Great explosions rang out in London’s Lower Thames Street: the sound of houses, shops, warehouses and taverns being blown up, a method intended to halt the spread of the seemingly unstoppable flames. It was September 2, 1666. The Great Fire was sweeping through London in the worst conflagration the city had seen.
Eventually, it would destroy more than 13,000 buildings and leave 80,000-100,000 people homeless – a sixth of London’s population. Officially, it was responsible for the deaths of six people, though many more likely went unrecorded. The disaster drastically altered the appearance of London, wiping out a large portion of the old town. But it also allowed new buildings to rise from the ashes, including St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Lower Thames Street blasts reduced timber-framed buildings to mounds of rubble which in the following months and years were used to raise and level the ground. New buildings rose up from the ruins, but relics of the fire were preserved.
Time passed and in 1974, during an excavation of Lower Thames Street, archaeologists uncovered a charred and blackened cellar and, within, a scorched leather fire bucket. The bucket stands as a vestige of a colossal and desperate few days in London, when men, women and children clambered over one another; when lifetimes’ worth of possessions were marched along choking roads, and when much of the old London was lost in a bedlam of smoke. As Pepys observed on September 5, 1666 in his famous diaries, the city was “all in dust”.
The leather bucket, which is one of many exhibits on show at the Museum of London’s current exhibition Fire! Fire!, is marked with the initials “SBB”. The museum believes this indicates that the bucket belonged to the parish church of Saint Botolph Billingsgate, which recorded 36 buckets kept to counter the “danger” of fire. It may well have been dropped or abandoned as the flames came ever closer on one of those windswept hot nights of September 1666, before being sealed away in the cellar for over 300 years.
The aptly named “fire layer” can be found in many areas of what was old London. In 1979, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a shop which once stood on Pudding Lane, where the fire is believed to have originated, in a bakery owned by one Thomas Farriner. Its cause is unknown, though the cramped and stacked wooden buildings, along with reduced water reserves following a long summer, would have meant that a spark from the baker’s oven or hearths was all that was needed.
Fires happened fairly regularly in 17th century London and so there were regimented responses set in place. On the fateful night in 1666, bands of fire-fighting men would have appeared in Pudding Lane fairly quickly, armed with the parish leather buckets, ladders and fire hooks – long poles which were used to pull down timber and thatch, so as to slow the spread of the fire. The firefighters may have even been equipped with early fire extinguishers or “fire squirts” – metal syringe-like objects which could hold up to 4.5 litres.
Despite these efforts, the whole of Pudding Lane was soon ablaze. Londoners had long feared that a particularly large fire would destroy the city, given the fabric and cramped nature of the buildings. On this occasion, a strong, dry wind meant that the long anticipated fire finally arrived and took hold.
Out of control
Objects from the excavated shop suggest that temperatures reached up to 1,250°C even before the fire had advanced beyond Pudding Lane. Along with burnt and warped pottery, bricks, tiles and window glass, there are nine odd clumps of iron on show at the Museum of London. These clumps once formed hundreds of separate hooks and eyes. These objects reach back in time to Pepys’s first hand experience of the blaze – he noted the spectacle of molten glass when he walked through the charred remains of Cheapside and Newgate Market “and took up (which I keep by me) a piece of glass of Mercers’ Chappell in the street, where much more was, so melted and buckled with the heat of the fire like parchment”.
Pepys also described the chaos of the scene when he went down to London Bridge on the night of September 2. Despite the efforts of firefighters, he noted that he had “seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it”. He watched as sick people were jostled along in their beds and all manner of “extraordinary goods” were hurried through the crowds “in carts and on backs”. In the clamour of this exodus, one would have felt the crunching and stamping of objects under foot; heard and seen glass and windows exploding, melting and contorting, while beads of metal ran down wooden timbers, inadvertently petrifying the fire’s effects on the objects and in the ground.
People refused to leave their homes and possessions until the last moment; as Pepys noted, until “the very fire touched them”. At this point, they scrambled down to the waterfront to escape the choking smoke. In the midst of this chaos, Pepys solemnly noted how even the “poor pigeons” were reluctant to leave their homes “but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down”, succumbing to the crush and commotion on the streets below. This was an exodus not just of people and things, but of animals and livestock. Pepys noted one unfortunate cat, which emerged scorched and hairless but alive, from a hole in a chimney of the Exchange on the second day of the fire.
The trodden, squashed and flattened fire layer allows us to see into a contorted world, when London became a vision of hell on earth. As people and animals fled from the searing heat, they would have turned their heads and seen the great fire; unstoppable and destructive, melting and mowing as it went.