1666 and All That; This Friday Marks 350 Years since the Great Fire of London Began, and a Blockbuster Exhibition and a Six-Day Arts Festival across the City Mark the Event That Changed the Capital for Ever Says Marcus Field

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

1666 and All That; This Friday Marks 350 Years since the Great Fire of London Began, and a Blockbuster Exhibition and a Six-Day Arts Festival across the City Mark the Event That Changed the Capital for Ever Says Marcus Field


Byline: Marcus Field

IT WAS in the early hours of Sunday September 2 1666 that the Great Fire of London broke out. As every schoolchild knows, the conflagration began in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane. What they might not know is that pudding is a medieval word for entrails and that the fatty pie fillings stored alongside the baker's smouldering oven certainly played their part in spreading the flames.

Now, 350 years later, we are still fascinated by the disaster, with every detail set to be raked over again this week on TV and radio, and in a special London arts festival staged to mark the anniversary of the event.

The story of the entrails comes from Adrian Tinniswood's newly published The Great Fire of London: The Essential Guide (Vintage, PS4.99), a thrilling little book that takes you right to the heart of the action. We are there with baker Thomas Farriner when he is awoken by his servant with the first news of the flames in his shop. As Thomas and his daughter escape across the rooftops our hearts break at the story of his maid who, too scared to scramble from the upstairs window, is left to die -- "the first victim of the Great Fire of London".

The fire spread quickly, fanned by the east wind and fed by the tinder-dry wooden frames of the houses, which almost touched across the narrow streets. Over four days it roared its way through the City, causing chaos and devastation as residents packed their goods and fled for the river or open spaces beyond the Roman walls. Among the archaeological records of the hellish heat are the melted and scorched glassware, metalwork and bricks now on show in the Museum of London's blockbuster exhibition, Fire! Fire! until April next year.

On Tuesday September 4 the flames reached the Norman cathedral of St Paul's. Its stones, recorded the diarist John Evelyn, "flew like Granados, the Lead mealting downe the streetes in a streame, & the very pavements of them glowing with fiery rednesse, so as nor horse nor man was able to tread on them".

By Thursday, with the fire finally extinguished, Samuel Pepys sailed down the Thames and observed in his diary: "A sad sight to see how the River looks -- no houses nor church near it to the Temple -- where it stopped."

The statistics of what was lost are shocking still: 13,200 houses in 400 streets had been burned down or demolished to create firebreaks, with 70,000-80,000 people made homeless. Eighty-six of the City's 109 churches were either badly damaged or destroyed. Among the other historic buildings lost to the flames were 44 company halls and Baynard's Castle, the medieval setting for the coronations of Edward IV and Mary I. Surprisingly few people died in the fire, with only six fatalities recorded.

Many of these facts are to be recalled in London's Burning, a six-day festival of arts and ideas staged by the creative company Artichoke to mark the 350th anniversary. Artichoke director Helen Marriage, who has been working on the project for two years, has immersed herself in the history of the fire. "It was a transformational moment for London and our world city came out of the disaster," she says. "The old St Paul's burned down and Sir Christopher Wren proposed his radical building as a replacement. The insurance industry was invented after the fire and some of the building regulations we have today date from that time."

What might strike many people are the parallels that Artichoke's festival draws with the effects of disaster today. As refugees from the fire fled to open ground beyond the City, camps of thousands of people in makeshift tents appeared. Pepys visited Moorfields on September 5 and found it "full of people, and poor wretches carrying their goods there". Food was scarce and any tradesmen who escaped the devastation were quick to cash in on the catastrophe by selling their wares to the displaced masses at inflated prices. Unscrupulous landlords with properties beyond the fire zone immediately raised their rents -- a phenomenon which, as late as 1668, caused the Venetian ambassador to complain of the "grasping habits" of Londoners, with their "severe and exorbitant rents". …

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