Welcome back to Past to Paper! Hi, hello, howdy. It’s been a while. I do apologise. The thing with travelling is that whilst it’s marvellous it completely throws my blogging routines (YES I’VE BEEN BACK FOR AGES BUT SHUSH YOU IN THE BACK CORNER). The truth is that these posts take an enormous amount of effort to put together and thus I have only just plucked up the courage to tackle them again. I can’t leave my friendly potatoes (that’s you) missing your history classes. TODAY we are going to learn about The Great Fire of London which happened in 1666.
Past to Paper is a monthly feature on Upside-Down Books run by a young, Australian history buff. History can be an intimidating topic for many and knowledge of the past is severely limited for the majority. This features aims to make history fun, spark interest, and increase awareness of the past and how it could be brought to paper in an enjoyable way other than the sometimes unapproachable genre of Historical Fiction. It’s time to learn.
There were a lot of things happening in London around this time, namely the Plague but today I really want to look at the big huge fire that greedily gobbled up the city. London is a city of the ages: it’s been around for a long time and thus has an almighty backlot of history to comb through. And it’s all pretty interesting. I like to think of the Fire as a pretty important part of history for eventually rejuvenating the city and pushing it towards more modern times. Unlike France (who had to go through more strenuous efforts to widen their streets, up-do the buildings and stride into the next century) London had a fire. So let’s read about it, shall we?
CITY PROFILE IN 1666
Name: London (Great Britain)
Founded: A.D. 50
Founded by: Romans
Sovereign: Charles II
Building of Note: Gothic St Paul’s (Big Ben came later )
Population: c. 500,000
What London Looked Like in 1666
1666, for those of you who cannot do maths, was four hundred years ago. Which is a lot of years in which a lot of change has happened. At this time, London was a sizeable city with higgledy piggledy streets, a monarch, many churches and a wall. In fact, the wall is important for your mental map today. In the heart of the city, where all the important things were (like St. Paul’s, version: Gothic) engirdled (a new word I learnt that is wonderfully shudder-worthy) by a wall. A fortress, you might say.
The reigning monarch was a lad called King Charles II who in the previous year had gone I’M OUTTA HERE whilst the plague (the Black Death) did it’s best to rid the world of humans. And rats – did the plague kill those rats? It’s a mystery. However! One year later, a fire burned down his city and he stayed like the captain of a sinking ship to save it. I mean, he didn’t save it, but that’s beside the point.
In 1666, a formidable number for those who are superstitious, London had a population of somewhere around 500,000. These people did not all live within the walls of the city – only about one quarter of the Londinium population did. The subtle steps away from the 17th Century and towards the future were evident in the developments of suburbs.
Before suburbs were a “thing”, it was usually better to live near the city, whereas it soon became common to live farther away. The more expensive property was changing: expensive property used to be far away from the city centre and the poor lived in the city’s shadow, and suddenly it began to reverse. Think of how much rent you’d be paying to live in your capital, *shudders*.
Key factors to thus remember about pre-fire 1666 London is that a high percentage of the city’s structures/buildings were made of wood, the streets were much narrower than they are today meaning fire could easily jump from one side to the other of a street and also that people were very, very used to the threat of fire. It was a constant threat. And to set the scene with one final piece of information: the Fire happened in September of that year and it followed a very dry summer that left the city gasping for water – a “veritable tinderbox” as National Geographic puts it.
The Great Fire of London
On the 2nd September 1666, the Great Fire started in the “King’s bakery” (the baker made bread for the King and people were like, wow dude, you’re the King’s baker) on Puddling Lane. There are various dramatic retellings on the internet of the precise pathway of the fire from oven to flour sack to window, etc – some with and some without the maid who apparently did not put this oven out. But the point is that a fire started from one of the ovens of this bakery (owned by Thomas Farynor, a name spelt differently by Google vs National Geographic, this is how NG spells it) and the dry climate, strong wind and architectural playground for a fire resulted in the city becoming an inferno.
