MoboReader> Literature > London in Modern Times

   Chapter 4 THE FIRE OF LONDON.

London in Modern Times By Unknown Characters: 21355

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"One woe is past, another woe cometh quickly." Just a year after the plague was at its height, the great fire of London occurred. On Sunday, September 3d, 1666, soon after midnight, the house of Farryner the king's baker, near London-bridge, was discovered to be in flames. Before breakfast time no less than three hundred houses were consumed. Such a rapid conflagration struck dismay throughout the neighborhood, and unnerved those who, in the first instance, by prompt measures might have stayed the mischief. Charles II., as soon as he heard of what had happened, displayed a decision, firmness, and humanity, which relieve, in some degree, the dark shades Of his character and life; and gave orders to pull down the houses in the vicinity of the fire. Soon afterwards he hastened to the scene of danger, in company with his brother, the duke of York, using prudent measures to check the conflagration, to help the sufferers, and inspire confidence in the minds of the people. But the lord mayor was like one distracted, uttering hopeless exclamations on receiving the royal message, blaming the people for not obeying him, and leaving the scene of peril to seek repose; while the inhabitants ran about raving in despair, and the fire, which no proper means were employed to quench, went on its own way, devouring house after house, and street after street. By Monday night, the fire had reached to the west as far as the Middle Temple, and to the east as far as Tower-street. Fleet-street, Old Bailey, Ludgate-hill, Warwick-lane, Newgate, Paul's-chain, Watling-street, Thames-street, and Billingsgate, were destroyed or still wrapped in flame.

On Tuesday the fire reached the end of Fetter-lane and the entrance to Smithfield. Around Cripplegate and the Tower, the devouring element violently raged, but in other directions it somewhat abated. Engines had been employed in pulling down houses, but this process was too slow to overtake the mischief. Gunpowder was then used to blow up buildings, so that large gaps were made, which cut off the edifices that were burning from those still untouched. By these means, on the afternoon of Tuesday, the devastation was curbed. The brick buildings of the Temple also checked its progress to the west. Throughout Wednesday the efforts of the king and duke, and some of the lords of the council, were indefatigable. Indeed, his majesty made the round of the fire twice a day, for many hours together, both on horseback and on foot, giving orders to the men who were pulling down houses, and repaying them on the spot for their toils out of a money-bag which he carried about with him. On Thursday, the fire was thought to be quite extinguished, but in the evening it burst out afresh near the Temple. Renewed and vigorous efforts at that point, however, soon stayed its ravages, and in the course of a short time it was finally extinguished.

The space covered with ruins was four hundred and thirty-six acres in extent. The boundaries of the conflagration were Temple-bar, Holborn-bridge, Pye-corner, Smithfield, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, near the end of Coleman-street, at the end of Basinghall-street, by the postern at the upper end of Bishopsgate-street, in Leadenhall-street, by the Standard in Cornhill, at the church in Fenchurch-street, by the Clothworkers' Hall, at the middle of Mark-lane, and at the Tower-dock. While four hundred and thirty-six acres were covered with ruins, only seventy-five remained with the property upon it uninjured. Four hundred streets, thirteen thousand houses, eighty-seven parish churches, and six chapels; St. Paul's Cathedral, the Royal Exchange and Custom House, Guildhall and Newgate, and fifty-two halls of livery companies, besides other public buildings, were swept away. Eleven millions' value of property the fire consumed, but, through the mercy of God, only eight lives were lost.

The rapid spread of the devastation may be easily accounted for in the absence of timely means to stop it. The buildings were chiefly constructed of timber, and covered with thatch. The materials were rendered even more than commonly combustible by a summer intensely hot and dry. Many of the streets were so narrow that the houses facing each other almost touched at the top. A strong east wind steadily blew for three days over the devoted spot, like the blast of a furnace, at once fanning the flame and scattering firebrands beyond it. It was like a fire kindled in an old forest, feeding on all it touched, curling like a serpent round tree after tree, leaving ashes behind, and darting on with the speed of lightning to seize on the timber before.

