Three hundred and fifty years ago today, on 2 September 1666, an unimaginable calamity befell London.
‘No sooner was the plague abated in London, that the inhabitants began to return to their habitations, than a most dreadful fire broke out in the city, and raged as if it had commission to devour every thing that was in its way’ (Gideon Harvey, The City Remembrancer: X.15.2, f. 1r)
Opinions vary as to how the fire started, though the focus was an accident at the bakery in Pudding Street. However some Protestants believed it was arson carried out by Catholics who threw fire-balls into buildings. One man who confessed was tried and executed but later found to be innocent, for he had only arrived in London on the second day of the fire.
The fire raged at such a temperature that the inhabitants had to flee from molten streams of lead near St Pauls. The City Remembrancer continues:
‘September the third the exchange was burnt, and in three days almost all the city within the walls: the people having none to conduct them right, could do nothing to resist it, but stand and see their houses burn without remedy; the engines being presently out of order and useless! (X.15.2, f. 7r)’
There was suddenly and unexpectedly seen, a glorious city laid waste; the habitations turned into rubbish; estates destroyed; the produce and incomes of many years hard labour and careful industry all in a few moments swept away and consumed by devouring flames . . . To have seen dear relations, faithful servants, even yourselves and families, reduced from plentiful, affluent, comfortable trade and fortune, over-night, to the extremest misery next morning! (X.15.2, f. 18v).
‘The severity of it will yet more appear from all the dreadful circumstances which attend and follow it. Could you suppose your selves in the midst of those cities which were consumed by Fire from heaven, when it seized upon their dwellings, O what cryes and lamentations, what yellings and shriekings might ye then have heard among them! (Edward Stillingfleet, A Sermon Preached before the Honourable House of Commons, 10 October 1666. I.8.43, ff. 12v-13r)
Sir Christopher Wren, who designed the new St Pauls Cathedral (as well as Trinity’s Wren Library) including many churches which had been destroyed in the fire, also proposed a new street plan for London.
Further Reading: the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London was commemorated by the development of new resources at the Museum of London.