The fire burned and burned and jumped from building to building. Historians have gained a lot of information from a man called Samuel Pepy; he kept a diary and a record of the events that went down. Pepy was an administrator in the navy and have influence with the King, himself. After Sir Thomas Bloodworth infamously said, “Why, a woman could piss it out!” (isn’t that a wonderful thing to be remember for saying?) Pepy was aghast that this buffoon of a man did not realise that the city was become a terrible victim of the fire. He trundled off to the King, burst into his room – clutching his bad hip – saying: YOUR MAJESTY – THE CITY IS ABLAZE.
Yes okay, I have no idea what Pepy actually said or did. Maybe he did have a bad hip, we’ll never know. The point is, the King stepped up to the task and began ordering people to take houses down (as you do) to create firebreaks.
As an aside to anyone perhaps not familiar with words like “firebreak”, firstly I say, well done for not living in a country *coughAUSTRALIAcough* that sets itself on fire. Secondly, a firebreak is literally what it says it is: you create a nice big gap between said fire and everything else so that it can’t spread. So Charles was trying to stop the fire from continuing its rampage through anymore of the city.
Except it takes a frustratingly long amount of time to take a house down. This being the case, the plan failed. London was no more [that’s a joke, laugh]. The saviour of London was the wind changing. It stopped it’s four day pursuit of one direction and doubled back on itself. It now blew its fiery breathe onto the already ravaged part of the city, and quickly died down. There was nothing left to burn. It was now the 6th of September, 1666.
People had fled the city, clutching their worldly belongings and fled north to a place called Moorfields, numbering around 100,000. One of the greatest cities in the world had lost its heart and people were a little shocked, I think you could say. This is why the British are so paranoid about making sure they’ve turned their appliances off, see?
Surprisingly, official records state that a total of only six people died. Including the maid of the bakery. Historians bring up a very good point that losses amongst the poor would more than likely go undocumented and I personally support the opinion that the losses were likely much higher.
80% of the old city was destroyed, I find it hard to imagine there were only six casualties. Nonetheless, that low number still proves that for the immense scale of the fire there must have been minimal losses on the whole – else I think chroniclers would have gone to town on the tragedy.
The city itself saw the most losses. One sixth of the city’s inhabitants were now homeless and economically ruined. 13,200 houses, 87 churches and 44 livery halls were destroyed. Multiple historic buildings also bid the world goodbye including the following:
This was built in the 13th Century and was named after London Tower’s twin. All of it was destroyed bar one round tower (which no-longer exists).
This was built between 1515-20 and was an inner-city palace that the infamous Henry VIII favoured. It later became a poor house under Edward VI but was burned down on the third day of the fire.
The Great Conduit
This was a sort of monument come fountain. It was located on the undisputed highstreet of London, named Cheapside no less, and was its most distinct feature. The conduit channelled free water from the River Tyburn and apparently ran with wine on days of celebration (a royal birth, for example). During the fire people tried to burst the lead pipe in hopes of it quenching the flames. Instead, it was completely raised by the fire. At least they tried.
Gothic St. Paul’s
The cathedral you see today is not the original but the remake done by Christopher Wren (I wish I was called Christopher Wren, isn’t it fabulous? “Excuse me Mr. Wren, would you like a glass of wine?” “Oh, yes please, thank you” – ahem, back to the narrative). The gothic version of the cathedral was just as impressive with flying buttresses, pointy windows and an impressive stained-glass window. On the third day, however, the lead roof melted and ran in rivers of molten lava-looking stuff down the streets. Very dramatic. Some even say there was a thunderstorm with lightning coming down on the cathedral. I would go as far to say there might even have been a dragon.
This was an important foreign trading hub. From the 13th Century onwards the monarchs gave foreign merchants the all clear to live rent and tax free provided that they provide their goods for war efforts at no cost. Poof, gone.