Into the origin of the calamity the strictest investigation was made. Some ascribed it to incendiaries. Party spirit led to the accusation of the papists, as perpetrators of the deed. One poor man was executed, on his own confession, of having a hand in it, but under circumstances which pretty clearly prove that he was a madman, and was really innocent of the crime of which, through a strange, but not incredible hallucination of mind, he feigned himself guilty. Other persons ascribed it to what would commonly be called an accidental circumstance-a great stock of fagots in the baker's shop being kindled, and carelessly left to burn in close contiguity with stores of pitch and rosin. Many considered that the providence of Almighty God, who works out his own wonderful purposes of judgment and mercy by means which men call accidental, overruled the circumstances out of which the fire arose, as a source of terrific chastisement for the sins of a wicked and godless population, who had hardened their necks against Divine reproof administered to them in another form so shortly before. A religious sentiment in reference to the visitation took possession of many minds, habitually undevout; and even Charles himself was heard, we are told by Clarendon, to "speak with great piety and devotion of the displeasure that God was provoked to."

Eye-witnesses have left behind them graphic sketches of this spectacle of terror. "The burning," says Vincent, in his tract called "God's Terrible Advice to the City by Plague and Fire,"-"the burning was in the fashion of a bow; a dreadful bow it was, such as mine eyes never before had seen-a bow which had God's arrow in it with a flaming point." "The cloud of smoke was so great, that travelers did ride at noon-day some six miles together in the shadow of it, though there were no other clouds to be seen in the sky." "The great fury of the fire was in the broader streets in the midst of the night; it was come down to Cornhill, and laid it in the dust, and runs along by the stocks, and there meets with another fire, which came down Threadneedle-street, a little farther with another which came up from Wallbrook, a little farther with another which came up from Bucklersbury, and all these four joining together break into one great flame, at the corner of Cheapside, with such a dazzling light and burning heat, and roaring noise by the fall of so many houses together, that was very amazing." One trembles at the thought of these blazing torrents rolling along the streets, and then uniting in a point, like the meeting of wild waters-floods of fire dashing into a common current. Evelyn observes that the stones of St. Paul's Cathedral flew about like granadoes, and the melted lead ran down the pavements in a bright stream, "so that no horse or man was able to tread on them." "I saw," he says in his Diary, "the whole south part of the city burning, from Cheapside to the Thames, and all along Cornhill, (for it likewise kindled back against the wind as well as forward,) Tower-street, Fenchurch-street, Gracechurch-street, and so along to Baynard's Castle, and was taking hold of St. Paul's Church, to which the scaffolds contributed exceedingly." He saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with such property as the inhabitants had time and courage to save; while on land the carts were carrying out furniture and other articles to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with movables of all sorts, and with tents erected to shelter the people. "All the sky," he adds, "was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seen for above forty miles around for many nights; the noise and cracking of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like a hideous storm; and the air all about so hot and inflamed, that at last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forced to stand still, and let the flames burn on, which they did for nearly two miles in length and one in breadth. The clouds also of smoke were dismal, and reached upon computation nearly fifty miles in length."

A great fire is a most sublime, as well as appalling spectacle, and generally presents some features of the picturesquely terrible. Guildhall, built of oak, too solid and old to blaze, became so much red-hot charcoal, as if it had been a palace of gold, or a building of burnished brass. There were circumstances, too, connected with the destruction of magnificent edifices, full of a sort of poetical interest. The flame inwrapped St. Paul's Cathedral, and rent in pieces the noble portico recently erected, splitting the stones into flakes, and leaving nothing entire but the inscription on the architrave, which, without one defaced letter, continued amidst the ruins to proclaim the builder's name. In remarkable coincidence with this, at the same time that the fire entered the Royal Exchange, ran round the galleries, descended the stairs, compassed the walks, filled the courts, and rolled down the royal statues from their niches, the figure of the founder, Sir Thomas Gresham, was left unharmed, as if calmly surveying the destruction of his own munificent donation to the old city, and anticipating the certainty of the re-edification of that monument of his fame, as well as the revival of that commerce, in the history of which his own is involved. As we think of this, we call to mind another interesting incident, which occurred when the building was burned down a second time in 1838. Some readers, perhaps, will remember, that the bells in the tower rang out their last chime to the tune of "There's na' luck about the house," just as they were on the point of coming down with a tremendous crash; as though uttering swanlike notes in death.

