Homeless and hungry, exhausted and terrified, possessions gone, families separated, violent mobs in the street, the people of London are still in the first 24 hours of the Great Fire raging through their city. Heat burns their faces. Thick smoke makes breathing difficult. Homes are now only a red hot bonfire of roofs, rafters, walls and furniture. Even the pavement on which people walk gives off an intense heat. They’ve heard preachers talk of an end-times lake of fire, and their city is now very like that.
It is Sunday, September 2nd, 1666. At 1.00 am a spark sputtered out from a not-fully-extinguished oven in Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse. Quickly fire spread up the walls to the living quarters on upper storeys. Farriner and his family escaped, but the fire spread to adjacent houses and businesses. A strong east to west wind fanned the flames. The primitive tools used for firefighting were hopelessly inadequate. By midday many streets in the old city were alight.
This is part two of the story of the Great Fire of London. If you haven’t read the beginnings of the fire, you can find my account here: https://occasionallywise.com/2023/01/28/great-fire-of-london-1/. The blaze lasted from early Sunday to late Wednesday (with small outbreaks even later), so is usually described as burning for four days. But even before day one ended it ranked as ‘already the most damaging fire to strike London in living memory’.
In this part of the story – covering the later part of Sunday and most of Monday – we’ll see these things:
- The fire’s intensity becomes so strong, it even changes the weather over London
- Desperate people flee their homes with whatever they can carry or cart away
- When civic leadership fails, the King and his brother organise firefighting
- Vigilantes roam the streets attacking anyone they think responsible for the fire.
The fire intensifies
In 1666 the oldest part of London lies north of the River Thames, surrounded by a two mile long wall built by an invading Roman army between 190 and 225 AD. Only the south has no wall. It never needed one because that approach to the city was protected by the river.
The ‘footprint’ inside the wall is not large – even today it’s referred to as the ‘Square Mile’. But tens of thousands are crammed into that tight space. Recent weather has been dry and warm, making thatch on roofs and wooden walls perfect fuel for the fire. Once alight it spreads quickly because neighbouring properties virtually touch each other, even across the street. Early attempts to create firebreaks fail.
During the first night the fire which started in one bakery and home in Pudding Lane is engulfing hundreds of homes. The strong wind fans the flames. Some householders run to the Thames for water, but their buckets carry very little and the water has no effect on so great a fire.
Those in homes still unaffected are too frightened to sleep. All they can do is hope that this fire, like others before, will burn itself out before it reaches them. But this fire won’t burn out and can’t be halted. The wind from the east is no mere breeze – some call it a gale – and it fans the flames and scatters embers. Then someone in the street screams: ‘The fire is here! Run!’ People seize whatever they can carry, including their children, and, braving the wall of heat moving towards them, make their escape.
Many head for the nearby Thames. If they can, they climb onto boats. If no boat is available, they throw their furniture and possessions into the water. Brave (or foolish) souls plunge in too hoping to drag their goods downstream and bring them ashore somewhere safe. Others clamber down steps to the water’s edge. If the flames come close, they move sideways to other steps to get as far from the fire as they can.
In the streets people press against each other. Those escaping push one way; those still trying to fight the fire push the other way. There is screaming, crying, shouting, praying. Driven by the wind, the fire moves steadily west. It’s not just homes that burst into flame, but halls and churches too. Pepys, who kept a diary record of the Great Fire, writes of ‘a most horrid malicious bloody flame’ reaching more than a mile across the city. He adds: ‘It made me weep to see it’.
Pepys’ ‘malicious flame’ has become a firestorm which affects the weather. To understand, picture an ordinary household fire. It sucks in air, which accelerates burning, then pushes hot air up its chimney. The Great Fire did the same but on a massive scale. Needing oxygen, the fire sucked in air at near gale force through the narrow spaces between overhanging buildings. The flames got their fuel, and hot, fiery air was pushed upwards to a great height. At ground level and above, the heat is so intense no-one can get near. Breathing becomes impossible, and the force of the wind irresistible. Fire is consuming the city from ground level to high in the air. And no-one can stop it.
The fire moves outward to the west, north and south. The Church of St Magnus the Martyr is destroyed. Eventually 83 more churches will burn. Barrels of tar in a supply store explode, and flaming debris is scattered, lighting more fires. Near the Thames guildhalls and warehouses fall prey to the flames. So do homes built on London Bridge, though the fire on the bridge is halted because there’s a gap between buildings. A 1633 fire destroyed tenements on the bridge, and they have never been replaced.
Residents become refugees
There is no darkness over London as Sunday moves into Monday. The fire never sleeps. Nor do many Londoners. Hundreds of homes are gone, and their occupants search for somewhere to be safe. Where people live some distance from the fire, the few who sleep restlessly in their beds don’t realise the severity of this blaze, hoping it will yet be extinguished. Their optimism or naivety will not last long.
On Monday the winds become stronger and the fire worse. Many now realise they can’t fight a fire so intense and spreading so fast. To survive, they must flee.
