London’s Burning


This weekend is the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Various authors have used the fire for plot purposes, but for descriptive accounts it’s impossible to improve on the eyewitness reports of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Pepys spent some time walking about the City on 3rd September, then he and his wife and some friends took a boat on the river.

All over the Thames, with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops…. Houses were burned by these drops and flakes of fire, three or four, nay, five or six houses, one from another. When we could endure no more upon the water,  we to a little ale-house on the Bankside… and there staid till it was dark almost, and saw the fire grow; and, as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame. We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill  for an arch of above a mile long; it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses,  and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins.

John Evelyn was also out and about in the City. On 7th September, after the fire had burned itself out, he wrote,

I went on foot from Whitehall as far as London Bridge, through the late Fleet-street, Ludgate-hill, by St Paul’s, Cheapside, Exchange, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate and out to Moorfields, thence back to Cornhill, with extraordinary difficulty, clambering over heaps of yet smoking rubbish, and frequently  mistaking where I was; the ground under my feet so hot, that it even burnt the soles of my shoes.

St Paul’s now a sad ruin, flakes of vast stone split asunder. It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heat had in a manner calcined… even to the very roof, where a sheet of lead covering  a great space  (no less than six acres by measure) was totally melted.

Thus lay in ashes that most venerable church, besides near 100 more. The lead, ironwork, bells, plate, &c, melted…. The Companies’ Halls, splendid buildings, arches, entries, all in dust, the fountains dried up and ruined, whilst the very waters remained boiling….

The bye-lanes and narrower streets, were quite filled up with rubbish, nor could one have possibly known where he was, but by the ruins of some Church, or Hall, that had some remarkable tower, or pinnacle, remaining.

fire destruction

The fire destroyed 13,200 houses in the City, 87 parish churches, six chapels, the Guildhall, the Custom House,  52 livery company halls, £2m of printed paper and books, plus unknown quantities of wine tobacco, sugar, and other commodities stored in warehouses along the river.

‘London was, but is no more’, Evelyn wrote.



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