Saturday Snippet: Eyewitness accounts of the Great Fire of London, 1666


Samuel Pepys was an English naval administrator and member of parliament in the 17th century.  His diary has become one of the chief sources of information about Restoration England.  Many books about his life and times have been written based on it.

Jonathan Bastable is a popular English author, with many books to his name.  One of them is a study of 17th-century life in England’s capital, titled “Inside Pepys’ London“.

The blurb reads:

Inside Pepys’ London reveals a vivid picture of London at a critical point in history, as it was poised to become a major center of international commerce and culture. It provides accounts of all aspects of contemporary life, from the arts and entertainment, to politics and religion.

Samuel Pepys was not a king or a famous general—yet his renowned diary makes him one of the most interesting characters in history. His life encompassed happenings of huge historical and human impact—the execution of Charles I and the Great Fire of London to name but two. This book takes Pepys’ diary, which he kept almost daily from 1660-1669, as its central resource, but also includes a range of other contemporary sources to provide a fascinating and vivid picture of the times.

One chapter is devoted to the Great Fire of London in 1666, which devastated the city.  I’ve chosen several excerpts from it to describe how the disaster appeared to the residents of the capital.

To the day he died, the baker Thomas Farynor never accepted that he was responsible for the catastrophe that destroyed the greatest city in the world. He insisted that on the night of Saturday 1 September 1666, he had drawn his baking ovens as he did every night. They were not alight when he went to bed at ten, ‘leaving his providence with his slippers’. He was doubly certain that his ovens were dead, because around midnight he needed a candle, and went downstairs to see if there were any embers in the oven he could use to light it: there were none. Though it was undeniable that the fire began on his premises on Pudding Lane, the baker always insisted that it could not have been caused by his negligence. It could only have been arson.

Farynor was woken by his apprentice at about two in the morning. The house was already thick with smoke. The baker roused his wife, his son and daughter, and the maidservant. They ‘felt themselves almost choked with smoke, and rising, did find the fire coming up the stairs’. Farynor noted that the fire was nowhere near his ovens, and that the stack of kindling that lay next to them was not alight – further proof, to his mind, that the fire was started deliberately, by an outsider. Since the stairs were aflame, escaping by the front door was out of the question, so the four Farynors and the two servants made their way to the top of the house where there was a garret window that gave out on to the roof of the house next door. One by one they climbed out and shimmied along the gutter to their neighbours’ roof window. But the maidservant lost her nerve and refused to clamber along the roof. She stayed behind and was burned to death – the first victim of the Great Fire of London.

By now the fire had an audience. Lodgers at The Star Inn, a coaching house immediately behind the baker’s on Fish Street Hill, crowded into the galleried courtyard to watch the show. At about three o’clock in the morning, the roof of the baker’s shop fell, sending a fountain of sparks into the sky. The burning fragments rained down on the heads of the onlookers, sending them running for cover. Some sparks fell on the bales of hay intended for feeding the horses. Instead the hay fed the fire: The Star was ablaze within minutes.

It was about now that the glow of the fire was spotted by Pepys’s servant-girl Jane, who was working into the night to get things ready for the next day’s lunch: Samuel and Elizabeth had guests coming. To her the fire looked serious enough to warrant troubling the master. He disagreed:

I rose and slipped on my nightgown, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside of Mark Lane at the farthest. But being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off. And so went to bed again and to sleep. About seven rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window, and saw the fire not so much as it was and further off.

In the meantime Thomas Bludworth, the Lord Mayor, had been called to the scene. He arrived bleary-eyed at about four in the morning, and was evidently none too pleased to have been dragged out of bed at this unseemly hour. No more than three or four houses were afire at this point, and there seemed to be no special cause for alarm. So Bludworth made the remark that damned him in the eyes of his contemporaries and of posterity: ‘A woman could piss it out,’ he said, and then went back to his house, which was far away at the other end of the City.

. . .

On the night that the fire started there was a strong east wind. It had been rattling the shop signs on their hinges and whistling through the chimney stacks since Saturday evening, and in the hour or two before dawn, the high wind drove the flames down Fish Street Hill and Pudding Lane at a rate that astonished eyewitnesses. The swift spread of the flames was abetted by the fact that London had been hot and rainless all summer. The timber-framed houses that made up most of the City’s buildings were as dry as twigs.

Then there was the inaccessibility of the exact spot in which the fire broke out. Pudding Lane, says Waterhouse, was a …

… pitiful little lane, crowden in behind Eastcheap on the west, St Botolph’s Lane on the east and Thames Street on the south of it … [The fire] … met with no opposition from engines or other artifices because it was impossible in such a strait [narrow place] and in such a rage of fire that they should be serviceable. For if all the engineers of mischief would have compacted the irremediable burning of London, they could not have laid the scene of their fatal contrivance more desperately, to a probable success than there where it was, where narrow streets, old buildings all of timber, all contiguous to each other, all stuffed with aliment for the fire, all in the very heart of the trade and wealth of the city. These all concentring in this place put a great share of the mischief upon the choice of the place.

Topography also played a part in the third circumstance that allowed the fire to grow so rapidly. Fish Street Hill led straight down to London Bridge, and to Thames Street, which ran alongside the north bank of the river. The street was lined with warehouses, all of which were packed with highly inflammable goods. It was ‘the lodge of all combustibles,’ said Waterhouse.

Oil, hemp, flax, pitch, tar, cordage, hops, wine, brandies and other materials favourable to fire, all heavy goods being warehoused there near the water side and all the wharfs for coal, timber, wood &c. being in a line consumed by it.

So the first lick of fire to reach Thames Street was like a taper put to a fuse. As soon as one warehouse went up, the next one was bound to catch alight, and so on down the street almost as far as the Tower of London.

By first light on Sunday, the flames were out of control. The church of St Magnus the Martyr, at the bottom of Fish Street Hill, was burning merrily. The fire had also crept on to London Bridge, which was lined with shops and houses like an ordinary street.

. . .

Pepys’s description of the fire is impressionistic and immediate, like pages torn from a journalist’s notebook. But alongside the lively scenes of panic and the memorable image of the dying pigeons, there is a growing sense that this is a personal disaster for Pepys, for he was watching the immolation of the streets he grew up in, and the destruction of the homes of people he knew and loved.

Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

Having stayed, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire, and having seen it get as far as the Still Yard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City; and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches, and among other things the poor steeple by which pretty Mrs Horsley lives, and whereof my old school-fellow Elborough is parson, taken fire in the very top, and there burned till it fell down: I to Whitehall, and there up to the King’s closet in the Chapel.

So it was that Pepys, having been rather slow to appreciate the gravity of the situation, was the first to bring news of the fire to the king. While he waited to be summoned into the royal presence, he told anyone who would listen what he had seen, and gathered quite a crowd around himself – very much the messenger from the front line and, for a short while, the centre of attention. Charles and his brother heard Pepys’s report and ‘seemed much troubled’.

. . .

Some devout Londoners went to church that Sunday morning – fire or no fire.

Never was there the like Sabbath in London. Some churches were in flames that day, and the Lord seems to come down, and to preach himself in them, as he did in Mount Sinai when the Mount burned with fire. Such warm preaching those churches never had. Such lightning dreadful sermons never were before delivered in London.

So wrote Thomas Vincent, the Puritan preacher who had documented the plague the previous year. He was certain that this was another Biblical punishment – not Egypt this time, but the cities of the plain.

Goods are removed from the lower parts of the city, and the body of the people begin to retire … rather as Lot drew out from his house in Sodom before it was consumed by fire from heaven. Yet some hopes were retained on the Lord’s day that the fire would be extinguished, especially by them that lived in the remote parts. They could scarcely imagine that the fire a mile off should be able to reach their houses … Some are upon their knees, interceding for poor London in the days of its calamity, but … London’s sins were too great, and God’s anger against the city was too hot so easily and presently to be quenched and allayed … And if, by the intercession of some a mitigation be obtained, so that the Lord doth not stir up all his wrath utterly to destroy the place as he did Sodom and Gomorrah, yet none can prevail to call back that wrath and reverse that decree which is gone forth against the city. The time of London’s fall is come … and therefore all attempts to hinder it are in vain.

. . .

[Pepys] went ashore and walked to Whitehall, where he had arranged to meet up with his wife. They caught a boat back home, and so were obliged to make a waterborne excursion through the heart of the fire.

So near the fire as we could for smoke. And all over the Thames with one’s face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops – this is very true – so as 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 alehouse on the Bankside over against the Three Cranes, and there stayed till it was dark almost and saw the fire grow; and as it grow 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 the a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire … We stayed till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side 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 ruine.

. . .

On Monday, 3 September, John Evelyn went with his wife and son to see the fire. They took a coach to Bankside, across the river from St Paul’s. It was a ringside seat.

We beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole city in dreadful flames near the waterside. All the houses from the Bridge, all Thames-street and upwards towards Cheapside, down to the Three Cranes, were now consumed, and so returned, exceeding astonished what would become of the rest.

Later Evelyn went back without his family to take a closer look. This time, as he wandered the streets north of the river, he was struck not so much by the spectacular horror of a city aflame, but by the many human tragedies that were playing out on the burning streets.

Everyone seemed to be in a kind of trance: The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished that … they hardly stirred to quench it. So that there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods. Such a strange consternation there was upon them, so as it burned both in breadth and length, the churches, public halls, Exchange, hospitals, monuments and ornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner from house to house and street to street, at great distances one from the other … The fire devoured after an incredible manner: houses, furniture and everything.

A full-scale evacuation was now under way. As London Bridge was impassable, people were trying to ferry themselves and their valuables across the river by boat, and then transfer them to a cart on the far side.

Here we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save, as, on the other side, the carts &c. carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with movables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away.

Transport of any kind was of course at a premium, and it was a seller’s market. Vincent was disgusted by the way that carters and draymen used the fire to make a quick profit.

Carts and drays and coaches and horses, as many as could have entrance into the city, were loaden, and any money is given for help: £5, £10, £20, £30 for a cart to bear forth into the fields some choice things. Some of the countries [country people] had the conscience to accept of the highest price which the citizens did then offer in their extremity. I am mistaken if such money did not burn worse than the fire out of which it was raked.

Those who could not pay inflated prices for a cart saved only as much as they could carry. ‘Casks of wine and oil and other commodities are tumbled along …’ continues Vincent,

… and the owners shove as much of their goods as they can towards the gates. Everyone now becomes a porter to himself, and scarcely a back, either of man or woman that hath strength, but had a burden on it in the street. It was very sad to see such throngs of poor citizens coming in and going forth from the unburnt parts, heavy loaden with some pieces of their goods, but more heavy loaden with weighty grief and sorrow of heart, so that it is wonderful they did not quite sink under these burdens.

. . .

Thomas Vincent witnessed the destruction of the Exchange. But it was the terrific noise of the fire, more than the sight of it, that took his breath away.

The flames quickly cross the way by the train of wood that lay in the streets untaken away, which had been pulled down from the houses. They mount up to the top of the highest houses; they descend down to the bottom of the lowest vaults and cellars; and march along on both sides of the way with such a roaring noise as never was heard in the city of London.

No stately building so great as to resist their fury. The Royal Exchange itself, the glory of the merchants, is now invaded with much violence. And when once the fire was entered, how quickly did it run round the galleries, filling them with flames; then descendeth the stairs, compasseth the walks, giving forth flaming volleys, and filled the courts with sheets of fire. By and by, down fall all the kings upon their faces, and the greatest part of the stone building after them, with such a noise as was dreadful and astonishing.

Then, then the city did shake indeed, and the inhabitants did tremble, and flew away in great amazement from their houses, lest the flames should devour them. Rattle, rattle, rattle was the noise which the fire struck upon the ear round about, as if there had been a thousand iron chariots beating upon the stones. And if you opened your eye to the opening of the streets where the fire was come, you might see in some places whole streets at once in flames that issued forth as if they had been so many great forges from the opposite windows, which folding together were united into one great flame. And then you might see the houses tumble, tumble, tumble with a great crash, leaving the foundations open to the view of the Heavens.

. . .

St Paul’s Cathedral rose above the medieval city like a great stone ark floating on a sea of rooftops. It was an immense presence – much larger than Wren’s replacement was to be. Its spire was the tallest ever built while it lasted: it was struck by lightning in 1561 and fell down, never to be replaced. Consequently, the central bell tower was in Pepys time rather squat – it looked ominously like a stumpy little chimney … But its luck ran out soon after dark. Wooden scaffolding on the tower caught alight, and led the flames upwards to some boards on the roof – stacked there carefully in anticipation of a major renovation, which had been approved the previous week. Vincent saw that the razing of the cathedral began on the roof, and was at a loss to explain how this had come to pass:

The church, though all of stone outward, though naked of houses about it, and though so high above all the buildings in the city, yet within a while doth yield to the violent assaults of the conquering flames, and strangely takes fire at the top.

William Taswell saw the same strange phenomenon from three miles away.

Just after sunset I went to the royal bridge in the New Palace at Westminster to take a fuller view of the fire. As I stood upon the bridge among many others, I could not but observe the gradual approaches of the fire towards that venerable fabric. About 8 o’clock it broke out on the top of St Paul’s Church, already scorched up by the violent heat of the air and lightning too. And before long it blazed so conspicuous as to enable me to read very clearly an edition of Terence which I carried in my pocket.

The cathedral was now a kind of man-made volcano. Chunks of masonry exploded in the intense heat and ‘flew like grenadoes’. The lead sheeting on the vast roof melted ‘as if it had been snow before the sun’. It gushed down the walls of the church like lava and formed a molten lake on the floor of the nave, before ‘running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them.’ At the same time ‘great beams and massy stones with a great noise fall on the pavement and break through into Faith Church underneath. And great flakes of stone scale and peel off strangely from the side of the walls.’

. . .

Having saved the Temple and Whitehall, the Duke of York went home to his bed: he had had no sleep since Sunday. When he awoke on Thursday morning, 6 September, the fire was effectively over. There were still local bonfires – and embers were found to be smouldering in basements as much as six months later – but the wholesale destruction of London was at an end. The smoking ruins were an awesome spectacle in themselves.

The best and the fairest city in the world was turn’d into ashes and ruins in three days’ space. This was a sight that might have given any man a lively sense of the vanity of this world, and all the wealth and glory in it, and of the future conflagration of the the world. To see the flames mount up towards heaven and proceed so furiously without restraint; to see the streets fill’d with people astonish’d, that scarce has sense left them to lament their own calamity. To see the fields fill’d with heaps of goods. And sumptuous buildings, costly furniture, and household stuff, yea warehouses and furnished shops and libraries &c. all on a flame while none durst come near to receive any thing. To see the King and nobles ride about the streets, beholding all these desolations while none could attend the least relief. To see the air, as far as could be beheld, so fill’d with smoak that the sun shin’d through it with a colour like blood.

But the dolefullest sight of all was afterwards, to see what a ruinous confused place the City was, by chimneys and steeples only standing in the midst of cellars and heaps of rubbish, so that it was hard to know what the streets had been – and dangerous of a long time to pass through the ruins, because of vaults and fire in them.

Eighty-nine of the City’s 109 parish churches had been gutted. Many of them had stood since Norman or even Saxon times, as their lyrically French or robustly Germanic names proclaimed: St Mary-le-Bow, St Edmund King and Martyr, St Michael le Querne, St Peter Chepe, St Benet Sherehog (a shere hog is a ram castrated after its first shearing: this church stood in the heart of the old wool district).

Forty-four of the halls of the livery companies were gone. The halls were the pride of the medieval trades that built them, the very symbol of their professional standing as craftsmen. Some of those crafts were on the verge of obsolescence – broderers, girdlers, tallow chandlers, pewterers, bowyers, founders, salters, saddlers and scriveners – but were no less jealous of their rights as guildsmen for that. Other liveried professions are still with us in some form – the bakers, goldsmiths, vintners, brewers and masons. Eight livery companies came through the fire with their halls intact. They were the armourers, bricklayers, carpenters, cooks, glovers, ironmongers, leathersellers and upholsterers.

Among the other public buildings destroyed were the Exchange, the Custom House, three of the city gates, Newgate gaol (the inmates were evacuated to Southwark before the flames reached them), the Sessions house and four stone bridges over London’s brooks and rivers. To this loss must be added the thousand of pounds’ worth of goods destroyed in the wharves and warehouses. The earliest estimate of the financial cost of the fire was a little short of eight million pounds. Most devastating for the populace at large was the massive loss of the wooden houses, the homes that constituted most of the fabric of the city. More than 12,000 individual dwellings were razed, with the result that the urban landscape was strangely denuded. For the first time since the Romans it was possible to stand on Cheapside and see the River Thames.

. . .

Old London had been swept away. The tangled, organic hotchpotch of sunless alleyways and benighted garrets in defunct monasteries, the teetering Tudor houses like inverted ziggurats, the Norman stoneworks and the Saxon churches on Roman foundations – all this was no more. London was a blank sheet, and here was an unexpected chance to build a new city on the scorched medieval foundations – a metropolis that would be well-ordered, complex and designed to function as the capital of a great nation. Providentially, this chance came at the dawn of the New Science, at the very moment when the world at large was turning away from the dark and twisted alleyways of the medieval world-view, and beginning to explore the well-ordered cosmos, the designed-to-function natural world, the wonderfully complex human body.

So the modern scientific outlook happened to come into being at the same time as the modern city of London. Both were expressions of the new enlightened way of looking at the world, and both were forged by a handful of creative, inquisitive individuals.

The eyewitness descriptions are fascinating in their intimate portrayal of a world long since gone.  The trappings of modern civilization may be very different from those of 1666, but the human beings living among them are still much the same as their distant ancestors – just not as literate, in the main, or able to describe so well the catastrophic destruction of all they held dear.



  1. A good reminder of how quickly things can go straight to hell.

    I'm not sure that your last paragraph is true, though. Based on the same notion as the old joke about how the reason we remember the pop culture of older times so fondly is because we recall so little of it, the surviving diaries and fragments that we have from that era are the cream of the crop, because that was what people thought was worth preserving. I have little doubt that, on average, people were about as articulate in the late 1600s as they are today.

    1. You're probably right, more or less, but even so, there are differences.
      For one, though the people in the late 1600s may have been equally inarticulate and moronic, in general, they were also almost universally religious, especially Christian, whether Protestant or Catholic.
      Additionally, they didn't have the opportunity to voice their ignorance and stupidity the way later generations could, and can. They were heard when they got violent, generally speaking.
      Today, anyone and everyone can be heard, and the voices are so numerous that it's impossible to read or hear them all. But one would struggle to find many of those voices which would be worth preserving for over 300 years, if you ask me.
      So yes, MPAI applied in the 1600s, too. But you heard from fewer of them, and they had rather less capacity to influence society as a body.

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