The Royal Exchange
Another important trade centre that was completely raised. It was an open-air piazza that was the epicentre of England’s trade. There were even cool statues of all the kings and queens of England since William the Conqueror (so, a lot) – which all crumbled and fell down like gods having a tantrum when it burned. It was almost immediately restored though, so fear not.
London After the Fire
London changed, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, after the fire: pretty cool before, but now it had awesomesauce wings. The streets didn’t actually magically widen to the more modern city style straight away but it was a step in the right direction. Lots of people thought it was a political act – or maybe the Catholics having a go at the Protestants. It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop the rumours.
In fact, Charles himself rode out on a horse – probably with a majestic cape sweeping after him – to calm his people down and say something important like “there was no plot” and maybe slam an impressive looking trident into the ground. Who knows, I’m just theorising here. But he definitely said something that no-one really listened to.
A man by the name of Robert Hubert decided he wanted the credit for the fires and, after confessing once and not being believed because he claimed to have started the fire somewhere where it hadn’t even burned, he tried again and got luckier. He was falsely accused for throwing a grenade through a window that went BOOM-AAHH-FIREE in the bakery (even though the bakery didn’t actually have windows) and set it aflame.
Hubert wasn’t even in London during the fire (and there’s proof) AND he was crippled to the extent of probably not being able to throw a grenade. The evidence that it simply could not have been him goes on: but a scapegoat was needed and thus one was taken. He actually had a pretty gruesome death; he was hanged a Tybern and then his body was torn apart by a crowd for fun. Lovely.
However! By 1670, 6,000 new houses had been built (half way there, guys) and Christopher Wren had benevolently offered his services. If you’ve ever walked around London you’ve probably noticed Wren written on everything. I bet he even secretly designed The Globe and had time travelling abilities.
People wanted a speedy reconstruction of London but Wren wanted to do things prettily. The compensation was that he built 51 very nice churches, made of stone and all the good stuff, and then crowned his career by doing the still-standing St. Paul’s. His son placed the final stone on the dome in 1708.
By 1760, the population of London had climbed, sitting at 700,000. The city was booming in its post-fire reconstruction and looked quite different to its previous state. In 1800, there were one million people and by 1815 it was deemed the largest city in the world. In fact, back in 1707 the Act of Union was signed and resulted in Britain emerging as a global power, priming it for it’s forefront position in the rest of history.
It participated in global trade, with the River Thames acting as a main thoroughfare of nautical activities. People yielded from all corners of the world with fancy goods and Britain came into possession of three rather important things to its New Self: light, information and coffee. Always coffee.
In 1736, a tax was put in place (ughh) to support a whopping 5,000 street lamps. Whilst it would never win the title of City of Lights (Paris: 1, London: 0) it did look rather spectacular in its nightly glow. Or maybe they just wanted to prove they weren’t afraid of fire or light having accidentally set most of their city on fire once #Oops.
By the end of the 18th Century (I’m just full of facts), there were 278 newspapers being printed and whilst that seems like a totally unrelated fact we are simply appreciating the trade and global presence that London strode into after de-flaming itself. However, slums appeared. Vanity and alcohol grasped the people and lower classes emerged in the forms of slums.
From these we see the inspired writings of world-famous authors such as Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and the beloved Charles Dickens. So you could say that the fire was good for trade but damn, Dickens sure made Britain look like a pile of NOPE.
The Great Fire of London
It’s fair to say you’ll find your fair share of non-fiction on the Great Fire, but the whole point of this post is to learn something about it and then explore where it could fit into fiction. I know there are a good few children’s books on it but I feel they’re more there to educate young readers about the history. Let’s have some adventures! I have personally never come across this as a backdrop for neither historical fiction nor fantasy/sci-fi. And I’d love to. It’s open to a world of magicians, wizards and dragons – so what genres do I think this historical event to be used for and how?
Genres I Want to See This In:
I am positively craving a story where the Great Fire of London was actually started by a dragon. Whether it be a big one that swooped down on the city and destroyed it for some reason or other, or a tiny dragon that Thomas Farynor was trying to keep, I don’t mind. I think there are some great adventures that could happen from there.