The area devastated by the fire may be estimated, if we fancy a line drawn from Temple Bar to the bottom of Holborn-hill, then through Smithfield across Aldersgate-street to th

e end of Coleman-street, then sweeping round by the end of Bishopsgate and Leadenhall-streets, and taking a curve till it touches the Tower, the river forming the southern boundary of this large space. Within these limits, after the fire, there arose a new London, of nobler aspect, and formed for grander destinies than the old one, relieved by that very fire, under the blessing of Divine Providence, from liability to the recurrence of the dreadful plague, which had from time to time recruited its death-dealing energy from the filth of old crowded streets, with all their noxious exhalations. If a panic seized the citizens when the first alarm of the conflagration spread among them, they redeemed their character by the self-possession and activity which they evinced in repairing the desolation. Not desponding, but inspired with the hope of the future prosperity of their venerable city, they concurred with king and parliament in the zeal and diligence requisite for the emergency. Scarcely were the flames extinguished, when they set to work planning the restoration. "Everybody," observes Evelyn, "brings in his idea; amidst the rest, I presented his majesty my own conceptions, with a discourse annexed. It was the second that was seen within two days after the conflagration, but Dr. Wren had got the start of me." This Dr. Wren had been spoken of by the same writer, fourteen years before, as a miracle of a youth. Having made wonderful attainments in science, he had devoted himself with enthusiasm to the study of architecture, and now, in the wide space in which at once a full-grown city was to appear, a field presented itself worthy of the exercise of the greatest powers of art-a field, indeed, which could rarely in the world's history be looked for. Doubtless Wren's mind was all on fire with the grand occasion, and put forth all its marvelous ability to meet so unparalleled a crisis. Before the architect's imagination there rose the view of a city, built with scientific proportions, with a broad street running in a perfect line from a magnificent piazza, placed where St. Dunstan's church stands, to another piazza on Tower-hill, with an intermediate piazza corresponding with these, from each of which streets should radiate. Then, on the top of Ludgate-hill, over which the broad highway was to run, the new cathedral was to rise, in the midst of a wide open space, displaying to advantage its colossal form; and on its northern side there was to branch out, at a narrow angle with the other main thoroughfare, an avenue of like dimensions, leading to the Royal Exchange-the site, in fact, (but intended to cover a wider space,) of our present Cheapside. The Royal Exchange was to be an additional grand centre, adorned with piazzas, whence a third vast thoroughfare was to sweep along to Holborn. All acute angles were to be avoided. The great openings were to exhibit graceful curves, parochial edifices were to be conspicuous and insulated, the halls of the twelve great companies were to be ranged round Guildhall, and architecture was to do the utmost possible in every street. A like vision dawned on the fancy of Sir John Evelyn, who in this respect was no unworthy compeer of Wren. But, though the architect showed the practicability of the scheme, without any loss of the property, or infringement of the rights of the citizens, their obstinacy in not allowing the old foundations to be altered, and their determination not to give up the ground to commissioners for making out the new streets and sites of buildings, defeated the scheme; "and thus," writes Wren, (with a deep sigh one thinks he penned the words while his darling dream melted away,) "the opportunity, in a great degree, was lost, of making the new city the most magnificent, as well as commodious for health and trade, of any upon earth." Sir Christopher Wren could do nothing as he wished. The Monument was not what he meant it to be. The churches were not placed as he would have had them, so as to exhibit to advantage their architectural character. Even St. Paul's was shorn of the glory with which it was enriched in the architect's mind. It was narrowed and altered by incompetent judges, especially the Duke of York, who wished to preserve in it arrangements convenient for a popish cathedral, which he wildly hoped it would ultimately become. When Wren was compelled to give way, he even shed tears in the bitterness of his disappointment and grief. He finally had to do on a large scale, what common minds are ever doing in their little way-sacrifice some fondly cherished ideal to a stern necessity.