But the affluent will not run until they’ve done everything they can to protect their wealth. Bankers cart away stacks of gold coins before they melt. Other wealthy citizens bury or hide valuables they can’t carry. Samuel Pepys records that he buried his expensive cheeses and wine. What he could not bury he hauled off. Referring to the second night of the fire, Pepys writes: ‘About four o’clock in the morning, my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things… Which I did riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart.’ We might smile about an important dignitary escaping in his night attire, but Pepys’ flight says much about the haste and terror of that night.
During Monday despair grips almost everyone. They watch as the Royal Exchange (a stock exchange and shopping centre) is engulfed, along with ‘upmarket’ shops in Cheapside. John Evelyn – a courtier and diarist – describes the mood of the crowds:
‘The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that … I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it, so that there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures… such a strange consternation there was upon them.’
But now people realise they are trapped inside the city’s ancient walls while an inferno moves steadily towards them. There are gates in those walls, eight of them. The names of some are still recognised today, such as Ludgate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate. But the gates are narrow. In Roman times, entrances were deliberately small so invading hordes could not rush in and overwhelm the city. Now, some 1400 years later, those narrow gates prevent evacuees rushing out of the city. Even worse, while many are desperate to exit, others are entering. People who had left earlier are returning with their carts to move away even more of their possessions. Some make those journeys four or five times. Inside the walls, with the fire near, and getting nearer, there is desperation, anger, and panic. Carts, wagons, horses and people jostle together.
Those already outside the walls are relatively safe, at least for now. But there’s no rescue organisation, nothing and no-one to tell people where to go, what to do, or to provide food and shelter. The Thames is covered with barges and boats, most piled high with goods. To the north and east, the fields are strewn with people and their possessions. They huddle under improvised tents. ‘Oh, the miserable and calamitous spectacle!’ Evelyn writes.
Royal leaders take charge
The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, has given up. Realising he should have acted sooner, and having no idea during Monday how to stop the immense blaze, he has literally walked away, not to be seen again while the Great Fire rages.
Bloodworth had refused any orders or assistance from King Charles II. But now Bloodworth is gone, and from his royal barge the King surveys the fire from the River Thames. He is shocked by the extent of the fire and outraged to see that houses are still not being demolished to create firebreaks. London is not ruled by the monarch, but Charles acts anyway. Powered by the wind, the fire is spreading west fast, and he orders his own troops to tear down large numbers of homes on that side of the fire.
But the sad reality is that demolition can no longer stop the fire. Lifted high in the air, embers are carried over any gap, and they light the thatch and then the houses across the firebreak.
However, the King’s intervention is the beginning of organised attempts to confront the blaze. Assuming overall control, Charles gives his brother James, the Duke of York, authority for all firefighting operations. James is already known to the people for his courage in battle against the Dutch. He’s bold, and perhaps impulsive. Certainly no enemy frightens him. That includes this Great Fire. He immediately sets up command posts around the fire’s perimeter. James uses the palace’s courtiers, people who are companions and advisers to the King. Three are in charge of each command post. Teams of firefighters are organised, supported by 30 soldiers stationed at each post. Significantly, the courtiers have the King’s authority to do anything necessary to stop the fire. There will be no hesitation now about pulling down houses. Whatever has to be done will be done.
During that Monday, and on subsequent days, both Charles II and the Duke of York actively survey the fire and direct operations. The palace is outside the city walls, but they are seen near where the fire rages. A report in the following week’s London Gazette notes their ‘indefatigable and personal pains to apply all possible remedies to prevent (the fire’s spread), calling upon and helping the people with their Guards’. The newspaper may have intentionally flattered the royals, but it’s true that their presence among and support of the people is noticed and appreciated.
Yet, despite the organisation and everything the courtiers do, the fire spreads. Every time they tear down houses, the fire leaps across the gap, rushing west to consume ever more homes. People living 30 miles away can now see light from the Great Fire. More and more citizens flee, either to the Thames or by forcing their way through increasing chaos at the city gates to camp in the fields beyond.
And now another deadly danger is spreading in the city.
Rumours spread that the fire is no accident. The baker, Thomas Farriner, insists nothing was alight in his ovens when he went to bed. He didn’t cause the fire. Others point out that new fires are breaking out at some distance from the main blaze. And, despite the noise of the fire, people hear loud explosions. Houses and warehouses are blowing up, surely caused by incendiary bombs. And there’s a common view that no accident has ever caused, nor could cause, a fire so great as this. London must be under attack.
There is little doubt in most minds that either the Dutch Republic or France is to blame. Perhaps both are. There have been outbreaks of fighting with these nations just across the sea from England. Just two weeks earlier, English sailors pursued the Dutch merchant fleet to the port of West-Terschelling, destroying 150 vessels, burning the city to the ground, and killing many of its people. It seems very possible that Dutch agents are now taking revenge by planting fire bombs in London.
Relations are also bad with France, fed by a strong anti-Catholic bias. In the popular mind, no Catholic is to be trusted. Londoners are very aware of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Guy Fawkes was one of 13 Catholic conspirators who filled a basement of Parliament with gunpowder, intending to blow up the King and the House of Lords. Thus, in the minds of panicking Londoners in 1666, to be foreign or Catholic makes you a suspect.
The facts, of course, are these: Flames spreading far and wide are caused by a strong wind scattering sparks hundreds of yards. There is no surprise that homes remote from the main fire were set alight. And the explosions? There is no mystery about them either. Many homes and warehouses stored gunpowder. When fire reached them they blew up.
But those explanations are not enough for violent mobs in London’s streets. Fire has destroyed their homes. They must find the culprits who set them alight, and stop them starting even more fires. The mood – the blind passion – is revenge.
In a large cosmopolitan city, the mobs are not short of suspects to attack. A Dutch baker is dragged from his business before a gang tear his premises apart. A Frenchman walking down the street is struck violently with an iron bar. A French woman is carrying chicks in her apron but a crowd thinks she’s holding incendiary bombs and cut off her breasts. Another Frenchman is almost dismembered because he’s seen carrying a box of fireballs, but in fact his ‘bombs’ are only tennis balls.
James, the Duke of York, has had to leave fire-fighting to counter acts of violence against innocent people. Accompanied by cavalry, he rides his horse around the streets. He’s blackened with soot, but constantly alert. In a small alley he sees men crowding in a shop doorway. Perhaps they’re stealing. James springs into action. The space is too narrow for a full-on mounted charge, so James leaps from his horse, draws his sword and runs straight for the mob. The men look up, recognise the Duke of York with sword drawn and his guards behind him, and immediately run in the other direction. James stops beside a bundle of clothing the men have dropped. Then the bundle moves, and James realises someone is wrapped inside. He kneels, and uncovers a man badly wounded and terrified. With difficulty the victim speaks. He’s French. And around his neck is a noose. Its other end is already hanging from a sign above the shop doorway. Had James arrived even a minute later, the Frenchman would have been dead.
The mob have decided that foreign agents have started and are now spreading the fire. Their suspicion is that setting London alight is the ‘softening up’ preliminary to a full-blown invasion. There is nothing to counter the rumours, no broadcast media, no social media, not even a newspaper since the office of The London Gazette has burned down. The mood to stop terrorists and wreak vengeance for what is happening has gripped many Londoners. ‘The need to blame somebody was very, very strong,’ says one writer.
The worst atrocity never happened during the Great Fire. It came later, as we shall see in another episode.
Late on Monday the fire threatens Baynard’s Castle. It is a mediaeval palace, situated on the Thames riverbank. It was first built in the 11th century, and rebuilt and greatly enlarged by King Henry VII in 1501. It has several towers, and massive thick stone walls. Such a building is indestructible. But it’s not, not when the Great Fire reaches it. The castle catches fire on Monday night, and the blaze rages through every part of the building until daybreak. It is utterly ruined. If this can happen to one of London’s strongest structures, nothing is safe.
So, as we pause the story here, what can we learn from these events? There is only one lesson I want to highlight at this point.
The greatest failure of leadership is no leadership
Some years ago I studied management. One strongly worded statement I read is this: that often the worst decision a leader can make is to make no decision at all. Lord Mayor Bloodworth was woefully guilty of that. When the fire was small, and the firefighters needed strategy and resources, he abandoned them and went back to his bed. Later, when it was evident the fire was out of control, he disappeared from public view. He deserted. At the most crucial time he left the city with no leadership.
Until, that is, the King appointed his brother James to head up operations. James provided leadership, and did so with vigour and with organisation. If his efforts were not enough, that was only because nothing he and his teams could do would ever have been enough. But at least the people knew they weren’t abandoned and all that could be done was being done.
Now Londoners are realising that this Great Fire cannot be extinguished. As we shall see in the next episode, tragically the worst is yet to come.
My major online resources for this series on the Great Fire are listed at the foot of the first episode. See https://occasionallywise.com/2023/01/28/great-fire-of-london-1/
 Field, J. (2017) London, Londoners and the Great Fire of 1666: Disaster and Recovery. London, Routledge.
 Guy Fawkes was English and Catholic, born in York. When the plot against the King failed, he was arrested and sentenced to death by being hung, drawn and quartered. However, some think he jumped when hanged, causing the noose to break his neck, so avoiding the torture that would have followed a partial hanging. Marking the failure of the Gunpowder Plot with a bonfire and fireworks dates from the 1650s with an effigy laid on the fire from the 1670s. For many years the effigy was usually of the Pope. In modern times the effigy has been of Guy Fawkes. In the UK, large bonfires are lit and fireworks launched every 5th November, marking the date in 1605 when the conspirators intended to blow up Parliament.
 These details from the Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/great-fire-london-was-blamed-religious-terrorism-180960332/
 Another version of this account suggests the man was Swedish. Whether French or Swedish, the account illustrates the violence wreaked on all foreigners.
 Adrian Tinniswood in By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire.
 Baynard’s Castle was never fully rebuilt, and over the centuries the site was used for various purposes. In the 1970s a concrete office block named Baynard House was built there and occupied by the telecom company BT.