In addition to dragons, we could bring in a wizard or magician war that goes wrong. Maybe they are magical bread-making magicians or something. Maybe Farynor works for the King as a poisoner and bakes poisoned bread for his enemies – BUT THEN, he’s found out. And revenge is taken.
What about an alternate time stream or time travel? Common concepts that could run havoc in this setting. Maybe the bakery was where an alternate King Charles appeared from and saw that this alternate world was no good, so set it aflame to force some reconstruction. Maybe a Maharajah had possessed the baker from the future to try and bring down Britain and avoid India being taken over by Britain. Who knows?
Quick! Someone hire V.E. Schwab to bring her monsters to London of 1666. A monster war? OOOH – Laini Taylor and V.E. Schwab. I think this needs to happen. An underworld of paranormal creatures coming out to play. Or even if someone rewrote Hubert’s character to make more sense!
A murder mystery? Maybe Hubert wasn’t mad but an evil mastermind behind the plot who was bad at lying. I don’t know, I’m not good at thrillers. But a fire that devours a city seems a damn good setting for one.
Anything historical fiction! I’d love to read more about real characters or inspired characters who suddenly have a name in the narrative. Why doesn’t someone write a book from the maid’s perspective? I’d be all over that.
Examples of Books
Ashes of London
by Andrew Taylor
London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer, and reluctant government informer.
In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated and his thumbs have been tied behind his back.
Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.
This is exactly the sort of thriller book I was talking about. Using the backdrop to unveil a mystery is a great idea. I think I’m going to have to try this book out for myself!
by C.C. Humphreys
First came Plague, now comes Fire. The epic tale of the hunt for a serial killer threatening London’s rich and poor during the Great Fire of London. Perfect for fans of C.J. Sansom and Conn Iggulden.
Fires don’t start by themselves. They need someone to light them. What are friends for?
As the Great Plague of London loosens its grip at last, Charles II’s court moves back to the city, the theatres reopen and a new year arrives.
1666. It cannot be more terrible than the previous year, surely?
But it can. For many will strive to make it so; to finally rid London of the curse that brought the plague upon it. A wholesale cleansing is required if society is to be born again.
What’s more it seems that a serial killer who stalked hand in hand with the Plague might not be dead after all. Together with actress Sarah Chalker, highwayman William Coke and thief-taker Pitman come together as one, determined to stop the brutal murder of London’s rich and poor once and for all.
But another threat is on the way. It hasn’t rained in five months. London is a tinderbox–politically, sexually and religiously. The Great Fire of London is about to ignite. And the final confrontation between Coke, Pitman and Sarah Chalker and their murderous adversary will be decided against a background of apocalypse.
This one actually sounds crazy good. Again, another murder mystery set just before and during the fire and seems to have all the political characters at play. It’s recommended highly for C.J. Sansom and Con Iggulden fans – high praise indeed!
The Prospect of this City
by Eamonn Martin Griffin
London, 1666. Agent provocateur Rufus Challis is given a secret mission by the Dutch government; an attack on England’s capital in reprisal for wartime losses suffered that summer. He has a single weekend to put his plan into motion.
When Tom Farriner, second son to the King’s baker, intercepts an aspect of Challis’s plan, he investigates. Already, a friend’s blood stains the cobbles. Is Tom man enough to bring Challis down? And to what lengths is Challis prepared to go to in order to see the city fall?
This one is historical fiction and plays with the character of Tom Farriner (son of the baker) finding out about a mission to bring the city down. It plays with the idea of how far someone is willing to go to bring a city down. Sounds good, right?
I hope you enjoyed today’s look at the Great Fire of London. I certainly had fun writing it and even more fun imagining all the stories one could make with it. Let me know down below what you think of this event – have you ever come across fiction set with the backdrop of the Great Fire of London? Let me know!
Captain Bligh and the HMS Bounty