Today is an anniversary of sorts. Three hundred and forty seven years ago, in the early hours of September 2, a fire began in a bakery in London’s Pudding Lane that would change the face of the City for ever.
I work in the East End. I walk through the City nearly every evening to the station where I catch my train home. It’s an interesting journey - if I look past the gleaming glass pinnacles filled with bankers, traces of old London are all around. It’s there in the winding layout of the streets (a remnant of medieval days). It’s there in the peculiar (sometimes rather crude) names of alleyways and snickets, and it’s there in the plaques on buildings or corners informing passers by that a particular spot is connected with the Great Fire of London.
No one ever seems to pay much attention to those signs. The event haunts the City like a ghost, but only those tuned to its smoky whispers notice.
I should declare an interest here. Quite by coincidence, today, September 2, is the day my book The Jade Boy is published. In it I offer a wildly fantastical theory about how and why the fire came about.
The cover for The Jade Boy was designed by Levi Pinfield, who recently won the Kate Greenaway Award.
I was inspired to write it after passing St Paul’s Cathedral one snowy winter evening a couple of years ago. The great dome had recently been cleaned and it showed bone-white against the leaden sky. It’s always been one of my favourite London landmarks and as I peered through the snow, I found myself wondering about the old medieval cathedral that once stood in its place.
St Paul's Cathedral in London
The germ of my story was sown at that moment.
Along with having a great deal of fun with my invented citizens of London (Jem, a lowly servant; Tolly, a page; Ann, an orphaned witch girl; Cleo, a monkey; and the horribly evil Count Cazalon) I knew I had to find out more about what really happened.
The basic facts are simple. The fire began in the bakery of Mr Thomas Farriner, a producer of biscuits for King Charles II’s navy. Mr Farriner raked the embers of his oven before going to bed late on September 1, leaving a few flitches of bacon to smoke there overnight.
He never tasted that bacon. During the darkest hours when everyone was asleep the bakery began to fill with smoke. Within a short time sparks had risen on a strong east wind and travelled to neighbouring properties, setting their ancient timbers alight. Houses in Pudding Lane and beyond were evacuated, church bells were rung backwards to call for help and people formed bucket queues to the Thames to douse the flames.
This is a photo of the unobtrusive sign for Pudding Lane today. The actual site where the fire began is buried in the midst of an ugly modern office. If you lay The Monument on it's side, the fiery golden ball on the top would hit the exact spot behind this sign where the fire began!
Living in narrow streets of close-packed wooden buildings, Londoners were used to fires, but this time something went horribly wrong, the blaze seemed to have a sinister life of its own as it leapt hungrily from building to building. Within a day terrified citizens swarmed onto the streets and onto the river, everyone pushing and jostling to get out, and all of them, ‘to the smallest childe’, carrying bundles of possessions. Samuel Pepys wrote: “The streets and highways are crowded with people running and riding and getting carts at any rate to fetch away things.”
This is a portrait of Samuel Pepys - the most famous witness of the fire and 'parmezan' cheese lover
Despite desperate attempts to fight it, the fire burned for four days destroying 373 acres within the old City wall and 63 acres beyond. Flames swept through more than 400 streets and lanes. In total, 13,200 houses, 89 churches and 52 Livery Company halls were consumed.
This is a painting displayed at the museum of London showing a burning gateway to the city. You can see people and their meagre possessions splayed across the ground outside.
We know about the fire in great detail, largely due to the diaries and writings of many Londoners, but most particularly Pepys, John Evelyn and William Taswell, who was a schoolboy at the time. People recorded the epic events of September 1666, but also give us small details that still bring the scene horribly and delicately to life. I collected them like a ghoulish magpie while I was writing The Jade Boy.
These are just a few of my ‘favourites’.
- In breweries the beer boiled in the barrels before bursting out and running down the streets.
- The exotic spices stored in the cellars of the Royal Exchange let out a pungent stink as they burned – and the smell hung over broken buildings for many days after the fire.
- A cloud of jackdaws surrounded St Paul’s gothic spire, as the roof – six acres of metal - began to hiss and then to liquefy dripping ‘grenadoes’ of molten lead into the nave. The inferno was so intense that the melting roof ran down the walls and flowed out of the rain spouts and into the churchyard before spilling down Ludgate Hill.
- The stones of the cathedral and many other city churches exploded in the heat.
- Falling masonry broke open ancient tombs in St Paul’s nave – the corpse of Robert Braybrooke, interred 250 years previously, was exposed ‘intacte, his skin harde and brittle, but his hair stille redde.’
- Silks, plasterwork, papers and ash were carried as far as Windsor on the wind.
- Pepys watched a pigeon too scared to flee its perch on a timber building. It waited so long before attempting to flee that its wings singed and it plummeted dead to the ground.
- Pepys evacuated his own house in Seething Lane, but not before digging a hole in the garden to bury his prized ‘parmezan’ cheese and red wine.
This painting shows how massive and all-consuming the fire must have been. John Evelyn wrote in his diary: "God grant mine eyes never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame! The noise and cracking and thunder 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."
This etching shows people watching the city burn from a safe distance
Incredibly, records suggest that fewer than 20 people lost their lives during those four tumultuous days at the end of summer in 1666 - no one knows for certain. My feeling is that it must have been many more, but those who disappeared were not grand or important so their lives didn’t really count. Certainly when the fire was at its height it was not a good time to be a foreigner in London. There are horrible reports of vicious attacks as the mob rounded on anyone considered to be guilty of treason. The king’s own French firework maker was forced to seek refuge in Whitehall Palace when rumours circulated that he was the master arsonist.
This scene shows people escaping the fire in heavily loaded boats on the river Thames
My other suspicion about the Great Fire – totally unsubstantiated, of course – is that after the terrible plague year 1665, there was an urgent need to clear away the stinking insanitary streets of old London so that a sparkling new city, one to rival the grandest of Europe, could rise in its place. And that’s partly what I wrote about in The Jade Boy. I do love a good conspiracy theory!
I’ll leave you here with the words of William Taswell, who was about the same age as my leading character, Jem Green, when he witnessed the devastation. Like most boys (and me!) young William had a taste for the gory.
As he wandered towards the ruined cathedral after the blaze had burned itself out William describes “the ground so hot as almost to scorch my shoes.” In the churchyard he finds the carcasses of dogs “stiff as a plank, the skins being tough like leather.” But most shockingly and pitifully of all he comes across the body of a woman curled behind the churchyard wall where she had tried to hide from the flames, “every limb reduced to a coal”.
This old map shows the extent of the destruction
Cate Cain's The Jade Boy is out now in a bookstore near you, and is also available as an e-book.