Today (September 2) in London History – the Great Fire of London

Important day in London history. The Great Fire of London kicked off today, September 2, 1666. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Geography is destiny.

Or – if you prefer – geography is history.

Today, September 2nd, is of course a hugely important day in London’s history. 

That transformative event – the Great Fire of London – begins on this day, September 2nd, 1666. 

And, yes, I know, as a historical event it’s been done to death. The books and scholarly and popular literature on the Fire of London – to say nothing of eye-witness, contemporary accounts – would fill every fire station in London.

So is there anything that can be said about it that hasn’t already been said a hundred times?

Hmmmm. Maybe. Let’s see. 

Maybe, in the first instance, it’s a question of perspective. And in the second instance, how you light the subject.

Perspective first. Let’s pull back. Way back. 

And the second approach – how we light the subject – let’s put our first spot on this idea: they were so unlucky with the fire of London.

Back to perspective. Let’s get a bird’s eye view of Restoration London – the London of 1666. Get right up above – several hundred feet in the air – and put the red dot on Pudding Lane. Pudding Lane, remember, is where the Fire of London begins. Now what do you see about where the fire begins? What do you see about Pudding Lane? What you see is Pudding Lane is way over toward the eastern edge of the City of London. About 80 per cent of London lies to the west of Pudding Lane. 

Now back to that first spot we switched on – they were so unlucky. How is it they were unlucky? Here’s how. The winds in this country normally blow out of the west and southwest. About 65 or 70 per cent of the time. That explains a great deal about these British isles. We were about 500 feet in the air, now I want you to get up to jetliner cruising altitude, 35,000 feet. And then still further up. Up where the satellites graze. Now look down. See the British isles? They’re really far north. Farther north than Maine or Minnesota, the northernmost of the lower 48 states.

But here’s the weird thing, these British Isles are really far north, but the climate is exceptionally mild. And look, for purposes of our argument the heatwave we’ve just had is inadmissible as evidence. So why is the climate here so mild? Has to do with the direction in which the world turns. The direction in which it turns means the winds predominantly blow out of the west and southwest. As I said, about 70 per cent of the time. 

And there’s another important factor. The other factor’s the Gulf Stream. It comes sweeping across the Atlantic from the Caribbean, hooks up past the southwestern part of these British Isles.

That bit down there, Cornwall, has the mildest climate in this country. Cornwall has surfing and palm trees for heaven’s sakes. 

So, yes, the Gulf Stream comes hooking up past Cornwall and sweeps up alongside the western side of these British Isles. That’s Caribbean water. And then you’ve got those predominantly western and southwestern winds blowing in more or less the same direction as the Gulf Stream. What those winds do is blanket this country – about 70 per cent of the time – with warm, wet Caribbean air. And, incidentally, if you’re a North American visitor to the UK this geography – geography is destiny, remember – is the reason your flight back to Canada or the States will usually take longer and be a bit bumpier. You’re flying into those headwinds 70 per cent of the time. Coming in the other direction – coming North America to London – the flight is quicker. And smoother. You’ve got those tailwinds helping you along.

Now let’s take another satellite’s eye view of the position of these British Isles. Let’s look east. Big land mass. Two conjoined continents: Europe and Asia. And here’s the thing, you don’t have to live here very long before the penny drops, there’ll be pellucidly clear winter days – the sun will be shining, the sky will be cobalt blue – and it’s really nippy. Five degrees colder than it normally is. What’s going on? Easy. The wind’s blowing out of the quarter it doesn’t normally blow out of it. It’s blowing out of the east. Right out of the ice box of Siberia. The same general geographical – or meteorological if you prefer – factors explain why the West Coast of Scotland is often warmer in the winter than, say, Suffolk, hundreds of miles further south but on the east coast of England. Look closely at your map of the British Isles. This island, Great Britain, is cantilevered out into the Atlantic ocean. That bit of geography means the west coast of Scotland is right there, in the firing line of all that warm wet Caribbean air. Suffolk, sure, it’s a lot further south – hundreds of miles further south –  but when there’s an east wind it’s howling right out of Siberia and you better put your long johns on if you go out for a walk in Suffolk or Norfolk. 

Ok, so we’ve sorted the latitude thing. And actually the longitude as well. We established right at the beginning that Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire of London begins, is almost all the way over, ok, 80 per cent of the way over, toward the eastern edge of London.

Enter that mischief-maker, Luck. Also known as Sod’s Law.

The penny’s dropping, isn’t it? Pudding Lane’s way over toward the east. The winds predominantly blow out of the west and southwest. If the winds are doing what they should be doing – what you can pretty much depend on them to do – the Fire is pushed to the East – toward the Tower of London – and at the most 20 per cent of London is destroyed.

But the winds weren’t cooperating. They were blowing out of the quarter they normally don’t blow out of. They were blowing out of the east. And perversely, for a run of several days, they persist in blowing out of the east. And they push the fire ever westward. It’s a bad fire if the winds are doing what they can be depended to do: maybe twenty per cent of London is destroyed. It’s a catastrophe if the winds do what they don’t normally do – blow out of the east – 80 per cent of London is destroyed.

