350 years ago today, 2nd September, a spark in a bakery changed the face of London in a way far more dramatic than either than either the Luftwaffe or the post war planners.
The Great Fire of London occurred at a time of huge turmoil in England. A plague had taken hold, killing thousands in the last plague to hit England at the end of 400 years of recurrent pandemics. We had recently had our King beheaded and a Lord Protector in charge, following a civil war. The monarchy, recently restored to the throne really didn’t need the destruction of the capital to content with.
And yet, in many ways the fire did London a service. It allowed for a comprehensive restructuring of how London functioned. It stimulated the Glorious Revolution of the late 17th century and the gradual acquisition of greater freedoms and control for the craftsmen and guild members who gained a semblance of autonomy on the newly constructed London. And for us, today, it gave us many fabulous churches whose beauty we can still enjoy whatever our faith or lack of it.
So this weekend, Sunday 4th, a model of London before the fire, which has recently been built will be set fire and floated down the Thames.
Here’s a time lapse video if it being built. The large Cathedral with the tower in the centre is the Old St Paul’s Cathedral which Shakespeare knew.
It’s a sort of celebration – apparently only a handful perished – as well as a reminder that, in large and small ways we can all be phoenixes. If it does that it will serve a useful purpose.
And here’s a story I wrote as part of my nano marathon last year, imagining what things might have been like in 1667, the year after the fire.
1667 – A Difficult Year for Builders
Thomas Hobson looked at Mrs Preston’s house, or what was left of it. The Great Fire had left little standing in this part of town. A scorched table was the only item recognizable.
‘I really don’t know when we can start, madam. Could well be Christmas before we have the time. And timbers are in short supply. We may need the Frenchie’s help, not that my old dad will be happy with that.’
‘Oh, sir, but what will I do? I’ve been staying in my cousin’s parlour, but it’s not a solution.’
Thomas said, ‘I have an appointment with Mr Wren, the great builder, today and I hope to hear exactly what he plans. I will talk to you again when I know more.’
‘But what about my house, sir?’
‘I suggest you remain on good terms with your cousin, madam.’
Thomas decided to walk; his horse had taken a fearful pounding the last few days and the roads were as bad as they had ever been. Carts had churned up the mud worse than usual and the rains hadn’t helped. He climbed through the stalls of the poultry and vegetable markets, deciding that taking Cheapside would be the quickest way to his meeting, despite the awful smell. He marvelled how quickly the vendors had returned after the fire. They might have lost everything, but nothing stopped a good salesman.
The walk was a slow torture. The stalls, the carts and the people all slowed him as he headed towards the remains of the grand old Cathedral of Saint Paul’s, surely the saddest sight in London.
As Thomas had to admit to himself, the place had been pretty decrepit before the fire. But Mr Wren had just accepted the commission to restore the old place and give it the future it deserved. With luck Thomas may have a role to play, assuming Mr Wren could be persuaded of his skills.
A group of men stood talking, one gesticulating with animation while the others listened. The speaker was Mr Wren, who turned as Thomas approached and began to scratch something on the wall to his right. Wren wasn’t a big man – to Thomas he looked sickly – he’d probably had a tough childhood – and with the stresses of the last year, he was beginning to look as careworn as the old cathedral had been. But you couldn’t deny the man his energies.
‘Hobson! Just the man. This cretin,’ he waved at a sallow figure to his left, ‘doesn’t believe we can do justice to the dear old town if we don’t rebuild Paul’s as an exact replica. He doesn’t see the benefit of something more compact. Do you, Evelyn?’
The smile told Hobson the two men were joking though John Evelyn joined in the joke a little late.
‘Do you plan for it to have a dome, sir?’ asked Thomas cautiously.
‘You have heard that, have you? This philistine wants twin towers and I still have to persuade every man and his donkey, but I remain resolved to complete what I started. Have you seen Pembroke, Thomas?’
‘No, sir. I hear it is quite something.’
‘Beyond doubt my dome will surpass it for glory, if I am allowed. So will you work for me?’
‘Sir. I would be delighted.’ He blushed.
Wren put an arm round Thomas’ shoulders. ‘This man will be a wonder, gentlemen.’
Thomas looked at the group; he recognised a couple by sight. One nodded, but the rest merely stared.
Evelyn eyed him warily. ‘So what would you do first, Hobson, to improve this place?’
‘The drains, sir. I would sort out the drains.’
‘Drains? Wren thinks the roads are the priority.’
‘Yes, sir. Of course. But, I have an idea about sewers, sir. Covered sewers.’
‘You see, sir. Look at Cheapside. The sewage creates a foul miasma. But what if the sewage went below the street, using stones to cover it? I’ve heard tell the Romans had this idea.’
‘Romans? Good heavens, surely we have moved beyond the Romans?’
‘When the storms come the sewage is washed away, sir. The roads are so disgusting these days. The smells and the injuries to the horses.’
Wren wrapped an arm around Thomas’ shoulders. ‘Come, dear fellow, later. We’ll need all the stone for more important things than covered roads, won’t we? All in good time.’
Thomas shrugged. He knew Wren was right. Time enough for those ideas when the rebuilding was complete.
Wren let go and hurried away. Evelyn watched him with a sneer. ‘That man is a wretch, Thomas. He needs a wife to calm him down. Soak up some of that energy.’
‘Should I follow?’
