February 24, 2018

"A Malicious Bloody Flame"

On this day in 1666, the Great Fire of London began, enkindled by the King's baker when he failed to damp his oven properly. While only sixteen people died, eighty per cent of the City was razed over four days, leaving 436 acres leveled and 100,000 homeless. The Diary of Samuel Pepys is by no means our only eye-witness record, but it describes the event in compelling human detail, from the first horrified sighting of "an infinite great fire" on the 2nd to a walkabout on the 5th "with our feet ready to burn."

Pepys is first roused at 3 a.m. by one of his maids, but having judged the fire to be "far enough off," and having come home "mighty merry" earlier in the night, he goes back to bed. The next day brings his first view of the damage and desperation:
    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 loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
By that evening the fire is "a most horrid malicious bloody flame" in "an arch of above a mile long." The "shower of Firedrops" burned any face turned to the wind; "the churches, houses, all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruine"; and still "the streets full of nothing but people and horses and carts loaden with goods, ready to run over one another ... and here and there sick people carried away in beds." Rumor too swirled -- "that there is plot in it and that the French had done it," some 50,000 poised to attack.

Pepys regrets on the first day that those churches which still stood were being filled with goods "by people who themselves should have been quietly there at this time." By the second day he is removing his own "bags of gold and plate...riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart"; by the third day he reports digging a pit in his garden for "my Parmagan cheese, as well as my wine." In the end, the fire came to his street but not as far as his house.

Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble