepys made his way west to the royal palace at Whitehall and took his grievances straight to the top:
"So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw, and that unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way." (Samuel Pepys)
Charles' brother Prince James, Duke of York (the future James II) offered his troops, the Royal Life Guards, to assist in fighting the fire despite being fully aware that sending royal soldiers onto City of London turf, even during a crisis such as this, was a risky political business. Pepys returned to the city and soon found Mayor Bloodworth who reacted to the King's command with utter dispair:
"At last met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a handkerchief about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, “Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.”" (Samuel Pepys)
Defiant to the last, Bloodworth refused James' offer of military assistance and went home to rest. With no troops around, order in the streets quickly broke down and the narrow roads became jammed with the frantic exodus traffic. The only ways out of the City of London were through the eight narrow gates in the old Roman city wall: Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and the Postern Gate at the Tower. As traffic levels grew the gates became almost impassable and the attempts by the authorities to close the gates and force the people inside to fight the fire certainly did not help things.
Later that day the King sailed down the river from Whitehall on the royal barge to inspect the goings-on first-hand. He was dismayed to find out that houses were still not being pulled down. In a bold move he dared to override the authority of Bloodworth and the other City bosses by ordering wholesale demolitions in order to create firebreaks. Unfortunately for many Londoners the order came far too late. The King's delay in wrenching control of the situation from the local authorities had effectively sealed London's fate. As night fell Pepys and some acquaintances went to an ale house on the south bank and saw out the day watching the growing fire from there.
Monday September 3rd
"And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loathe to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till some of them burned their wings, and fell down." (Samuel Pepys)
As Sunday became Monday the fire's advance into the heart of the City continued unabated. The east wind pushed the mighty wall of flame westwards whilst it also moved north into the financial district. Many of London's citizens were former members of Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army had thus reserved the right to keep hold of their muskets. This meant that many of London's houses contained significant supplies of gunpowder, adding further fuel to the inferno. The London Gazette only just managed to put out that week's edition on Monday before the printing premises went up in smoke. The General Letter Office, through which post for the entire nation passed, burned down at around the same time, disrupting communications and making it more difficult and time-consuming to call in outside assistance.
The fire was now completely out of control and thrived off the easterly gale, creating what the modern lexicon now describes as a firestorm. The intense heat sucked in all the available oxygen, creating strong inward winds which fanned the flames. Pepys wrote that he was "almost burned by a shower of fire-drops" as he viewed the conflagration from downwind on the river. He was describing the hot cinders and embers that were being carried all over the place on the wind, starting new blazes far ahead of the main fire and further complicating efforts to either escape or fight the flames.
By Monday afternoon the Great Fire had begun to consume the City of London's affluent financial core around Cornhill, Leadenhall Street, Broad Street and Threadneedle Street. The bankers of Lombard Street rushed to gather up their stacks of gold coins, so vital to the wealth and prosperity of London, and get them safely out of the Square Mile before they melted away in the intense heat. The Royal Exchange burned down in the late afternoon and the Cheapside was now under threat. Cheapside was the City of London's main shopping thoroughfare and was home to many business that sold opulent and luxury consumer goods. The approaching fire triggered a new wave of panic as the shopkeepers rushed to get their wares out of harm's way.
John Evelyn, a courtier, diarist and contemporary of Pepys based outside the city in Deptford, travelled west to witness the catastrophe for himself and provide a new wealth of first-hand accounts to us lucky people.
"The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it, so that there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods, such a strange consternation there was upon them." (John Evelyn)
To the south of the gutted financial district, the fire continued to advance west along the Thames waterfront. An attempt was made to halt the fire by demolishing buildings and creating a firebreak near the docks at Queenhithe but this turned out to be ineffective. Mayor Bloodworth had seemingly abandoned his civic obligations and left the City by this point as there is no further account of his whereabouts. The King finally lost patience and overrode the local authorities once and for all, placing the Duke of York in charge of the firefighting operations. Royal troops finally began to enter the fire zone on Monday evening and immediately proceeded to restore some degree of public order and resume firefighting operations.
Monday night was marked by the destruction of Baynard's Castle, the Tower of London's unofficial western counterpart and the most dominant landmark on the riverfront. As the leading edge of the fire neared the western limits of the City of London at Blackfriars it was hoped that the fortress-mansion's massive stone walls would halt the advance of the flames. Alas those flames somehow managed to get inside and the colossal structure burned all night.
Tuesday September 4th
Tuesday was the day of greatest destruction. Despite the renewed firefighting efforts under royal supervision, the Great fire quickly devoured what remained of the western half of the walled city. Troops commanded by King Charles himself had created a firebreak to the north of the main conflagration and this held until mid-afternoon when the flames jumped across the gap and began to destroy the shops of Cheapside. Charles and his men pulled back to Cripplegate in an attempt to hold the fire at the northern city wall, effectively abandoning the north of the city to its fate in order to protect the densely populated suburbs further out. The city's Medieval Guildhall, headquarters of the City of London authorities, caught fire shortly afterwards and was badly damaged.
|James, Duke of York in his later years as King James II|
James, Duke of York further cemented his status as the hero-of-the-hour by making a stand alongside his men at the River Fleet, hoping that the stagnant filth-clogged waterway would act as a natural firebreak and ensure the fire did not make its way further west towards Whitehall and Westminster. Despite their best efforts The easterly wind was still blowing strong and it drove the flames beyond the western city wall and over the Fleet into the western suburban districts of Holborn and Bridewell. James and his men found themselves outflanked on both sides by the advancing fire and were forced to retreat back along Fleet Street towards Temple Bar to avoid being cut off. Near-panic broke out at Whitehall as the impending danger grew ever nearer.
"Oh, the confusion there was then at that court!" (John Evelyn)
Whilst James and his firefighters were busy playing cat-and-mouse with the fire in the west, they were oblivious to a serious danger developing on the opposite side of town. Throughout Tuesday the fire unexpectedly began to spread eastwards from the Pudding Lane area, straight into the wind, meaning that the Tower of London, home to the largest gunpowder stockpile in the land, was under threat. If the fire had got in there there would have been an explosion so enormous that even Guy Fawkes wouldn't have recommended sticking around to watch. The Governor of the Tower requested help but with all resources tied down elsewhere the garrison were forced to take matters into their own hands. They spent the day using their explosives to demolish the surrounding buildings, an approach which ensured that the Tower was spared, averting an even greater catastrophe.
The eastward spread of the fire also placed Pepys' own house in the firing line. Having already moved out most of his belongings to the home of his friend Sir William Rider at Bethnall Green he and his neighbours were forced to take more drastic action to protect some of their more, shall we say, "valuable" items.
"Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Penn and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmesan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things." (Samuel Pepys)
Pepys' haste to ensure the safety of his cheese turned out to be unnecessary as his house only just escaped the blaze in the end but he was one of the few lucky ones. Most of the thousands displaced by the fire ended up being housed in makeshift camps set up in areas such as Parliament Hill (present day Hampstead Heath) or Islington, which in those days were well outside the built-up area. The largest camp of all was at Moorfields, a large area of public parkland just north of the city. Both Pepys and Evelyn visited Moorfields and commented on the destitution they witnessed as will as the undiminished sense of Londoner's pride shown by those that they met.
Back in the city, the still-raging fire had already destroyed dozens of London's parish churches but it was now ready to claim the ultimate prize. Compared to the elegant domed Baroque structure that stands today, the old St Paul's Cathedral was a giant looming Norman/Gothic monster more akin to its surviving counterparts out in the provinces (Durham, York, Salisbury, Norwich, Canterbury, Lincoln etc) The church dominated its surroundings and the skyline for miles around, with no other building in London even coming close to matching it for size. It had long served as the final resting place for many famous names in English history, housing the tombs of such luminaries as the Saxon King Ethelred the Unready and John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and founder of the Royal House of Lancaster.
By 1666, however, the cathedral had been decaying for over a century, a downward spiral that began with the loss of its soaring spire (the tallest in England) to a lightning strike in 1561. Its spirital value also seemed to be increasingly lost on the people as the vast interiors had drifted into various secular uses. The building had also been badly desecrated by Parliamentarian soldiers during the Civil War and Interregnum periods, when it was used as a stable for cavalry horses. Nevertheless the crumbling old pile retained its place in Londoners' hearts and it was hoped that it would soon get the essential maintenance it needed.
|The old St Paul's Cathedral viewed from the west, showing the neo-Classical porch added by Inigo Jones in the 1630s, one of the only significant attempts at sprucing up the decaying building.|
The cathedral's thick stone walls and wide empty surrounding plaza made it attractive to those in need of a safe place to store their belongings away from the approaching fire. The printers and publishers from nearby Paternoster Row were amongst the first to store their wares inside and soon the cathedral crypt was chock-full of stashed goods, mostly of the paper variety.
Unfortunately for St Paul's and the various paraphernalia hidden away inside, the Church of England and City authorities had chosen this time of all times to begin the long-awaited restoration, appointing a little-known astronomer and part-time architect named Christopher Wren to carry it out. This meant that at the time of the Great Fire the entire building was encased in wooden scaffolding, awaiting the start of the work. Despite the value of the cathedral as a safe refuge being so obviously compromised the people still stored their goods away inside, seemingly too desperate or too stupid to put two and two together.
Once the fire reached and surrounded St Paul's the end result was all-too predictable. The scaffolding caught fire and then the roofs which collapsed into the building and set off the flammable material stored in the crypt.
"The stones of St Paul's flew like grenades, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them" (John Evelyn)
The venerable old church quickly burned down to a shell, bringing an end to any practical hopes of restoring it in its current form. To many onlookers this particular loss signified the death of old London. The more radically religious minds, already scared witless by the fact that the current year contained the number "666", began to wonder if this hellish conflagration meant something far greater. In an age where God was still widely believed to have a direct hand in earthly events, it began to look as though this really could be the end of the world.
Wednesday September 5th
If Londoners had been demoralised by the destruction of St Paul's Cathedral the night before then at least they now had some good news to celebrate. On Wednesday morning the easterly wind finally dropped, bringing the westward spread of the fire to an abrupt halt. The fire was stifled by the the brick and stone-built Temple complex off Fleet Street whilst on Fleet Street itself James' firefighters were able to stop the flames merely yards short of the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West, saving Whitehall and allowing the jittery courtiers to breath a sigh of relief. Further north the fire was stopped at Pye Corner near Newgate before it could enter the heavily-populated suburb of Smithfield.
The calming of the winds allowed the firebreaks to take effect. James had heeded the example of the Tower of London garrison and, in his capacity as Lord High Admiral, brought in sailors from the fleet to destroy buildings more quickly and effectively with gunpowder. King Charles' efforts to halt the fire at Cripplegate were also successful and the fire in that area was kept within the city walls. Charles had also been riding around the city in his carriage, raising public morale with his presence and distributing gold coins in order to stir the firefighters to greater efforts.
With the spread of the fire now under control it was merely a case of damping down as best one could and wait for the fire to burn itself out, which it soon did. Isolated pockets of fire burned for several more days but the worst was finally over.
|The total extent of the Great Fire's destruction.|
The material cost of the Great Fire of London was just as staggeringly high as its human cost was mysteriously low. As well as the grand public buildings which I have already mentioned. The blaze destroyed around 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, 44 livery company halls and three of the city gates. The monetary cost of the disaster is estimated at around £10 million (over £1 billion in today's money), a monumental sum considering that the annual income of the City treasury at the time was only around £12,000.
Over 70,000 people were made homeless by the disaster but the number of recorded deaths, although not specified exactly, is generally agreed to be less than ten. Historians have attempted to explain away the surprisingly low official death toll by claiming that the total does not include the many who must have been incinerated without trace or died of starvation or disease afterwords in the refugee camps (bear in mind that the Great Plague epidemic had still not quite gone away). There is also the small matter of the fate of London's non-English population, which I will now look into.
"There, when I come, I find the gates shut, but no guard kept at all, which troubled me, because of discourse now begun, that there is plot in it, and that the French had done it." (Samuel Pepys)
Before the fire was even a day old there was rumours spreading around that the fire was no accident. The circumstances surrounding the beginnings of the disaster seemed too convenient, such as the hot, dry, windy weather and the fact that the water wheels at London Bridge were taken out almost straight away, preventing any effective control measures. The fires being started away from the main blaze, caused by the sparks and cinders carried on the wind, give the impression that fresh fires were being set on purpose. As such stories began to circulate in the burning city, those Londoners who were not busy fleeing soon began to develop a mob mentality.
The 17th Century English were a naturally xenophobic people, a mindset resulting from over 100 years of religious turmoil and foreign wars. London's sizable European immigrant community, although usually tolerated to an extent, often became scapegoats in times of crisis. The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) was in progress at the time of the fire as the English sought to challenge the Dutch domination of the emerging global trade routes. Less than a month before the fire before the fire an English naval force under Vice-Admiral Robert Holmes had sacked and burned the Dutch town of West Terschelling, an event known as "Holmes' Bonfire". Therefore to Londoners the outbreak of their Great Fire seemed a no-brainer. It had to be a revenge attack by the Dutch. Soon more erroneous reports were circulating of a Dutch invasion fleet sailing up the Thames and of foreigners being caught with grenades or matches or casting "fireballs" into buildings.
As their city burned to the ground the angry mobs roamed the streets looking for what they perceived to be the enemy agents living in their midst, placing the entire immigrant population in serious danger. The Dutch were primary targets but anyone else not English also faced being roughed-up. A schoolboy named William Taswell noted later on in his memoirs how he watched in shock as a blacksmith casually walked up to a Frenchman in the street and struck him about the head with an iron bar. Another Frenchman was attacked after he was found carrying what was assumed to be a bag of grenades. They turned out to be tennis balls.
As James and his troops entered the area late on Monday they found the city in turmoil. Those who weren't running away were going around indiscriminately beating up or attempting to lynch anyone with strange clothes or a strange accent. Many of the soldiers intended to be used in fighting the fire instead found themselves having to go round rescuing foreigners from the mobs and arresting them for their own safety. James had not yet made his infamous conversion to Catholicism but he also took great pains to protect London's Catholics who had also found themselves being scapegoated for the fire. Even after the restoration Protestant fanaticism was still strong, especially in London. This meant that Catholics were seen as being just as suspicious as foreign aliens in the eyes of many. Being supporters of the Pope effectively labelled them as agents of a foreign power too.
As the fire died down the people of London seemingly got what they were looking for. A young French watchmaker named Robert Hubert came forward and confessed outright that he had started the fire in Westminster before quickly changing his story and claiming that he had indeed started it in Pudding Lane. He stated that he had sailed to England on board a Swedish ship and, along with an unknown accomplice, had set a fireball through the window of Thomas Farynor's bakery. As Hubert was both a foreigner and a Catholic, the people felt that their long-held suspicions had been ultimately justified. However, when the authorities looked into Hubert's story it became clear that something was rather amiss.
|Anti-Catholic propaganda depicting Robert Hubert|
At Hubert's trial it was noted that the young Frenchman was so crippled that he could hardly walk, let alone slip in and out of heavily populated areas without being noticed. Thomas Farynor himself admitted to the court that his ground-floor bakery had no such window through which Hubert could have fired the house. Nevertheless Farynor was quick to add his name to the growing petition that demanded Hubert's prosecution, presumably to deflect responsibility for the fire away from himself. It was even revealed by the captain of the Swedish ship that Hubert was not even in England when the fire broke out and had in fact crossed the Channel two days afterwards.
It was pretty obvious to the court that Robert Hubert could not have started the Great Fire but according to 17th Century English law, an admission of guilt meant exactly that. Hubert had confessed that he had done it so therefore, in the eyes of the law he must have done it. Despite their reservations, the court found Hubert guilty and sentenced him to death, giving Londoners the satisfaction that justice had been done. Hubert was later hanged at the Tyburn gallows, after which his corpse was torn apart limb-from-limb by the vengeful crowd.
So we can agree with much certainty that Hubert was not the culprit if there was any culprit at all. If anything he was little more than an attention-seeker with suicidal tendencies whose intention was to go to a glorious death and be remembered as something more than just another clock-tinkerer. Even after his execution, however, the resentment towards the minorities did not go away and the authorities did little to suppress. In fact, when the Monument commemorating the Great Fire was built just off Pudding lane, it had a plaque installed on it which blamed the Catholics for the fire:
"Here by permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city..... the most dreadful Burning of this City; begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction... Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched..."