‘Stay and tell me why Wren thinks you are a wonder. He will be back anon.’
When Wren reappeared he looked troubled. Thomas stood aside as Wren spoke in low tones to Evelyn. ‘God’s eyes, John!’ Wren looked a little sheepish. ‘Enemies! Vagabonds all!’ He straightened up. ‘I have just heard from that man,’ his voice rose in indignation as he indicated a cheery faced fellow, laughing with another group, ‘that I am callous. Indifferent to this place. Do they not understand that tears are a luxury we can ill afford if we are to ensure London remains the greatest city on Earth?’
‘Of course they do. They are merely jealous.’
‘They have the King’s ear, do they not?’ He glanced at Thomas. ‘Be careful who you offend, Thomas. Be very careful.’ He waved a hand at the labourers, toiling to remove the rubble of the destroyed church. His mood visibly improved as he spoke. ‘I have an idea to make this place the greatest of its type in Europe. All I have to do is persuade,’ he began counting on his fingers, ‘the Court of the Common Council, the Bishop, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, even His Majesty. Then there are the seventy parishes that have been destroyed and still I have all these committees looking over me.’ Wren stopped and glared to the right. ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ He disappeared fast across the rough ground, heading for a group of men pulling at a large piece of masonry. Thomas began to follow, but Wren called over his shoulder. ‘Stay there, I won’t be long.’
Thomas hesitated, not sure what to do. Evelyn sighed loudly. ‘He has more problems than he realizes.’
‘Yes, sir.’ After a pause, Thomas added, ‘Like what exactly, sir?’
‘Roads and conspiracies, Hobson. Roads and conspiracies.’ Evelyn moved away, crab-like from some old injury. Thomas was not sure, but he had the impression Evelyn was laughing. Evelyn waited for Thomas to catch up. ‘Let me introduce you to some of the denizens of Paul’s Walk. They still come even if the Walk is long gone.’ Evelyn eyed Thomas beadily. ‘And what is your opinion of the Walk? Should Mr Wren restore it?’
‘No, sir. I believe there is God’s Will at work, scattering the newsmongers, the gossips and slanderers, sir. I don’t hold with all the tittle-tattle, sir.’
They reached the group Mr Wren had pointed out earlier. Evelyn gave a small bow to the cheery faced man. ‘Pepys, this young acolyte of Wren’s thinks you are a wretch.’
The man, Pepys, eyed Thomas with good humour. ‘Indeed, sirrah? That is probably true. And do you hold such a view with good reason or merely for the size of my buttons?’
Evelyn began to walk off but not before adding, ‘I suspect Mr Hobson is a moral fellow, Pepys, so go easy. And explain, if you can why the good Mr Wren is his own worst enemy, will you?’
Pepys waited for Evelyn to disappear. ‘So, Mr Hobson, you believe we opinion formers are scoundrels, do you? You do not see us as part of the success of London society?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘And what have you heard? Come, don’t be shy. I will not bite.’
‘It is said that those attending the Walk are generally after salacious rumour not fact, unless the facts are juicy enough; and if they aren’t, well, then they will embellish them until they are.’
Pepys laughed. ‘Admirable honesty, Mr Hobson. Admirable. Ah me, without Paul’s Walk, my life is but a shell. Do you not think the daily news of city life needs to be dispensed? How do we keep our parliamentarians honest?’
Thomas shifted nervously, glancing about. It was only a few short years since Charles had been restored to the Throne following the death of Cromwell and the political crisis that followed.
Pepys roared with laughter. ‘I am sorry, Mr Hobson, I assumed such honesty would only be found in a Royalist.’ He bowed. ‘Forgive an old scribe. I merely record man’s tribulations. And I fear I am a veritable old gossip.’ He began to turn back to the group who were waiting for him.
Thomas said quickly, ‘Sir, Mr Evelyn said you would explain. About Mr Wren.’
‘Yes? And what would you have me explain?’
‘Mr Wren said he was victim of enemies and Mr Evelyn said he was burdened by roads and conspiracies. Would you know what they meant, sir?’
‘It matters to you?’
‘Mr Wren wishes me to work for him and it would be as well to understand what matters to him.’
‘Is this not gossip, sir?’
‘I… If you think…’
Pepys stilled Thomas’ burbling with the wave of a hand. ‘I can tell you about roads. The authorities need the rebuilding of the City to be accelerated and to do that Wren believes we need to take advantage of the current destruction to create wider roads, to make access better. You know how congested the lanes become? Mr Wren has put forward a radical plan which, of course, is loved by those who would benefit and loathed by those who would not.
‘However, it does not do to be too close to a plan until it has Royal approval and, until the King has shown how he is inclined to think, Mr Wren will be the victim of ill-informed chatter that may weaken him. And His Majesty is unlikely to want to spend much time on roads; they do not feature as one of His Majesty’s delights, after all. I expect Mr Wren will have his way, but he may find that such victory is Pyrrhic the longer His Majesty’s approval takes to obtain.’
‘And conspiracies, sir?’
‘You haven’t worked that out? Who is the busiest man in London?’
‘Mr Wren, sir, for sure.’
‘So, Mr Wren is unpopular for his roads. He has the ear of the mighty. He will become a man of substance. He has the most to gain then by the fire.’
‘So do you think something as huge as this fire was an accident? Others certainly wonder.’ With that Pepys left, leaving Thomas wondering just what he might have let himself in for.