fire of london: desolation row

On Sunday, September 2, 1666, fire burst out in a riverside area of London. The season was dry, the city wooden, and a perverse east wind kept fanning the flames. Ever curious, Samuel Pepys climbed a turret to get a better view of the sickening desolation and walked the terror-ridden streets:

Here meeting, with Captain Cocke, I in his coach, which he lent me, and Creed with me to Paul’s, and there walked along Watlingstreet, as well as I could, every creature coming away loaden with goods to save, and here and there sicke people carried away in beds. Extraordinary good goods carried in carts and on backs. At last met my Lord Mayor in Canningstreet, like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, 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.”

Fire Fighters. British Museum. source: Wiki

Ever prudent, he buried his “Parmesan cheese” in his garden and sent his wife out of town with the family gold- “about 2,350 pounds sterling” ; when the Great Fire was finally brought under control, after raging for five days, the London of medieval times had virtually disappeared.


(see link at end)…The Great Fire of 1666 did London a great service ? it enabled it to become a modern city. Incidentally, it put an end to the ineffective attempts to patch up Old St Paul’s cathedral.

That enormous, venerable Gothic hulk, 600ft long, whose spire had twice been felled by lightning, had fallen into such disrepair that it was used as a stables by Cromwell’s cavalry.

The firestorm of 1666 melted what was left of the roof. The crypt, which had been stuffed with papers by the local printers, burned for a week.

The long and painful rebirth of St Paul’s, according to Christopher Wren’s much-altered plans, is pretty well-known….

The London fire luridly illuminates the homeless huddled near

Tower. In this contemporary painting London Bridge can be seen at left and the burning Old Saint Paul’s at center. Image: Wiki

…This means the understanding of nature by means of reason, experiment and mathematics, at which Wren was a prodigy. From his student days at Wadham College, Oxford, he was experimenting in anatomy, astronomy and inventions ? including a transparent beehive.

Leo Hollis selects four intellectual men whose stories he attempts to follow simultaneously. Besides Wren, they are Wren’s friend John Evelyn, the diarist and gardener; Robert Hooke, a scientific experimenter and surveyor of the City after the Fire; and John Locke, the most influential political philosopher of his time.

…Imagine the situation after the Fire went out ? a desolate moonscape, 4ft deep in hot ash, in which you could see clear across the City from one end to another. Over 100,000 people homeless, trade at a standstill, all public buildings gone … a tragedy, but what an opportunity!

Hollis describes how quickly not only Wren but Hooke and Evelyn sat down separately to imagine a new city, then rushed their plans to the King, Charles II.

He had already proclaimed the new rules for town planning ? nothing but brick or stone, wider streets properly paved and so on.

He liked the idea of emulating the Paris that was emerging under the young Louis XIV.

What we might have got was a precursor of New York, for everyone imagined a rectangular grid system based on a broad riverside quay, with piazzas at intervals for the public buildings.

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