But – time now for a second spotlight – thanks to the Fire of London, London was the most modern city in Europe throughout the 18th-century. It was the most modern city in Europe because it had to be almost completely rebuilt after the Fire of London. And that had its advantages. Compare it with Paris. Paris was a mediaeval core with accretions added to it. That was the case until the 1860s. Haussman comes along. They raze that mediaeval core, push those big avenues and boulevards through, give us the Paris we know today. But a mediaeval city in the 18th and 19th century – that’s not a fit city for its time. The rebuilding of London after the Fire of London conferred lots of advantages on London. Its being the most modern city in Europe greatly facilitated its becoming the great world city.

Ok, throw the rope ladder out from the satellite. Down we go to the Jetliner. And then throw its rope

ladder down and let’s get down on the ground, in London, where there’s a bit of a fire going on. Time for a second spotlight. Famous moment in the History of the Fire of London. The mayor’s a fellow named Thomas Bludworth. They wake him up in the middle of the night and tell him there’s a serious fire over toward the north end of London Bridge and he should probably go over there and get it sorted. He is the Lord Mayor of London, after all. He grumbles. But he gets dressed and trudges over there. He’s not best pleased. “You woke me up in the middle of the night to come over and see this. You call that a fire.” He says – and he’s really cheesed off – he says, “Pish, a  woman might piss it out.” Goes home and goes back to bed. Four days later he doesn’t have a city to be mayor of.

Third spotlight. Pudding Lane is just a stone’s throw away from the Pool of London. Where all the ships dock. There’s a lot of timber down there. A lot of tar and pitch. You know, the vital raw materials used to patch and repair a ship’s hull, keep the vessel seaworthy. 

Wood, tar, pitch – all of them highly flammable. Tar and pitch of course are basically petroleum-based substances. And they’re stored right down there, in wooden warehouses by the pool of London. Yes, you can see it coming, can’t you. The fire gets there. And whoosh – from a few houses burning – an everyday occurrence in 17th-century London – you’ve now got a major, completely out-of-control conflagration. 

Finally, the fire break of last resort. 

When I’m guiding this matter, I often say – and I’m only half joking – Christopher Wren was responsible for the burning down of the old cathedral, mediaeval St. Paul’s. 

A word about it. It was a much bigger building than present-day St. Paul’s. It was over a hundred years in the building. Whereas our St Paul’s, today’s St. Paul’s, Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s – Wren threw it up in 35 years. Now the story goes, he’d long wanted to take the old mediaeval cathedral down. It was decrepit, several hundred years old. It was in a bad way. He just couldn’t persuade the tight-fisted city fathers to come up with the readies. They didn’t want to fork out for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He then hit on the idea of putting scaffolding around the old cathedral. His thinking was he could take the city fathers up on the scaffolding and more or less rub their noses in it – show them, up close, the terrible condition the stone was in. That would do it, he thought. They’d see that it really was in a bad way and needed to be rebuilt and they’d do the needful. Come up with the readies, the money.

Now when the fire got going, Londoners took some comfort in the thought that should the fire get as far west as the old cathedral it would go no further – the old cathedral would stop the fire in its tracks. A huge stone building. In short, the fire break of last resort. And it probably would have done. But for Christopher Wren’s wooden scaffolding. Much of the cathedral was covered with a latticework of wooden scaffolding. It of course caught fire. You had the intense heat that a wood fire gives off. The heat was right next to the stone. The technical term for what happened was the stone slaked. The heat effectively did for all the moisture in the stone and the thing exploded into a firestorm. The old cathedral had a massive leaden roof. It melted and flowed down to the Thames in three rivers of molten lead. 

One other thing – here’s a further spotlight. The area around St Paul’s – especially Paternoster Row – was the centre of the London book trade. Booksellers moved their books into the crypt of St Paul’s. They thought they’d be safe there. That firestorm blew millions of pages of books thousands of feet up into the sky. Schoolboys at Eton – some twenty miles west of London – for the next few days were picking up pages of some of those books. The firestorm had blown them up the Thames to Windsor and Eton.

And as long as we’re on the subject of schoolboys – a schoolboy at Westminster school on what should have been a pitch black night, was able to read the Latin author Terence outside, in Little Dean’s yard, by the light from the Fire of London, three miles downriver from his school. 

So lots of bad luck. The winds misbehaving. Wren’s scaffolding. The Lord Mayor’s bad call.

Guides reel out the statistics the way Vegas blackjack dealers hit players with hands of 10 or 12 to 16: 

The 80 per cent of London the Great Fire destroyed came to 436 acres, 13,200 houses and 87 churches.

It was a very big deal in London history. 

And a Today in London recommendation. Well, yes and no to the Fire Brigade Museum. 

It’s closed at the moment. Here’s why. Here’s what they say.

We’re currently working on our plans for a new London Fire Brigade Museum, aiming to create more accessible and engaging exhibits for our audiences. Our historical collection is in deep storage while our complex project is progressing. Therefore we’re currently running as a virtual museum, sharing our fantastic historical collection digitally.

Well, fair enough, I’d say. The digital operation will hold the fort for the time being and we’ve got the new one to look forward to. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. 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. 

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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.

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And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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