But, crippled as his genius was by the untoward position in which he was placed, he accomplished marvelous works of art in the churches so numerous and varied, built from his designs, and especially in the grand cathedral, which rises above the rich group of towers, domes, steeples, and spires, with a lordly air. It is related, in connection with the building of St. Dunstan's church in the east, the steeple of which is constructed upon quadrangular columns, that so anxious was he respecting the result, that he placed himself on London-bridge, watching through a lens the effect of removing the temporary supporters, by the aid of which the building was reared. The ascent of a rocket proclaimed the stability of the structure, and Sir Christopher smiled at the thought of his having for a moment hesitated to trust to the certainty of mathematical calculations. Informed one night afterwards, that a hurricane had damaged all the steeples in London, he remarked, "Not St. Dunstan's, I am quite sure." St. Stephen's, Wallbrook, is generally considered the chef-d'oeuvre of Sir Christopher Wren. "Had the materials and volume," to quote the opinion of two celebrated architects, "been so durable and extensive as those of St. Paul's Cathedral, he had consummated a much more efficient monument to his well-earned fame than that fabric affords." But the beauty of the edifice is in the interior. "Never was so sweet a kernel in so rough a shell-so rich a jewel in so poor a setting." The cost of the fabric was only £7,652. 13s. (Cunninghame's Handbook of London.)

The first stone of St. Paul's was laid on the 21st of June, 1675, by the architect; and he notices in his Parentalia a little circumstance connected with the preparations, which was construed by those present into a favorable omen, and which evidently interested and pleased his own mind. When the centre of the dimensions of the great dome was fixed upon, a man was ordered to bring a flat stone from the heap of rubbish, to be laid as a mark for the masons. The piece he happened to take up for the purpose was the fragment of a grave-stone, with nothing of the inscription left but the words, "Resurgam," "I shall rise again." And, true enough, St. Paul's did rise again, with a splendor which posterity has ever admired. It is, undoubtedly, the second church in Christendom of that style of architecture, St. Peter's at Rome being the first. Inferior in point of dimensions, and sadly begrimed with smoke, in contrast with St. Peter's comparatively untarnished freshness-destitute, too, of its marble linings, gilded arches, and splendid mosaics'-it is, on the whole, as Eustace, a critic prejudiced on the side of Rome, acknowledged, a most extensive and stately edifice: "It fixes the eye of the spectator as he passes by, and challenges his admiration, and, even next to the Vatican, though by a long interval, it claims superiority over all the transalpine churches, and furnishes a just subject of national pride and exultation." It was not until 1710 that the building was complete, when the architect's son laid the topmost stone on the lantern of the cupola.

In the prospectus published by Evelyn for the rebuilding of London, he observed, that if the citizens were permitted to gratify their own fancies, "it might possibly become, indeed, a new, but a very ugly city, when all was done." The citizens were permitted to have their own way, and the result was very much what he anticipated. The old sites of streets and public buildings were, to a great extent, adopted. The former remained narrow, winding, inconvenient-indeed, more inconvenient than ever; for what might be borne with when even ladies of quality traveled on horseback, became scarcely endurable when lumbering coaches were all the fashion. Churches and other edifices of importance were planted in inappropriate situations, and were blocked up by houses and shops. In Chamberlayne's Angli? Notitia for 1692, he laments that within the city the spacious houses of noblemen, rich merchants, the halls of companies, and the fair taverns, were hidden from strangers, the room towards the street being reserved for tradesmen's shops; but from his account and that of others, it appears plain enough that the men of that day felt that London, as rebuilt after the fire, was far superior to what it had been in the times of their fathers. The old wooden lath and plaster dwellings gave place to more substantial habitations of brick and stone, and the public structures appeared to those who were contemporary with their erection, proud trophies of skill, art, and wealth. "Notwithstanding," exclaims the author just noticed, "all these huge losses by fire, notwithstanding the most devouring pestilence in the year immediately foregoing, and the then very chargeable war against three potent neighbors, the citizens, recovering in a few months their native courage, have since so cheerfully and unanimously set themselves to rebuild the city, that, (not to mention whole streets built and now building by others in the suburbs,) within the space of four years, they erected in the same streets ten thousand houses, and laid out three millions sterling. Besides several large hospitals, divers very stately halls, nineteen fair solid stone churches were all at the same time erecting, and soon afterwards finished, and now, in the year 1691, above twenty churches more, of various beautiful and solid architecture are rebuilt. Moreover, as if the late fire had only purged the city, the buildings are becoming infinitely more beautiful." The author speaks with immense satisfaction of the new houses, churches, and halls, richly-adorned shops, chambers, balconies, and portals, carved work in stone and wood, with pictures and wainscot, not only of fir and oak, but some with sweet-smelling cedar, the streets paved with stone and guarded with posts; and ends by observing, that though the king might not say he found London of brick and left it of marble, he could say, "I found it wood and left it brick."

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares