At around 9pm on Saturday September 1, 1666, London baker Thomas Farriner went to bed after a day making dry biscuits for the Royal Navy. Farriner, who lived with his daughter, maid and manservant in Pudding Lane, had something of a chequered history. As a 10-year-old he had spent time at Bridewell, a sort of borstal where youngsters might get an education, until eventually he was apprenticed and turned his life around. Until he burned down London by accident, that is. At 1am that night Farriner’s manservant found the ground floor filled with smoke and by Wednesday 70,000 people were homeless.
After a hot summer the capital was dry and the fire was spread by a strong easterly wind. It was aided by the incompetence of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who initially refused suggestions that he destroy houses to create firebreaks, on the grounds that their owners could not be found to seek permission. Panicking, he made his famous reply that “Pish! A woman could p— it out” – not the best soundbite in history. And then he left.
King Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York, might have taken control earlier but London had been heavily parliamentarian during the civil war, and many of its city elders were active in the struggle against Charles’s father. Indeed, it did not help that many former members of the New Model Army kept muskets filled with gunpowder in their homes.
But by Monday the king and duke had come down the river from Whitehall to run the operation, both men personally manning the pumps into the night. The following day, the fire took hold of St Paul’s Cathedral, where many people had stored their prized possessions in the misguided belief that they would be safe. So intense was the blaze, now a firestorm reaching 1,250° C, that the lead roof melted and the 11th-century cathedral came crashing down.
In the end 87 churches and 13,000 houses were destroyed, along with countless historic buildings such as Baynard’s Castle. The total financial loss was around £9.9 million, or £37 billion in today’s money. While officially the death toll was between six and eight, it was actually most likely in the hundreds.
On the Wednesday evening tens of thousands were camped out at Moorfields, Hampstead and Islington. The wind and fire had now died down, but the rumour mill – like a blaze in its own uncontrollable way – would take longer to subside. Among the refugees stories spread that a light in the sky was a signal for 50,000 French and Dutch immigrants in the city to rise up, killing the men and raping the women.
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