The Great Fire of London started at two o’clock on the Sunday morning of September 2nd, 1666. It burned for four days, and five- sixths of the country’s greatest port and city were destroyed. London housed more than a tenth of the population of the kingdom and more than half its wealth. At the time it was an ancient city, both historic- ally and physically; its buildings were not the buildings of Charles II but of Elizabeth and Henry VIII and earlier monarchs. The river flowed along its southern side; elsewhere it was tightly encased in its ancient wall, except where the pressure of growing business had squeezed parts of it out into the Liberties, the largest of which lay west of the wall and included Fleet Street, Whitefriars and Holborn.
Congested, dirty and plague-ridden, its narrow streets contained thous- ands of oak-framed houses raised on a stone foundation, the fronts filled in with lath and plaster. The storeys projected one beyond the other, So that in the attic rooms it was possible in places for residents of opposite sides of the street to lean out and touch hands. Open drains or kennels ran down the middle of the streets, in which the inhabitants disposed of much of their rubbish and often enough their sewage. There were streets of poorer houses built back to back, their frames covered with pitch-smeared weather boards and terrible rookeries, the decayed city houses of merchant or noble, divided up into as many as fifty tenements. A census had been taken in 1631 which gave a population of 71,000 within the walls and 59,000 in the Liberties. The population must have increased considerably in the next thirty-five years, but this increase may have been more than com- pensated by the plague which took toll of 56,000 in 1665.
In yards at the backs of their houses, dyers, brewers, soap-boilers and even lime-burners lit their furnaces and plied their odoriferous trades, so that the diarist Evelyn complained of “this horrid smoake which obscures our churches, fouls our clothes and corrupts the waters so that the very rains which fall precipitate this impure vapour which spots whatever is exposed to it”. After his visits to London he must have been very glad to return to his pleasant country house near Dorking, which nearly three hundred years later was to become the Fire Service College. The only fire- breaks were a few wide streets, such as Cheapside, and the substantial stone work of the religious houses. Henry VIII had suppressed the monasteries a hundred years earlier and some of their great buildings had been pulled down or fallen into ruin, but others had been turned into schools like Christ’s Hospital, or acquired by the Livery Companies for their halls. There were no fewer than 109 churches; at some cross-roads four stood at opposite corners. Their bloated graveyards, piled high above the pavement level with successive burials, afforded little patches of green amongst the surrounding tinder.
Above all towered old St. Paul’s, desecrated and dilapidated. Its great spire of wood and lead had been burnt down in 1561, but the Cathedral, larger than its successor, still dominated the city and Inigo Jones was at work on a new West front, while substantial repairs, for which some of the scaffolding was already in place, awaited the necessary funds. There were lay buildings, too, of more fire-resisting structure than the shops and houses; near to where the West wall met the river stood the thick stone- turreted walls of fifteenth-century Baynards Castle; at the same point to the east stood the Tower of London. Greshams Royal Exchange and the Guildhall were mostly stone buildings, but at that time the latter was So hemmed in by houses that it could be approached only from the mean little alleys of Ironmonger Lane and Fetter Lane.
The fire protection available was the buckets, hooks and squirts under the nominal charge of parish officers, the lead and wooden water-pipes in the streets, supplied partly from the New River and partly from the water- wheel-driven pumps at London Bridge, the primitive fire engines already mentioned and the fire prevention ordinances which were partly unen- forced. Jealously guarded ancient rights placed jurisdiction and the public weal almost exclusively in the hands of the Lord Mayor, his Council and officers.
The fire started in a baker’s premises in Pudding Lane, a “little pityful lane” sloping steeply from Eastcheap down to the river. It was so narrow that “a cart could scarcely pass”. Mr. Farynor, the baker, went to bed that Saturday night “cleaving his providence with his slippers” as a contemporary writer said, and, according to his statement sworn later, having drawn his oven fire. He was awakened at 2 a.m. by his man, who had smelt smoke, and escaped with his family by climbing out of the garret window on to the roof of the adjoining house.
His maidservant, not daring to follow, was the first fatality. The fire crossed the lane to the galleried Star Inn opposite, whose yard was stored with straw and fodder. Neighbours, soon roused, began to form bucket chains and remove their furniture. Within the hour they had sent for the Lord Mayor, and the allegation of Chamberleyne that the spread of the fire was due to sloth and drunkenness, “the people filled with drink and all in a dead sleep”, seems unfounded. The Lord Mayor was Sir Thomas Bludworth and he was on the scene by 3 a.m. He had seen such fires in slum property before and they had always been put out. Probably annoyed at being roused at such an hour he made the unfortunate comment: “Pish! A woman might piss it out”, and went back to bed.
But Farynor’s house was only ten doors up the lane from where Thames Street crossed it, and in Thames Street the wharfingers had their premises stocked with tallow, oil, spirits, hemp and fodder. The flames spread to this high-risk area where the Great Fire of London really began.
Pepys, in Seething Lane, had been woken by Jane his maidservant at 3 a.m. and told of a fire in the City. “So I arose and went to her window and thought it to be at the backside of Mark Lane; but being unused to such fires as followed I thought it far enough off; and so went back to bed again and to sleep.”
When he woke again at eight o’clock Jane had news for him of 300 houses alight. “So I walked to the Tower and there got up on one of the high places; and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire and an infinite great fire. So I down to the waterside and there got a boat, and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michell’s house as far as the Old Swan, already burnt that way and the fire burning further.” Between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m. the fire in Pudding Lane had spread into Thames Street and along that into Fish Street. The stone walls of St. Magnus Church had not stayed it and now the Church was alight, its high roof spreading brands and embers among the surrounding dwellings. The three- storey houses on the north side of London Bridge were burnt and collapsed across the road, blocking the way to Southwark. A gap in the bridge houses caused by the fire of 1633 stayed the flames, but meantime the great water- wheels in the northern arches which drove the pumps of the city’s southern water-supply were destroyed. Fishmongers’ Hall caught fire, the first of the forty-four Companies’ halls to be burnt, and with it went the plate, furniture and records. The fire was running mostly westward along the river bank and burning but slowly into the centre of the city, So that it was already forming the “great bow of flame” that so impressed observers.
Before noon Sir Thomas Bludworth, greatly alarmed, had ordered houses around the perimeter to be pulled down to make a fire-break. Obstruction by owners of property who wanted every house pulled down but their own caused this work to be done too near to the fire, so that while axe and fire hook were still at work the flames caught up the workmen and, crossing the uncleared débris, fired the houses on the other side.
Vincent, the author of God’s Terrible Voice in the City, says “The Lord Mayor comes with his officers; a confusion there is; counsel is taken away; and London, so famous for wisdom and dexterity can find neither brains nor hands to prevent its ruin.”
Pepys had walked to Whitehall and arrived at eleven o’clock “where people came about me, and I did give them an account which dismayed them all”. The King sent him back to the Lord Mayor with the royal instructions to spare no houses in the demolition for fire-breaks and an intimation that he was sending a company of Guards to assist. The Duke of York added that “the Lord Mayor should have any more soldiers he might require”. The diarist returned and says:
“At last met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent with a handkercher about his neck. To the King’s message he replied like a fainting woman: “Lord! What can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’ That he needed no more soldiers; and that for himself, he must go and refresh himself, having been up all night. So he left me, and I him, and walked home, seeing all people most distracted.”
Malcolm in his London Redivivam says he also met the Lord Mayor at about this time “on horseback with a few attendants looking like one frightened out of his wits”.
After a dry summer there was to be no holding the fire in its congested quarter of origin. An eye-witness said: “The engines had no liberty to play for the narrowness of the place and the crowd of people, but some of them were tumbled down in the river, and among the rest that of Clerkenwell esteemed one of the best”.
By afternoon the fire had spread to better-class houses. There was a rush to save goods and to hire carts and lighters to carry them. The wherry-men, with their own poor homes and chattels already burnt, began to reap a harvest by putting their charges up to preposterous figures. Pepys went out in a boat that afternoon and saw “everybody endeavouring to remove their goods and flinging them into the river, or bringing them into lighters that lay off; river full of lighters and boats taking goods and good goods swim- ming in the water”. He went ashore and found the streets “full of nothing but people and horses and carts laden with goods ready to run over one another, and removing goods from one burned house to another”. He noted with surprise what furniture the distracted people chose to save in their panic. “Hardly one lighter in three that had the goods of a house in, but that there was a pair of virginals in it.”
The trained bands were called out but could not stop the fire running up Laurence Pountney Hill, and soon the church spire of St. Laurence, the highest in London, was alight. Dyers’ Hall and Watermen’s Hall were burning and the fires on Fish Street and Pountney Hill had joined. The King and the Duke of York were rowed down the river to see the fire and it is said that His Majesty was greatly stirred by the sight and eager in giving directions for more houses to be pulled down in advance of the flames, but after a few hours he returned to Whitehall, leaving Lord Craven to assist the Lord Mayor and Magistrates.
By midnight the fire stretched along the river bank from Three Cranes wharf near Queenhithe to Botolph Lane and had spread inland as far as Cannon Street. Next morning (Monday, September 3rd) the London Gazette contained a brief account saying: “It continues still with great violence.” Next day this official newspaper ceased publication. The post office had been burned during the night and no letters were delivered. Left without news the City was filled with rumours that the fire was the work of French and Dutch incendiaries and no foreigner could venture into the streets for fear of arrest or assault.
On that Monday morning the sun rose on a city of which a sixteenth was furiously ablaze or already burning out. The situation was so serious that King Charles, as soon as he was aware of it, set the authority of the Lord Mayor aside, put his brother the Duke of York in charge and spent much time on the fire-ground himself. Seven fire-posts were set up round the fire and parish constables were sent to each with a hundred men; thirty foot- soldiers and an officer were also attached, and three justices of the peace were put in charge of each to direct the work. Five pounds was allocated to them to provision their post with bread, cheese and beer.
It was not till this Monday morning that the majority of citizens realised the gravity of the situation. The fire was spreading inland fast. The river was no longer available as an evacuation route for most of the property threatened and, as on Sunday the price of a boat for the removal of goods had soared, now the profiteers demanded enormous sums for the hire of a cart. Pepys borrowed one from Lady Butler “to carry all my plate and best things” to a friend’s house in Bethnal Green. He rode on the cart himself, “riding myself in my nightgown; and Lord! to see how the streets are crowded with people getting of carts at any rate to carry away goods” . Above the uproar the church bells clamoured their reverse peals and the confusion worsened. Uncoordinated fire fighters dug up the roads and cut into the wooden water mains at ill-advised points so that much water was wasted and the firecocks placed a few years before where the pipes crossed the parish boundaries ran dry.
The flames raced inland up Gracechurch Street and into Lombard Street and Cornhill. It was no longer slum and warehouse property that burnt, but the homes and businesses of London’s wealthiest quarter. On this second day the fire spread mostly northwards and westwards, and by midnight was four times the size that it had been twenty-four hours earlier. It had reached and destroyed Baynards Castle to the west- -though at this point it had burned inland only a few hundred yards- and St. Dunstan’s to the east. Opposite London Bridge it had crossed Cannon Street, Lombard Street and Cornhill. These were involved throughout their length and Throgmorton Street was threatened.
Sir Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange built a hundred years before had gone. Vincent said: “The Exchange itself the glory of the merchants is invaded and when once the fire had entered how quickly did it run down the galleries; then came down stairs, compasseth the walls and filleth the courts with sheets of fire; by and by down falls the greatest part of the stone build- ing with such a noise as was dreadful and astonishing.” In the cellars were the imported spices of the East India Company and So Crouch in his Londinenses Lacrymae:
“Now the Imperious Element did range
Where the religious spices for some hours
Seem’d to burn incense to the incensed Powers.”
