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Ask the experts

Dr Simon Thurley, director of the Museum of London, and other experts at the museum answered questions about the Great Fire of London.

The year before the Great Fire, London lost about one third of its population to the plague. What effect did this have on the way the fire was handled and on the state of the population during and afterwards?

Seventeenth-century London was a very superstitious place. Londoners saw signs and meanings in everyday events, good and bad, and were quick to draw conclusions. Most adults had lived through the Civil Wars and the republic of Oliver Cromwell and had seen political and economic calamities on a vast scale. Not the least of these was the execution of the king, an act before then completely unthinkable.

The Great Plague of 1665 was another of these terrible omens. Many thought it was a judgement on the City of London for its godlessness and sins. The horrors of the plague inspired even more prophets of doom who felt that further divine punishment was about to occur. For some then, the Great Fire was an almost inevitable consequence of a wicked city. Daniel Defoe, the novelist, thought that, after the plague, 'God had not sufficiently scourged the city' and so sent the fire.

There is no evidence that the loss of so many lives in 1665 made it harder to fight the fire. Indeed the fire probably had the effect of saving many thousands of lives. The flames destroyed vast areas of unsanitary housing, killing rats and purging the capital of infection. As a result, London was not revisited by plague in the post-fire years. The great plague of 1665 was the last catastrophic disease to hit it until the great cholera epidemics of the 19th century.

Did the evacuation of the Lombard Street financial community affect the economy of the country after the fire? If so, how?

Lombard Street took its name from the north Italian bankers who had settled in London in the Middle Ages and who had departed the City by the time of Elizabeth I's death, leaving only a street name behind. Yet in 1666, that street still contained many of London's wealthiest residents, many engaged in insurance, banking and bill-broking. The flames rapidly consumed their magnificent houses and offices, but long before then, their bills, papers, bullion and accounts had been moved to safety. What bothered them more than anything after the fire was getting a return on their loans now that their creditors had lost their livelihoods. Yet there was no financial crisis; indeed, many moneylenders and bankers profited from the Great Fire.

The greatest financial loss in revenue terms was the king's. A very substantial part of the royal revenue came from customs duties from the City. The fire completely disrupted trade, causing a catastrophic drop in the royal income. The government's net income before the fire was £900,000 a year. Because of the fall in customs revenue from the port of London, this fell to less than £690,000 after the fire.

This was a very serious matter for Charles II, who was forced to ask Parliament for emergency support. It also partially accounts for the king's enthusiasm for the rapid rebuilding of the city. It was essential that it be up and running as soon as possible and that business be returned to normal.

Humphrey Henchman, bishop of London at the time of the fire, has been heavily criticised for – among other things – charging booksellers for storing their stock in the crypt of St Paul's, even though all of it was destroyed there. Do you agree with this assessment?

The stationers – today we would call them publishers or booksellers – were among the greatest losers of the Great Fire. Their stock, so eminently flammable, was completely destroyed, and many of their number were ruined. The total value of burnt paper and books was in the region of £200,000. The bookseller Cornelius Bec lost his entire stock worth £13,000.

So perhaps one might expect the bishop of London to have sympathy for this group. But Humphrey Henchman had severe economic problems of his own, including a cathedral in ruins. He, like a number of other major city landowners, tried to charge leaseholders rent for their properties even though they had been destroyed. Few got away with it – they were called in front of the Fire Court and stopped. Henchman succeeded by claiming parliamentary privilege as a peer. The stationers, understandably, were not happy.

Why were there so few deaths from the fire?

Although the City of London was built of timber, and houses and streets were a bonfire waiting to happen, the fire took hold slowly and took four days to consume the capital. Thus there was plenty of time for people to save not only themselves but many of their belongings, too.

We don't actually know how many people were killed in the end. The largest contemporary estimate is eight, but we have records of only five: Thomas Farryner's maid-servant; Paul Lowell, a Shoe Lane watchmaker; an old man who went to rescue a blanket from St Paul's and was overcome by smoke; and two others who fell into cellars while rescuing their belongings.

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Robert Hubert was hanged for confessing to having started the fire. Since the defence at his trial showed that it would have been impossible for him to have committed the crime, why did the court find him guilty?

The whole saga of Hubert seems very strange to us today. Hubert was a French watchmaker and probably a simpleton who was silly enough to confess to starting the fire in Westminster (where it never reached). Later he changed his story and confessed to starting it at Thomas Farryner's bakery. The poor man could not, though, accurately describe the house or show where it was.

So why was he found guilty and hanged? The short answer is that everyone was keen to blame it on somebody, and the slightly simple and possibly attention-seeking Hubert was an easy target. No one really believed that he did it and accusations continued to be made in the months and years afterwards. Sadly, for contemporaries who believed in divine providence and retribution, the truth was far more mundane.

After the fire, there were rumours that Charles II had deliberately started the fire to turn attention away from the scandals of his court. Was there any foundation to these rumours?

No. For Charles, the fire was a financial disaster. What is true, however, is that despite Charles's wild popularity at his Restoration, the magic of the 'Merry Monarch' soon wore off. The Puritans disliked the licentiousness of his court, and republican sentiment was far from dead and buried. Charles endured quite serious civil disorder and riots in the early Restoration years. Rumours about Charles's alleged involvement in the disaster are thus quite understandable.

If you had to point the finger at one person or institution, who or what was most to blame for the fire?

When James I came to the throne, he declared that he had found a City of timber and wanted to leave it a City of brick. However, his ambitions were frustrated, and apart from a small development at Covent Garden, the king was unable to effect the transformation of London. On the other hand, a number of building regulation acts were passed to encourage the use of brick – largely to restrain fires.

The City Corporation – comprising the aldermen and the Court of Common Council – controlled London, and the king's influence in the square mile was surprisingly weak. In 1632, there had been a serious fire around the northern end of London Bridge, but the Corporation refused to learn lessons from this, allowing the area to be rebuilt much as before. In 1661, John Evelyn drew Parliament's attention to the risk of fire in the City, and only two years before the Great Fire, Charles II himself wrote to the lord mayor to recommend that he enforce building legislation to prevent the spread of fire.

In short, if the Corporation and the mayor had taken the issue of building control more seriously, the fire could have been contained.

Did anything good come out of the fire?

The Great Fire did, of course lead to many good things, principally the rebuilding of the city in red brick and stone with some substantial town planning improvements. It was re-erected quickly and efficiently and without a crippling economic price tag. Most importantly, the Herculean effort of the rebuilding stimulated the economy, particularly through the building trades. A vast army of migrant workers came to recreate the capital. In their wake came the craftsmen and manufacturers needed to furnish and supply the new houses.

By 1700, London – in spite of or, perhaps, because of the fire – was the largest city in Europe and probably the richest. And, indefinably, the spires of Wren's churches and the great dome of St Paul's gave Londoners a new self-image, what we might call 'London pride'.

What would have been the benefits to London if it had been rebuilt to the plans of, say, Christopher Wren?

Wren's plans for rebuilding the City never really had a chance. First, the king and the City Corporation (not to mention Londoners themselves) were in a great hurry to rebuild. Wren's elaborate plans would have taken years to finalise and longer to build. No one had time for the fancy ideas of the king's favourite architect, not even Charles II.

Second, vested property interests would have strangled the plan the moment Wren attempted to execute it. Then, as today, land in the City was very valuable. Sorting out the ownership of all the burnt plots was like a game of three-dimensional chess. No one wanted to lose a tiny fraction of their land. And to purchase the amount needed for Wren's squares and boulevards would have been impossibly expensive.

So today we have a City built on its medieval street plan and not a centrally planned town like Paris. Nice for historians but trouble ever since for town planners and motorists.

How did the Monument come to be built?

The Corporation and Charles II jointly realised that strong messages needed to be sent out to both the populace and the world declaring that London was still open for business. Therefore, in the days after the fire, a number of major public works were commissioned. The most important of these were the Royal Exchange – the first stone of which was laid by Charles II himself – and the Custom House. These buildings were to symbolise the City's continued financial and economic vitality.

A third public structure was planned, too: the Monument – a fluted Doric column of Portland stone 202 feet (62 metres) tall topped with a flaming gilt urn. It was, and is, a terrific symbol of London's ability to triumph over the most devastating of disasters.

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Could you tell me how you feel the government coped and dealt with the fire? Was it really ready for another disaster to strike after the Plague the year before? And in what ways could it have improved upon its handling of the situation?
Emma, Seaford

The problems created by the fire far outweighed the difficulties of trying to put it out. The government and the City authorities had three principal tasks: * to provide for the refugees.

• to restore public confidence.

• to repair the damage.

Most of the responsibility for achieving these objectives was placed on the shoulders of the City. Only constant pressure from the City induced Parliament to turn from other matters of state to give consideration to the Act for the rebuilding of the City of London. Even then, because the paper was hurried through the committee stage, the City were obliged to promote a supplementary Bill within a few months. The government were concerned about the state of the City because it was the capital and the source of the nation's wealth, but the practical details were left to the City to resolve.