It was not until the time of Catholic emancipation in the 1830s that those words were finally chiseled off. Since then, most historical opinion has written-off the idea of the Great Fire being started deliberately, preferring instead to argue that the whole thing was simply a terrible accident.
|The Monument to the Great Fire of London|
Did the Fire Kill the Plague?
One of the most commonly stated impacts of the Great Fire of London is that the flames burned out the rat infestation and destroyed the city's filthy slum dwellings, ensuring that the dreaded Bubonic Plague would never ravage the population ever again. The fact that a large Plague outbreak never did occur again in London (or anywhere else in Britain, for that matter) after 1666 seems to lend weight to that assumption although a degree of closer inspection suggests that the explanation is not quite so straightforward.
Yes the Great Fire did destroy much of London but we must remember that the main breeding grounds for the Plague were not in the City of London itself (although it wasn't far behind in terms of its squalidness) but in the overpopulated suburban areas which were growing out of control outside the old walls. Apart from those western areas I mentioned earlier, the fire was stopped before it could reach the outer areas, meaning that the most disease-prone parts of London were actually spared. To me this suggests that there are other factors beyond my knowledge (The history of medical science is not my strong point.) that also helped to rid London of Plague. Perhaps it was more to do with the outlying suburbs being reorganised and redeveloped to alleviate their own fire risks and bring them in line with the new city that was growing out of the ashes of the fire. Whatever the people of London did, let's just say that it worked.
A New Beginning
In the wake of the fire, Charles II feared a revolt against his regime by the army of homeless Londoners and he greatly encouraged them to move away and try their luck settling elsewhere. In February 1667 a special Fire Court was set up to settle disputes between tenants and landlords with regards to property rights and who should rebuild based an ability to pay. Although the verdict on most cases was usually reached within a day. The fact that the court existed for over five years gives testament to the sheer volume of legal wrangling that needed to be resolved in the aftermath of the fire.
These legal problems interfered massively with plans to rebuild the city. Many famous faces of the era, including Wren, Evelyn, Robert Hooke, Richard Newcourt and Valentine Knight, submitted grand plans for the rebuilding of the gutted city. The various ideas differed in style but were mostly in favour of clearing away the old Medieval street plan in favour of elegant Baroque facades, wide sweeping avenues and grand open piazzas. Wren's design in particular presents a truly awe-inspiring vision of what might have been.
|Christopher Wren's unrealised vision for a radically different City of London.|
Had one of these plans been accepted and put into effect then then new London would have rivalled the great European cities in magnificence. Not even Paris or Rome could have topped it. Unfortunately none of these plans were realised due to the fact that London simply had to rebuild and get back on its feet as soon as possible. The ongoing legal disputes made it impossible to establish exactly who owned what land and the process of finding owners, compensating them and chopping and changing land ownership in general for the sake of establishing a new street layout was simply not practical. Therefore the new city that arose after the fire was rebuilt using the old street plan which still largely persists to this day.
Despite having to pass up the chance to create a whole new London from scratch, the city authorities certainly learned their lessons from the fire and the rebuilding was regulated accordingly to counter the old risks of disease and fire. Wood was out whilst brick and stone were very much in. The streets were widened and open wharves were built along the river with no buildings blocking access to the water. Christopher Wren, still smarting at not being able to implement his grand design for the whole city, found much consolation in being awarded the task of rebuilding London's burned churches, including St Paul's Cathedral. He was also co-responsible for the designing and building of the Monument, alongside Robert Hooke.
|St Paul's Cathedral: Wren's magnum opus.|
Within a decade or so of the Great Fire London was largely up and running again although work on the larger buildings went on for a lot longer. The saga of the reconstruction of London at last came to a symbolic ending in late 1711 when the new St Paul's Cathedral was declared complete, with a 78-year-old Christopher Wren still being around to see it. He would live on till the grand old age of 90, having carved out a reputation as the greatest English architect of his era. The cathedral and his other churches continue to occupy their places on London's ever-changing skyline, reminding us of the event that dragged a city kicking and screaming into the modern age.