Tuesday morning (September 4th) brought another hot, cloudless September day and the fire spreading north with greater fury. From the burning steeples flaming brands, whirled higher by the surging up-draught of hot air, fell into streets as yet untouched and started roof fires behind the sweating water-carriers and demolition squads who laboured round the perimeter.
Lord Arlington wrote that day: “The fire has burnt far into the body of the city with such violence that no art or pains can meddle with it; all our hopes now, under God, in cutting off a part of the town by Holborn Bridge and so down to Bridewell to see whether we can save this.” Around the gates there was chaos, citizens trying to get out with their goods, countrymen bringing in carts and demanding ten pounds or more of seventeenth-century money for the hire of them. Goods were moved from house to house and church to church as the fire advanced. Around St. Paul’s was the open space of the churchyard, by far the largest in the City, and to this place of seeming safety many brought their property. Beneath St. Paul’s was the parish church of St. Faith, a four-aisled crypt with the cathedral floor serving as a roof. It was the church of the Stationers’ Company and soon it was piled from floor to ceiling with the book stocks of the members. To the east the fire had already burnt north of the Cathedral but was nearly a quarter of a mile away, and to the south it had reached no farther than Knight Rider Street. The Stationers, as they hurried their stocks into the under- ground church, felt that here they would surely be safe.
The hope of this third day was Cheapside, London’s widest street. Friday Street, Bread Street and Bow Lane ran southwards from it towards the advancing fire.
Demolition was started, but too late; again the flames reached the resultant débris before it was cleared and soon the north side of the street was involved.
Up Milk Street, Gutter Lane and St. Laurence Lane went the fire and burnt the Guildhall, destroying everything above ground except the great stone walls that still stand, having survived the air-raid fire of 1940. Below in the crypt were all the city records; they too fortunately exist to this day, thanks to the honest workmanship of mediaeval masons who had sealed the crypt off from the hall so closely and skilfully.
On went the fire that afternoon, up Basinghall Street until it reached the north wall. London’s plight was desperate. King Charles, who on the Monday had paid several visits to the fire, spent the whole of Tuesday in the City. He arrived on horseback early in the morning, a pouch of gold guineas slung round his shoulders. These he threw to soldiers and workmen as rewards and incentives to further effort. Soon he was on foot among them, smoke-grimed and ash-covered, handling spade and bucket, his laced costume wet and filthy. His brother, the Duke of York, had been hard at work the previous day from 5 a.m. until midnight and was back again on this fateful Tuesday “active and stirring”. Sandys, one of his attendants, said call orders signified nothing. Had not the Duke been present, and forced all people to submit to his command, I am confident there had not been a house standing. The citizens of the first rank minded only their own preservation; the middle sort so distracted that they did not know what they did; the poorer minded nothing but pilfering.”‘ Citizen John Rushworth said “if the Lord Mayor had done as much, his example might have gone far towards saving the city”‘. Their work availed little; sparks and brands flying over the west wall involved the Liberties. Soon Ludgate Hill and the Old Bailey were on fire and the flames spreading into Fleet Street.
Charles began to fear for his Palace at Whitehall and ordered its treasures to be moved and signed a warrant for the Exchequer to be removed to Surrey. The use of gunpowder for clearing fire-breaks had been recommended on Sunday by a small naval party who had been called in, but the advice was disregarded on the grounds that it was too dangerous and might cause fire in the houses blown up. Now with more than half the City involved, dockyardsmen from Woolwich and Deptford were called in and a larger party of sailors arrived with permission to use powder.
Pepys saw to it that they were put to work on the east side of the fire, ostensibly to protect the Tower but perhaps with the Admiralty office and his own house in Seething Lane in view. They started demolition on the north side of Tower Street, placing a barrel full of powder in each house and igniting them by a train. The explosion lifted and broke the timber frame so that the building collapsed; then, handy with chain and rope, the seamen dragged the débris up the side streets and away from the advancing flames.
Here the fire was stopped, but to the west and in the Liberties it burned unchecked. At 8 p.m. St. Paul’s was fired and soon the great building was ablaze and its six acres of leaden roof pouring down into the churchyard “like snow before the sun”.
The roof fell in and fire broke through the shattered windows; the old carved timbers burnt with great heat, the floor flags became calcined and falling masonry broke though them into St. Faith’s below. Walter Bell in his Great Fire of London says that “never since the burning of the great library at Alexandria was there such a holocaust of books”. The Stationers’ loss was computed at £150,000. Evelyn said “the loss will be an extraordinary detriment to the whole republic of learning” . The great rarity of Shakespeare’s third folio is attributed to almost the whole edition being lost in St. Faith’s.
Tuesday was the day of London’s tragedy. “It made me weep to see it”, wrote Pepys. “God grant my eyes may never behold the like” wrote Evelyn. St. Paul’s, and thirty-five churches, the Royal Exchange, the Guildhall, and many of the Companies’ halls were burnt. The area involved was more than twice that which burned on Sunday and Monday together; a great pall of smoke hung in the cloudless sky and when night fell the glare alarmed the countryside for miles around, while rumours of French or Dutch invasion spread. At Hitchin, over thirty miles away, where the fire was plainly visible, the constables and beadle roused the town and ordered an all-night watch.
Elizabeth Warland, widow, “refused to watch at the constable’s request” and was later charged before the county magistrates. At Oxford it was recorded that “The fier did soe much affrighten the nation that all townes stood upon their owne defence day and night and particularly Oxon, every one being soe suspicious that noe sorry fellow or woman could pass but they examined him; noe gun or squib could goe off but they thought it a fatale blow”.
The fire burnt up Fleet Street, destroying the disreputable quarter around Whitefriars known as Alsatia, and threatened the Temple. The fashionable dwellers in the Strand evacuated their furniture by boat. Late on Tuesday night the combined efforts of gunpowder, fire hook and bucket chain began at last to tell. Pepys was up at 2 a.m. on Wednesday. “About two in the morning my wife calls me up and tells me of new cries of fire, it being come to Barking Church, which is at the bottom of our Lane. I up; and finding it So resolved presently to take her away.” He took her and some more of his goods by boat to Woolwich. “But Lord! What a sad sight it was to see almost the whole city on fire.” Having seen his wife and property safe, he returned home. “And whereas expected to have seen our house on fire, it now being seven o’clock, it was not. Back to the fire and there find greater hopes than I expected. By the blowing up of houses and the great help given by the workmen out of the King’s yards there is a good stop given to it, as well at the Mark Lane end as ours.” All this Wednesday great fires still burned among the ruins, but the situation was in hand and further spread was stopped. Five-sixths of the City had been destroyed, 13,200 houses were burnt, together with eighty-four churches, forty-four Livery Companies’ halls and most of the public buildings. Over a hundred thousand people were homeless, thousands of substantial citizens were irretrievably ruined, and the wealth of London, a great proportion of the country’s wealth, was gone. Strangely enough, there were only six fatal casualties, a pointer to the pusillanimity of the early fire fighting, but this total was soon swollen by deaths among the wretches in the shanty town of tents and hovels which sprang up around the walls where many of the homeless were soon to face the rigours of winter half starved and without proper shelter.
The situation was the more desperate because England was at war with the French and the Dutch. Louis XV must have thought his cause was won, for he prohibited public rejoicing, saying “it being such a deplorable accident involving injury to so many unhappy people” and he even offered to send “food and all else needed for relief”. The Dutch spread the news that England was ruined by a punishment from Heaven. The Venetian ambassador in Paris wrote to his government saying “that the losses would constrain the English to abandon their high pretensions and to humble themselves before the King here”, but a few weeks later he was reporting: “A proud and barbarous nation reduced to despair leaves some reason for apprehension that some of them may resolve to come forth out of the country in great numbers and provide additional travail and peril for their enemies.”
Shocked and bitter, the citizens sought a scapegoat; the theory of Dutch or French incendiarism which had resulted in several unfortunate foreigners being beaten up and imprisoned was disproved. In an age of religious intolerance the citizens turned on the Catholics and blamed them. A poor mad watchmaker named Robert Hubert, a Frenchman and a Catholic, had been arrested during the hue and cry for foreign incendiaries. He confessed that he had been suborned with twenty accomplices to set the heretic city on fire. His story was contradictory, impossible and boastful. He stood trial at the Old Bailey and it was obvious that he was crazy and no version of his changing story could be made to fit the facts. Nevertheless, he obstinately insisted on confessing, So he was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn. In Pudding Lane a stone was set up (it is now in the Guildhall Museum) with the inscription:
HERE BY YE PERMISSION OF HEAVEN, HELL BROKE LOOSE UPON THIS PROTES- TANT CITY FROM THE MALICIOUS HEARTS OF BARBAROUS PAPISTS, BY YE HAND OF THEIR AGENT HUBERT, WHO CONFESSED, AND ON YE RUINES OF THIS PLACE DECLARED THE FACT FOR WHICH HE WAS HANGED, (vIzT) THAT HERE BEGAN THAT DREDFULL FIRE, WHICH IS DESCRIBED AND PERPETUATED ON AND BY THE NEIGHBOURING PILLAR.
A similar inscription was carved. on the base of the Monument in 1681 and not removed until 1830, giving rise to Pope’s sarcastic comment:
“Where London’s column pointing at the skies
Like a tall bully, lifts the head, and lies.”
The Council met and after solemn discussion declared that the disaster was due to “the hand of God upon us, a great wind and the season so very dry”. The dry season is well vouched for and authenticated, which the great wind is not. Various writers speak of the great wind or even the bellowing wind that blew during the fire, but their accounts vary as to its direction; they attribute the decrease of the fire on the Wednesday partly to the dropping of the wind, but high winds are unusual on clear, hot days in early September and there are accounts that week of ships guarding the coast against the Dutch being becalmed. At a conflagration of this size a great amount of heated air will be rising above the burning area and cool air is drawn in to replace it. In cities attacked during the Second World War a stiff breeze always appeared to be blowing around the streets where a number of big fires had joined up and the fire storm conditions of Hamburg and Tokyo were the culminating examples of this natural phenomenon. It seems probable that the only wind during those four tragic September days was that caused by the fire itself.
“The hand of God upon us” was a comfortable excuse for City Fathers who for years had taken no adequate steps to guard against an ever-present menace. If they seriously considered the matter they should have truthfully announced that the disaster was due to the City being a formidable fire risk in which the inadequate building ordinances had not been enforced, to the water-supply being deficient and to the fact that fire-fighting equipment had not been provided in sufficient quantity nor men trained to use what was provided. Neither had any proper plan of attack in a serious fire situation been preconceived.
However, if the City Council had been guilty of dereliction of duty so far as steps to prevent such a calamity were concerned, they set about the enormous task of rebuilding and rehabilitation with energy. The boast on the Monument that the City rose again in three years is untrue; it took nearly twenty years to complete the work, but that was no mean feat.
Evelyn and Wren demanded that the opportunity be taken to rebuild London on new and magnificant lines. Both produced plans, and had either been accepted they would have made London the finest seventeenth-century city in the world, St. Paul’s standing in splendid isolation on Ludgate Hill with eight wide streets converging on its large churchyard like spokes on the hub of a wheel, one of them running straight to the river giving a view of its waters and the south bank. Long, straight, broad streets, a mile in length, interspersed with still wider piazzas and the Guildhall, Royal Exchange and Mansion House receiving similar treatment to St. Paul’s. All along the river bank a great wide street open to the river was to run.
