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   Chapter 27 PART I. No.27

The History of London By Walter Besant Characters: 5727

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04



(From Speed's map of 'The Kingdom of England,' 1646.)

The City of London has suffered from fire more than any other great town. In the year 961 a large number of houses were destroyed: in 1077, 1086, and 1093, a great part of the City was burned down. In 1136, a fire which broke out at London Stone, in the house of one Aylward, spread east and west as far as Aldgate on one side and St. Erkinwald's shrine in St. Paul's Cathedral on the other. London Bridge, then built of wood, perished in the fire, which for five hundred years was known as the Great Fire. In these successive fires every building of Saxon erection, to say nothing of the Roman period, must have perished.

But the ravages of all the fires together did less harm than the terrible fire which laid the greater part of London in ashes in the year 1666. If you will refer to the map of London you may mark off within the walls the North-East angle: that part contained by the wall and a straight line running from Coleman Street to Tower Hill. With the exception of that corner the whole of London within the walls, and beyond as far as the Temple, was entirely destroyed.

The fire broke out at a baker's in Pudding Lane, Thames Street. It was early on Sunday morning on the second day of September, 1666. It was then, and is now, a place where the houses stood very thick and close together: all round were warehouses filled with oil, wine, tar, and every kind of inflammable stuff. The baker's shop contained a large quantity of faggots and brushwood, so that the flames caught and spread very rapidly. The people, for the most part, had time to remove their most valuable things, but their furniture, their clothes, the stock of their shops, the tools of their trade, they had to leave behind them. Some hurriedly placed their things in the churches for safety, as if the fire would respect the sanctity of these buildings. A stranger Sunday was never spent than this, when those who had escaped were asking where to go, and those upon whom the flames were advancing were tearing out of their houses whatever they could carry away, and the rest of the town were looking on and asking whether the flames would be stayed before they reached their houses.

Among those who thought that a church would be a safe place were the booksellers of Paternoster Row. They carried all their books into St. Paul's Cathedral and retired-their stock in trade was safe. But the flames closed round upon the Cathedral: they seized on Paternoster Row, so that the booksellers like the rest were fain to fly: and presently towering to the sky flamed up the lofty roof of nave and chancel and tower. Then with an awful crash the flaming timbers fell down into the church below. Even the Cathedral was burned with the rest, and w

ith it all the books.



(From Speed's map of 'The Kingdom of England,' 1646.)

All Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and part of Wednesday, the fire raged, till it seemed as if there would be no end until the City was utterly destroyed. Happily a remnant was saved, as you have seen. The fire was stopped at last by blowing up houses everywhere to arrest its progress. Close by the Temple Church (which barely escaped) they stopped it in this way. At Aldersgate, Cripplegate, and Bishopsgate, they used the same means, and at Pye Corner, Smithfield. Nearly opposite Bartholomew's Hospital, you may still see the image of a boy set up to commemorate the stopping of the fire at that point. Had it gone further we should have lost St. Bartholomew the Great and the houses of Cloth Fair.


When the fire stopped the people sat down to consider the losses they had sustained and the best way out of them.

St. Paul's Cathedral, that ancient and venerable edifice, with its thick walls and roof so lofty, that it seemed as if no fire but the fire from heaven could reach it, was a pile of ruins, the walls of the nave and transept standing, the choir fallen into the crypt below. The Parish churches to the number of 88 were burned: the Royal Exchange-Gresham's Exchange-was down and all the statues turned into lime, with the exception of Gresham's alone: nearly all the great houses left in the City, the great nobles' houses, such as Baynard's Castle, Coldharbour, Bridewell Palace, Derby House, were in ashes: all the Companies' Halls were gone: warehouses, shops, private residences, palaces and hovels-everything was levelled with the ground and burned to ashes. Five-sixths of the City were destroyed: an area of 436 acres was covered with the ruins: 13,200 houses were burned: it is said that 200,000 persons were rendered homeless-an estimate which would give an average of 15 residents to each house. Probably this is an exaggeration. The houseless people, however, formed a kind of camp in Moorfields just outside the wall, where they lived in tents, and cottages hastily run up. The place now called Finsbury Square stands on the site of this curious camp.


We ask ourselves in wonder how life was resumed after so great a calamity. The title deeds to houses and estates were burned-who would claim and prove the right to property? The account books were all lost-who could claim or prove a debt? The warehouses and shops with their contents were gone-who could carry on business? The craftsmen had lost their employment-how were they to live?

Of debts and rents and mortgages and all such things, little could be said. It was not a time to speak of the past. They must think of the future: they must all begin the world anew.

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