No. 47: The Great Fire of London, Samuel Pepys

This week’s Little Black Classic makes me think of a little boy called Gabriel.

Last summer, my friend Katy, who chose The Tell-Tale Heart, and I volunteered as mentors for the Summer Reading Challenge, a scheme established by the Reading Agency to encourage children to utilise their local library and continue reading over the six week summer holiday.

We spent an hour a week at a library in Pimlico, listening to children talk about the books they had read over the break. They received a small reward for each book – a sticker, a keyring etc.

I took part when I was a kid, and I can remember walking through my hometown to our local library, excited to hand in my recent adventures in exchange for new ones.

On my last day as a mentor, an eight year old boy called Gabriel came into the library with his Mum. He clutched a large hardback book all about The Great Fire of London.

“He’s obsessed with it,” his Mum told me. I nodded and smiled, indulgently. “No, really. Ask him any question about the Fire of London.”

She wasn’t wrong. I quizzed him, and he knew everything there was to know about the Great Fire of London. His two greatest facts were:

  1. Only six people officially died in the fire. More obviously perished, but records were not established at the time so these deaths weren’t verified.
  2. Although it was devastating, it rid the city of a huge rat population and, along with this, purged London of the plague.

Best of all, I asked him on what date the fire started. 2nd September 1666.

I blinked. It was 2nd September 2015, exactly 349 years after the fire started. We were both very excited.

So 2016 sees the 350th anniversary!

Any Brit worth their salt knows that the fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane. There is even a nursery rhyme, ‘London’s burning,’ which we all grew up singing. The fire raged for four days and destroyed the Medieval city of London.

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Much of our understanding of the Great Fire of London is garnered from the diary of Samuel Pepys’, a Member of Parliament and prolific diarist.

The first half of this Little Black Classic takes place from May 1st – June 30th 1665, and offers a wonderful variety of topics. This is perfectly summarised in an entry in which Pepys writes that a poor Aunt, presumably suffering from cancer, has had a breast removed, and in the very next sentence relays that he has decided to cut his hair short and wear a wig.

He also describes the potent presence of the plague in the city:

“I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw.”

The plague collects pace as his diary progresses, and within a short space of time it’s rife in the city.

The second half of this book is based from September 2nd – 15th 1666 and documents the main event; the Great Fire.

He relays that he and his wife were awoken by their maid with the news that London was burning. The fire begun “this morning in the King’s bakers house in Pudding Lane.”

It was clearly utterly devastating. Pepys describes people desperately throwing their possessions into the Thames in the hope that this would preserve them better than being consumed by flames. The poor stayed in their houses for as long as possible.

Even London’s resident pigeons were affected:

“the poor pigeons I perceive were loathe to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”

The chaos of the city is palpable. No emergency service, or means of collecting enough water to quell the flames. The city was doomed.

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In a particularly powerful description, he conveys the savagery of the fire:

“as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire … It made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of the houses at their ruin.”

After burning for several days, the bloody flames finally reached Pepys, who buried his possessions in the earth in an attempt to save them. “I never did observe so much of myself in my life.”

When the fire finally stopped, Pepys was relieved to return to normality, and to his beloved bed.

As someone who values the familiarity and comfort of home hugely, I can entirely understand that he must have savoured lying in his bed once more.

I decided to take in the key landmarks of the Great Fire of London and so, on a particularly fine day, when London basked in Springtime sunshine, I headed into central London with my friend Poppy.

London is a wonderful city, but it is glorious in sunshine. Tourists and locals alike flock to waterside drinking holes, to be serenaded by the motion of the Thames with a refreshing drink in hand.

I live in East London, near Canary Wharf and not far from the Olympic Park. Travelling into Central, Poppy and I disembarked at Monument station, and crossed London Bridge, heading into Southwark.

We skirted around Borough Market, which was heaving with those enjoying its delicacies. We were delighted to see Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London, being interviewed outside Southwark Cathedral, having been sworn in not half an hour before.

We continued onwards, aiming for the river. We stopped at The Old Thameside Inn, found right next to the Golden Hind, the copy of the boat the Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe on (and which I blogged about last year). Here we basked in the sunshine and enjoyed a drink, toasting the new Mayor of London and our city in general.

After a bite to eat, we crossed over Millennium Bridge to greet St Paul’s, perhaps one of London’s most recognised buildings.

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Gutted by the Great Fire, Old St Paul’s was replaced by the building we know and love today – the mother church of London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It survived the Blitz, and has seen countless famous weddings and funerals.

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We circled the impressive Cathedral, and enjoyed a ten minute break on its lawn, before heading back to the Monument, also designed by Christopher Wren.

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This 62m Doric column was constructed in commemoration of the Great Fire of London, and stands 62m from the spot on Pudding Lane where the fire began. We paused to admire the Monument properly, having walked past it countless times. Its crown of golden flames sits atop the column, where visitors can look out at our modern city, which one day burned.

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Finally, we concluded our pilgrimage on Pudding Lane, where it all began.

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Thank you very much, Daisy, for choosing this week’s Classic. Next time I will be reading Henry James’ The Figure in the Carpet.

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2 thoughts on “No. 47: The Great Fire of London, Samuel Pepys

  1. Alison Potton says:

    I loved this Lucy:-) I have so many happy memories of the Monument – once climbed all 311 steps with David in the back-pack and the other 3 being escorted by my Mum. Remind me sometime to show you the photo of us all on the top BUT you didn’t climb it:-( Mind you at £3 an ascent the cost has risen steeply (no pun intended) – think it was free the first time my parents took me, sometime in the late 1960’s!

    Like

    • Lucy says:

      I’ll be honest… We spent so long in the pub that we missed the opening times! Oops :S I will climb it at some point. For London prices, £3 is an absolute bargain! x

      Like

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