London History Bulletin – January 26

Today’s London History Bulletin tells the tale of the terrible fire that raged through the Temple area on January 26, 1679.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I suppose you could say fire blazes a trail right across London. Every day. Without fail. On average the London Fire Brigade gets called out about 350 times a day. On a bad day, 500 times a day.

Or to push another chip onto the table – well, 10,630 chips – in the Grenfell year there were 10,630 Primary 3 fires in London. Primary 3 is the UK Firefighting profession’s parlance for a serious fire. The Grenfell Tower Fire in June 2017 was one of the worst modern disasters in UK history. 

And the thing about disasters is – pretty understandably I suppose – the major ones take centre stage. The Great Fire of London being the classic example. It was so catastrophic – it destroyed 80 per cent of London – that we can’t take our eyes off it. It’s all we see.

So, for example, when I’m guiding in the Temple area I will often say “and it was here that the Great Fire of London was finally halted.” And, in that same vein, I like to get my walkers to look at the old houses running down the eastern boundary of King’s Bench Walk and say to them, “and you do realise, you’re looking at some of the oldest houses in London – those were some of the first houses built after the Fire of London.”

And that’s pretty much it. Fire-wise that’s centre-stage at the Temple.

When you could of course – time permitting – but time is what’s in short supply on any London Walk because the history is so rich and varied and there’s so much to see – but you could, time permitting, say something like, “no question but the Temple had its fill of fire in the second half of the 17th century. Less than 13 years after the Great Fire of London the place was ablaze again. As we learn from the diary of a lawyer named Narcissus Luttrell. Come to think of it, the story’s worth telling just to get Narcissus’s name into play. Anyway, in his diary for January 26th, 1679 Narcissus tells us, “about 11 at night, broke out a fire in the chamber of Mr Thornbury, in Pump court, in the Middle Temple. It burnt very furiously, and consumed, in the Middle Temple, Pump Court, Elm Tree Court, Vine Court, Middle Temple Lane and part of Brick Court. It burnt down also, in the Inner Temple, the cloisters, and greatest part of Hare Court; the library was blown up. The Thames being frozen there was great scarcity of water; it being so bitter a frost, the water hung in iscles at the eaves of houses. The engines plaid away many barrells of beer to stop the fire; but the chief way of stopping the fire was the blowing up of houses.”

Wow! That one’s memorable. Couldn’t get water out of the Thames because of the great freeze. Had to tap their many barrells of beer to fight the blaze. And Narcissus telling the tale.

And there’s more. One of the disasters within the disaster was the loss of the library of Elias Ashmole. His chamber was near where the fire broke out. He’d been 33 years in putting his collection together and much of it went up in flames, including 9,000 coins and a large repository of seals, charters and other antiquities. So many irreplaceables. If there was a mercy, it was that his collection of manuscripts was spared because it was in his house in Lambeth. Those manuscripts are the basis of the world-famous Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Ok, time to light a match to help us, if possible, see the way ahead. Later today I become a digital nomad. For about three weeks. I don’t know what that portends for this series. It’s now almost 400 consecutive days that I’ve put out a Today in London History podcast – or London History Bulletin as it’s been called since I crossed the finish line of the first 365 days’ output – and I just don’t know whether I’ll be able to maintain that pace given the road I’ll be going down for the rest of January and the first two weeks of February. We’ll see. But this is to put you on notice that the dependable, “like clockwork” appearance of this podcast is by no means guaranteed these next few weeks. If I am able to meet the daily deadline chances are most of them really will be just a bulletin. We’ll see. 

And on that note, well, as per usual, you’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin. The London History Bulletin for January 26th. 

Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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