Magazine article The Spectator

Rumour Rushing like a Backdraught

Magazine article The Spectator

Rumour Rushing like a Backdraught

Article excerpt

Rumour rushing like a backdraught BY PERMISSION OF HEAVEN: THE STORY OF THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON by Adrian Tinniswood Cape, L20, pp. 330, ISBN 0224062263

'Blamestorming' may be a new entry to the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but it has been practised for many, many years. After the Great Fire, preachers flushed with schadenfreude could hardly thumb their scriptures fast enough to find ways of connecting the catastrophe with divine judgment on the moral squalor of London. Hollering out their grim correctives, some insisted that the exhausted masses consider Sodom and Gomorrah; others announced that the fire was a terrorist attack on the kingdom of the recently restored monarch. Of the usual suspects - England was at war on the sea with the Dutch and there were always the French - it was the fear and loathing with which English Protestants regarded Catholics that segued most easily into blame. The most ambitions explanations brought together both the spiritual and the physical, for, as some ministers suggested, God had chosen to chastise His wicked children by employing the Papist scum to do His dirty work.

Since attempts at forensic investigation were almost futile, anybody and nobody was guilty, and for the less theologically sophisticated it was open season for xenophobia, anti-Catholicism and queer-bashing. Blackened fingers were also pointed at Thomas Farriner, the hapless owner of the bakery in Pudding Lane where it all began, and at the legendarily thick Mayor of London who had said at the outset that a 'woman could piss that out' before scurrying off to bed. Yet in a timber-rich environment where fires were a common occurrence, it is most likely that this one was simply a dreadful accident. Fanned by strong easterly winds, the blaze engulfed the City for four days and nights in early September. It destroyed four-fifths of the urban fabric - including St Paul's Cathedral, the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange, 87 churches, and approximately 13,200 houses - leaving 80,000 residents homeless and wreaking around L9 million of damage at a time when Samuel Pepys paid his cook L5 a year.

Much has been written about the Great Fire, and Adrian Tinniswood, an acclaimed architectural historian known for his plush tomes on the National Trust and English country houses, adds little to our factual knowledge of the subject, although his evidence is admirably researched and highly evocative. …

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