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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

the Big Fire of London in the year 1666

With intense following of CL T20, one cannot be faltered for confusing Thomas Vincent, Simon Snorkel with the likes of David Jacobs, Juan Rusty Theron, Aaron Finch, Clint Mckay, Matthew Wade.

The recorded version of Thomas Vincent reads :

“ And if Monday night was dreadful, Tuesday night was more dreadful, when far the greatest part of the city was consumed: many thousands who on Saturday had houses convenient in the city, both for themselves, and to entertain others, now have not where to lay their head; and the fields are the only receptacle which they can find for themselves and their goods”   -

-----------   Those were  the words about the Great Fire of London which occurred way back on 2nd Sept 1666.  Disaster struck at a time when Plague was already devastating population.  The fire was  reported to have originated in the baker, Thomas Faynor’s shop.  Though it was claimed to have been put off, three hours later at 1 am, the house was an inferno.  The bakery was located in Pudding Lane.  The fire spread quickly down the lane, carried on down Fish Hill and went towards Thames hitting badly warehouses and London Bridge on its trail.  The strong winds from the East helped it spreading tentacles rapidly.  A long dry summer had brought drought to the city, water was scarce and the wooden houses had dired out making them easy to burn.

Those years, there was no organised Fire Brigade and fire fighting was at its primitive stage.  People used leather buckets, axes, water squirts and whatever they had.  Houses were ordered to be pulled down to stop the spread.  The Navy used gun powder to blow up houses and create space to stop the fire spread.  The fire could be contained only by the next morning by which time it had destroyed great part of London and could not spread to the south of the river.

                                                    horse drawn carriage of 1895 for fire fighting
Consequently, London had almost to be reconstructed totally – initially temporary buildings, makeshift, ill equipped which abetted spread of disease.  In the harsh winter that followed, many diedThe fire threatened but did not reach the aristocratic district of Westminster, Palace of white hall.  In its wake 13200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral amongst others were destroyed.  .  The cost of destruction was put at   £10m, at a time when London’s annual income was only £12,000.   The Duke of York  took control of efforts to stop the fire,  summoned militias to help the fight and stop looting.  The streets were jammed with carts of fleeing Londoners.

Many people were financially ruined and debtors' prisons became over crowded.  A small benefit was that the black plague was eliminated by the burning down of diseased, rat-infested properties.  The new city was planned by Christopher Wren and rebuilt using stone over the following 30 years.

The London city of yore  was medieval in its street plan, an overcrowded warren of narrow, winding, cobbled alleys.  Some so called metropolis of date remain similar still.  London had experienced some major fires earlier.  Building with wood and roofing with thatch had been prohibited for centuries still cheap materials were used. The wealthier ones had stone masonary – the foundries, smithies etc., posed fire hazards. The poor areas were over crowded and human mingled with heat, sparks and pollution.  The river Thames was a solace as it offered water for fire fighting and chance of escape by boat.  Along the wharves there were rickety wooden tenements and the poor settlements along  riverfront had stores and cellars of combustibles.

There was a recent BBC report which suggested it could have been something other than an accident & could  have been a pernicious Papist plot !  The recovery held more problems of social and economic perspective.  Evacuation from London and  resettlement elsewhere were strongly encouraged.  London was largely Protestant at the time, and feared that the fire was the work of Catholic spies!

Once the fire was beaten, the attention turned to the question of blame.  Hysteria raged and frightened fingers fell on foreigners.    Charles travelled to Moorfields to address those rendered homeless and to declare that fire had not been started by foreign powers or subversives but was an “Act of God”.  By the end of the month, a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to investigate the fire.  A French Protestant watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed to having deliberately started the fire at the bakery with 23 conspirators. His colleagues claimed he was unbalanced and the details of his confession changed as flaws were continually unearthed.  He was hanged at Tyburn.

According to the BBC report  The Parliamentary committee reported in January 1667 that 'nothing hath yet been found to argue it to have been other than the hand of God upon us, a great wind, and the season so very dry'. Yet with Farynor declaring - as expected - that his ovens had been completely extinguished on the night in question, the committee was as widely believed as the Warren Report, and the cause of the fire became the grassy knoll of late seventeenth century conspiracy theorists. In 1678, during the Popish Plot, Titus Oates declared that Jesuit priests were to set fire to the city, prompting a Commons resolution declaring that 'the City of London was burnt in the year 1666 by the Papists... to introduce arbitrary power and Popery into this Kingdom'. In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth, rebelling against the new King, the Catholic James II, accused him of deliberately starting the fire. It was not until 1831 that the inscription on the fire's  commemorative Monument, blaming 'the treachery and malice of the Popish faction', was removed. An inferno caused by a forgetful baker, fuelled by a strong wind and indecisive leadership, was blamed on Catholics for over 150 years.

Perhaps the fire in its wake caused people to think of protection of their property more and the need for Insurance was felt more, helping the cause of Lloyds and other Insurers.

With regards – S Sampathkumar
PS  :  Thomas Vincent  was an English Minister who authored about the Great Fire.  Simon snorkel is a modern fire fighting vehicle of GB Fire


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