But it was not to be; the citizens impoverished, unprepared for change and anxious to start rebuilding, insisted that each man’s site should remain his own, which meant that the original mediaeval street plan must be retained. The City Council met a parliamentary committee to draw up a New Building Act. This Act, which came before Parliament in December 1666, gave London its first complete code of building regulations. “For better regulations, uniformity and gracefulness” , only four types of houses were to be built.
“The least sort to be built in by lanes two storeys high; :
“The second sort in streets and lanes of note to be three storeys high; *
“The third fronting high and principal streets four storeys;
“The fourth type “of the greatest bigness’ and not fronting a street must also not exceed four storeys.”
In each case cellars and garrets did not count as a storey, and all houses were to be stone or brick with substantial fire-resisting party walls separating them from their neighbours. Some of these plain, solid, well-proportioned houses still remain. Details of building construction were set out in exact schedules, with penalties for those who did not conform to them. The house could be pulled down and the builder gaoled. The Act also prohibited dangerous and noisome trades.
As London rose from its ruins, so did many of its substantial citizens. With what they had been able to save of their stocks and goods in the dearly hired carts and boats they restarted their businesses with frantic energy and survived. In thousands of other cases the loss of premises, capital and stock was too great a blow and they went under. The usual King’s Briefs or Fire Briefs were issued on behalf of sufferers, but in comparison with the magnitude of the loss they were but poorly subscribed. Soon substantial merchants were languishing in the debtors’ prisons where they were to end their lives in misery. One of them at least raised the funds to have a six-page appeal printed and distributed asking mercy for “these miserably singed citizens”. Addressed to King and Parliament it said “The sufferers are worthy objects of your help and interposition, for the stopping of the merciless fury of their creditors whereof the prisons about London are severe testimonies, and this countenanced by the Law because of debt, without any reflection upon the hand of God that disabled them.” He asked that relief be afforded by voluntary contributions or a tax, but he asked in vain.
Those that survived and were able to rehabilitate themselves must have read such pamphlets with an uneasy mind. If it had happened once it could happen again. A proposal was made that the City authorities should have power to employ “so many persons as they thought fit for the more speedy quenching of fires”, but this suggestion was never acted on.
Nor was another made by Andrew Yarranton in his pamphlet England’ s Improvement by Sea & Land that special fire commissioners be appointed “to quench and prevent the spreading of fire”. It was proposed that these commissioners should have a special staff including engineers and two sentinels. The suggested duties of the sentinels were:
“The sentinel hath a place on the top of the highest steeple whereby he may look all over the Town, one is by Day and the other by Night; and every two Hours of the Night he plays half an hour upon the Flageolet, being very delightful in the Night; and he looks round the City; if he observes any Smoak or Fire he presently sounds a Trumpet and hangs out a bloody Flag towards that quarter of the City where the Fire is. Immediately all the people which are for the quenching of Fires with the Commissioners and Engineers, or as many as there are in the Town run to the place.”
Except for the provision of flageolets, this proposal for sentinels was not perhaps as absurd as it sounds today. It was a system that was already practised in many of the larger Continental cities, especially in Germany. However, all suggestions for the employment of special men and officers who might in the course of years have become skilled firemen and fire preventionists came to nothing. The City contented itself with “An Act for Preventing and Suppressing of Fires within the City of London and the Liberties thereof. 1667. The preamble said:
“Whereas the late fierce and outragious Fire which happened in the City (continuing violently to the great Astonishment of all Beholders more than the space of four Days and four Nights) burnt, destroyed and consumed the greatest part of the Churches and Dwelling-Houses, rendering very many of the Inhabitants calamitous, and very much impoverished by the great Losses they sustained, and is by all justly resented as a most sad and dismal Jud gement of Heaven: For the Prevention, avoiding and suppress- ing (as much as Human prudence is capable of) the like deplorable (and still too visible) Events, and dreadful Danger of Fire for the future within the City and the Liberties thereof, Be it ordained, Enacted and Estab.”
The Act divided the City into four quarters and each quarter was to be provided with 800 leather buckets, 50 ladders (10 of which were to be 42 feet long), 24 pickaxes, 40 shod shovels and as many hand squirts of brass as would furnish two for every parish in the quarter. These to be provided at the public expense.
In addition, the twelve principal Livery Companies were each required to provide 1 engine, 30 buckets, 2 hand squirts and 3 ladders. The other inferior Companies, buckets and engines proportionable to their abilities.
Principal citizens to keep in their houses a certain number of buckets, according to their quality.
Each quarter was to appoint and pay a bellman to patrol the streets from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m.
Every inhabitant was to prepare a secure place in his dwelling to put his ashes “not under or near any staircase” and “the said ashes to be quenched with water every night before they go to bed”.
Plugs were to be put into the water mains “in the most convenient places in every street, whereof all inhabitants may take notice; that breaking of the pipes in a disorderly manner may be avoided” . The Plaisterers, Bricklayers, Masons and Plumbers Companies were to elect each year skilled workmen and a body of labourers to attend the Lord Mayor “on all occasions of fire for the quenching of same”.
During a big fire inhabitants not involved were to keep to their houses unless summoned “so disorder and confusion in the streets may be avoided”. A skilful engineer to be appointed every year to attend the Lord Mayor who “by his advice is to give him assistance and blow up houses whereby the increase of the fire may most probably be prevented”. A supply of powder was to be provided and “laid up in convenient places” . The Act had twenty-eight clauses, including provision for indemnities to be paid to those whose houses were blown up, and a veto on the storage of dangerous goods (gunpowder, rosin, hemp, wax, tar, flax, brimstone) in certain places. The Act only made provision for more fire appliances and some additional fire-prevention legislation. The skilled engineer was to be an annual appointment and the men to be provided by those Livery Companies engaged in the building trades were only to be “elected yearly”.
The theory of the “hand of God° in fire disasters had such a hold on the citizens’ mentality that their thoughts never turned to skilled fire brigades, or when it did the cost was considered too high. However, those languishing debtors were still petitioning and their presence was an uncomfortable reminder to the survivors that a similar fate could easily overtake themselves. The citizens’ minds turned to Fire Insurance. Several Mutual Fire Insurance Clubs granting insurance not exceeding £500 on a single risk were formed in 1667, and a proposal was put before the City Council by a Mr. Delaune that the council should consider “ensuring houses against the evill and loss of fire,” but consideration of the suggestion was postponed on the grounds that the City must first be rebuilt.
There was, however, a young man in the City already engaged in speculative building who was prepared to go ahead with such a scheme at his own risk. Dr. Nicholas Barbon was a son of that Praise-God Barebones who had gained fame as a rigid Parliamentarian during the Civil War. He had qualified as a physician and was only twenty-six years old at the time of the Great Fire. His father had given him at his baptism the name If-Jesus- Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebones, but this pious appellation did not deter him from some pretty sharp practice in the acquiring of sites from those financially unable to rebuild nor from sailing as close to the wind as he dared in connection with the new building laws.
Both his building and insurance ventures flourished, and in the latter he soon went into partnership with others. They formed a company known as the “Insurance Office at the Backside of the Royal Exchange” .
If public authorities were chary of forming proper fire brigades, this was not the case with the hard-headed businessmen who ran the “Fire Office” . They soon saw that it was bad business to allow the destruction of their risks with only the casual alleviation of the haphazard fire fighting provided by the public authority. Soon they were advertising that they had ”servants in livery with badges who are watermen and other lusty persons who are always to be ready when any sudden fire happens, which they are very laborious and dextrous at quenching, not sticking in cases of necessity to expose themselves to very great hazards in their attempts”. Twelve hundred years after the Vigiles left, Britain had fire brigades again, and the early fire offices, by their acceptance of the principle whereby they provided engines and crews, had created a precedent which was to bedevil both the insurance companies and British fire brigades for the next three centuries.