Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Great Fire

Will God never set an end to the troubles of this city? I had thought that in the year now past London had suffered its full measure of evil, yet now there has befallen it a yet worse thing. They that the Plague spared are now for the most part without a roof to cover them.

'Tis a week now since I came back from Henley-upon-Thames, where I had been passing a week with my uncle Richard. Being somewhat tired with my journey, I went to my chamber at nine o'clock. An hour or so after John Pearce, my fellow 'prentice, woke me saying that there was a great fire burning near to London Bridge. I donned my clothes with all haste, for I have always been ready to go any whither for the sight of a fire. God forgive me if I did it from want of heart! But this I can say of a certainty, that from this time forward such things will be no pleasure to me but a terror.

We found that there was a great conflagration, scores of houses, as it seemed to me, burning together near to the end of London Bridge. One in the crowd told me that the fire began at the King's baker in Pudding Lane. By this time it had come to Fish Street, nor did there seem any likelihood of staying it, for, by some mischance, there was no water in the conduits of the New River. Had they been full, it would not, in my judgment, have availed much, for the heat was so fierce that none could approach the burning houses. The fire was all the worse because the wind blew so strongly. Nor must it be forgotten that everything was beyond usual ready to burn, the summer having been very hot and dry. While I watched, I saw a great flake of fire carried on to the roof of St. Magnus' Church, which, as you know, is hard by the Bridge. Certain sailors, at the instance of the parson, who was greatly concerned for his church, set a ladder against the parapet, and carried up buckets of water from the Thames. But it was of no more avail than if one poured a cup of water into the melting furnace at Hawkhurst. Indeed one of the men barely escaped with his life, the ladder catching fire before he could come to the ground. For the most part there was no thought of staying the flames, which indeed was plainly impossible, but of saving such goods and chattels as could be got out of the houses. Such as dwelt in the neighbourhood of the river fared best in this respect, for they put their possessions into barges and lighters. To the rest it often happened that they had to remove their property twice or thrice, the house to which it was first taken, though at first it had seemed safe, being soon in manifest danger of the flames. There were some who, having changed their refuge, so to speak, twice or thrice or even more often, yet lost in the end all that they possessed. Every place was crowded with people lamenting, and there were pitiable sights without end to be seen. Yet I know not whether anything more moved my heart than to see the pigeons which dwell in great numbers by the riverside, especially at the wharves where they store corn, flying about their cotes, as if being loth to leave them. The poor birds would tarry even till their wings were burned, and they dropped down into the fire. 'Tis strange that in the midst of such unhappiness of men and women I should think of brute creatures, yet so it was.

About eight o'clock John Pearce and I went home—my master's house, you should know, is on the south side of the river, and so was out of danger. After breakfast, being quite spent, we slept awhile, but waking about noon, went forth again. A waterman of our acquaintance took us in his boat, and we rowed to and fro till it was dark. All this time the fire grew fiercer and fiercer. Even on the river, we keeping as close as might be to the further shore, 'twas as much as we could do to endure the heat. Drops and flakes of fire also would be blown into our faces by the wind, so that we were glad to have the water so close at hand. At nightfall 'twas a most horrible sight we saw. The flame seemed not to be as of an ordinary fire, but more than commonly terrible, with a colour as of blood. And the compass of it was marvellously great. There was an arch of fire of more than a mile long. The noise too was most horrid, a continual roaring, and now and then a loud crash, when some great house or church fell in a ruin.

That night John Pearce and I slept but two or three hours, if that which was so troubled could be called sleep, and then out again. This time our friend the waterman took us to Westminster, where we landed and went on foot along the Thames. At Temple Bar we encountered a certain alderman with whom my master often does business. Master Statham, for that is his name, was very wroth with my Lord Mayor. "The man is no better than a child," quoth he. "I myself stood by when Mr. Pepys, who is clerk to the Navy Board, came with a message from the King that he should spare no houses, but pull them down on every side, so that the fire, having nothing that it could devour, might die out. And what did he answer. 'Lord! what can I do? I am spent; people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.' And so all that he did was to go home and refresh himself." I could not wonder at the Alderman's anger, for he had himself lost a fine house and a great store of goods, but it needed a man of no common parts, a Julius Csar, or if I may name him, an Oliver Cromwell, to order things rightly, at such a time.

Fire of London


Going eastwards, after we had parted from the Alderman, we saw what seemed more terrible than anything that we had before beheld, the great church of St. Paul's in flames. The church is, or rather was—alas that I should write the word!—near upon six hundred feet in length, and more than one hundred feet in breadth, and the spire near upon five hundred feet high. The flames had not yet so mastered it but that one could see the whole form of the building, but they were breaking out of the windows and climbing, as it seemed to us, up the tower.

I saw the Duke of York riding with his guards after him. They are much needed for the keeping of order. Evil-minded men took occasion of this trouble, as is always their custom, to make profit by robbery and the like. I hear that the King also has greatly bestirred himself to help at this time, but I have not chanced to see him.

On the third day, that is Tuesday, I took boat again and went down the river as far as the Tower. It was indeed scarcely possible to make one's way by land, so great was the throng, for the country folk have crowded into the city, eager to see what may be seen, and some of them, I fear, hoping to lay hands upon goods left without watch. Being by the Tower stairs I saw a great company of workmen that had come from Deptford and Woolwich. Mr. Pepys, who is a notably clever man, had sent for them. It was his purpose to blow up houses with gunpowder, for 'tis too slow a business to pull them down, and these men are used to deal with such work. This I heard from the captain of the barge in which they came. And, sure enough, about the space of two hours after, we heard a great and terrifying noise, and saw a great cloud of dust, as it seemed, rise into the air. Those that were there judged it to be near to Seething Lane, wherein is Mr. Pepys' office, which, because there are many papers and the like of great value, they are most desirous to save. But doubtless the same will be done in other parts. But 'tis strange to see how little men think of the public good, and how much of their own.

Going the next day to the same spot, I found that the fire had been indeed stayed from spreading eastward. Barking Church stands mostly unhurt, but the flames came so near that they scorched the dial and consumed part of the porch. Climbing to the top of the steeple I saw the saddest sight of desolation that ever I beheld; everywhere great fires, all the more violent because there were many stores of brimstone, cellars of oil, and the like in those parts. Clothworkers' Hall, where there was a great store of oil, burnt, as I heard afterwards, for three whole days.

It is too early as yet, for I am writing this on the eighth day after the beginning of the fire, to reckon up the total damage. So much, however, is known, that the whole city between the Tower and the Temple has been consumed, and in this portion eighty-six churches, not reckoning St. Paul's. There is much talk about the cause of this great calamity. Some will have it that the Dutch sent over men to kindle it; others, and this is indeed the more common belief, protest that it has been the work of the Papists. For myself, I pretend neither to affirm nor to deny, except so far as to say that there is no need to look beyond the causes that we know.