If you want to find out more about the administrative dynamics of the period, I would suggest Professor T F Reddaway's The Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (1940), which you should be able to get from a good local library.

One of my ancestors, William Lowth, is said to have died in the Great Fire of London. Did he?
Kit, Plymouth

We do not know how many people died as a result of the Great Fire of London. The Bills of Mortality, which were usually compiled on a weekly basis, were not produced for the two weeks commencing 29 August 1666. The first official figures published by the parish clerks – who were responsible for maintaining the registers – were for the week beginning 25 September 1666. In this week, 266 people died from various causes. Since this figure is lower than that for the week before the Fire, it cannot – as Gustav Milne notes in his book The Great Fire of London (1986) – 'represent three weeks' fatalities ... and even the General Bill for Mortality for all of 1666 does not have a special category for deaths caused specifically by the Fire, although it does include 43 killed by several accidents, and 10 found dead in streets and fields.' None of the dead are listed by name.

If you want to try to find out more about your ancestor, you could try the Lists of City of London Inhabitants, which are held by the Corporation of London Record Office (CLRO) – tel: 020 7332 1251. Family history research is a complicated business, but the archivists will be able to point you in the right direction if you want to pursue this line of enquiry.

Is it true that the Great Fire of London finally killed off the last of the Plague from the previous year? Or was the winter/frost of 1665 the real reason the plague ended?
Nick, London

Why plague did not affect significant numbers of Londoners after 1665 may be due to a number of factors:

• Severe cold would reduce the reproductive activity of the Rattus rattus (black rat) and Ceratophyllus fasciatus (rat flea), which are the primary hosts of the plague bacillus. But this would only cause a temporary blip in the rodent and flea population.

• There were human survivors in each outbreak, and infection confers a level of immunity. In addition, in each outbreak, the disease loses some of its virulence, which accounts for the lower proportion of fatal cases towards the end of the epidemic. The particular strain might have been weakened beyond its capacity to recover.

• It is possible that the increased use of brick after the fire helped to reduce the numbers of fleas in houses. However, there is no evidence that the rat population, or its attendant fleas, was sufficiently reduced to prevent further epizootics (epidemics among animals).

There are, however, a number of things that could not have affected the disappearance of the plague:

• The Great Fire of 1666 could not be responsible since it was almost totally confined to the City, and even there, the parishes most affected by plague (to the north and east) were untouched by the fire.

• Another common misconception for the relative immunity of England from subsequent epidemics of plague attributes it to improved hygiene and advances in medicine. However, the public health standards were, in fact, no better in the 18th century than in the 17th.

• Some have argued that the decline of plague was due to the displacement of the black rat with the brown rat. However, the brown rat did not arrive in England until well into the 18th century.

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Is there proof that the fire started at Pudding Lane? Everyone seems to take it for granted.
Elizabeth, Watford

There is a enormous amount of contemporary evidence that the fire started in Farynor's bakehouse in Pudding Lane. About an hour after the blaze started, the lord mayor and officers were summoned to the scene, and there were many eyewitnesses who subsequently provided evidence to the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into the Causes of the Fire. Contemporary accounts of the event also provide detailed information about the source of the blaze and chronicle its spread across the City. The best of these, now available in a reprinted edition, is Thomas Vincent's God's Terrible Voice in the City, written in 1667.

Although we know where the fire started, we do not know exactly where the bakehouse was in Pudding Lane or what it was like inside, nor do we know the precise details of what actually caused the blaze.

What happened to the 200,000 people who were made destitute by the fire? Is this how new suburbs of London sprang up in the 17th century? If so, what were those new areas?
K W, Kent

Many new suburbs were springing up around London well before the fire. By the 1620s, many Londoners had already moved from central City locations to avoid paying high rents.

As far as we can tell, the majority of those made homeless by the fire returned to the reconstructed City. Until new houses were built, many lived in make-shift shelters near or on the site of their properties, while others camped in the fields surrounding the City or lodged with kindly friends and relatives. By 1672, the majority had been rehoused, but interestingly, about 3,500 of the new buildings were still unoccupied, presumably because many of the original inhabitants had found alternative accommodation within the City. The empty homes were soon filled by the army of migrant workers and craftsmen who had come to rebuild the capital.

Can you give some examples of where 'fire marks' – the marks given by the new London fire brigades after the fire – can be seen today?
G B, South London

The fire marks were issued by the insurance companies who set up their own fire brigades to keep losses to a minimum. The largest collection of fire marks in the world is that held by the Museum of the Chartered Insurance Institute (20 Aldermanbury, London EC2). We have a fairly large collection here at the Museum of London, and some of the earliest – those issued by the Hand-in-Hand and Sun insurance companies, for example – can be seen in the Late Stuart Gallery.

If you want to find out more about fire marks, there is a useful booklet on the subject: Fire-Marks by John Vince (Shire Publications, 1973/1999).

The new planning regulations after the fire limited the number of storeys of buildings, depending on the size of the street. Were there any other new regulations of interest – and are they all still in force today?
A M, Cardiff

The Rebuilding Act 1667 and subsequent re-drafts made no attempt to anticipate the needs of the future. The changes were those that experience had shown to be necessary, and most of the clauses related to streets, buildings and the movements of traffic.

For each type of house (as defined by the Act), the thickness of the brick walls, heights from floor to ceiling, depth of cellars and sufficiency of party walls, scantlings of timber and much other detail were set out in scheduled tables. Conduits blocking or obstructing the free flow of traffic were to be removed, and most of the principal streets were widened. In addition, Thames Street and the land between it and the river was to be raised by at least 3 feet, and no buildings could be built within a distance of 40 feet from the Thames. Spouting gutters were also abolished and replaced with down pipes.

In essence, there was little new in the legislation. Most of the clauses dealt with long-term concerns that had not been enforced by previous administrations. Unless a specific point has been revoked by subsequent legislation, the Act remains unaltered on the statute book. But I doubt that modern City planners have much cause to test late 17th-century building regulations!

Can you give any examples of cases resolved by the Fire Court, set up to deal with property disputes after the fire?

Many disputes were quickly and reasonably settled without costly litigation, but the Fire Court was kept busy with some 1,500 cases representing about 10% of all the houses burnt down.

The cases varied widely. Sometimes both parties were keen to re-build but neither were prepared to accept the terms offered by the other and the court had then to induce them to agree. More complex cases involved landlords suing tenants who would neither agree to rebuild nor to surrender their leases, and tenants who were unable to obtain reasonable terms from their landlords. The terms of the settlements necessarily varied with the terms of the leases.

There is a useful account of the workings of the Fire Court in Professor T F Reddaway's The Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (out of print). For a really detailed assessment the best source is The Fire Court: Calendar to the judgments and decrees of the court of judicature appointed to determine differences between landlords and tenants as to rebuilding after the Great Fire (2 vols), edited by P E Jones (Corporation of London, 1966-70).

The primary records – contained within nine large volumes – are held by the Corporation of London Record Office (tel: 020 7600 3030). They include a contemporary alphabetical index of cases, but unless you have good palaeographic skills, I would avoid this!

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My question is not about the Fire, but may be related. I have a remnant of a plate made of Barnstaple pottery. It has the date 1668 and a lion wearing a crown and human face. Could this date be important or commemorate something?

Your plate sounds rather like one in the North Devon Maritime Museum, Bideford. That plate is decorated with a lion that is clearly supposed to represent the Lion of England and is based on heraldic designs. It is interesting to note that the decorative technique most commonly used by Barnstaple potters – 'sgraffito', engraving with a knife or stick – only rarely appears on 17th-century pottery made or found in London. The North Devon Maritime Museum plate is dated 1669 and bears the letters IL – probably the initials of the potter John Leachland, who is known to have worked in Barnstaple in the second half of the 17th century. Many Barnstaple pots are dated, and so I doubt that the dates commemorate particular events.

The North Devon potteries enjoyed considerable success in the 17th century, exploiting their coastal position to export wares to South Wales, Ireland and even Virginia. (Many of the early settlers in the New World had, of course, emigrated from towns such as Bideford and Barnstaple.) But the potteries' fortunes faded rapidly after 1700, as a tax on coal made them uncompetitive compared with potteries in Staffordshire (which were sited very close to coalfields), and as exports were channelled increasingly through the port of Liverpool.

For further information, see Alison Grant, North Devon Pottery: The seventeenth century (University of Exeter, 1983).

I read somewhere that when Sir Christopher Wren started rebuilding St Paul's Cathedral, he found there had been a Roman temple there before. Is this true?

When Wren's workmen started clearing away the rubble of the old cathedral, they did find Roman remains. Wren himself thought he had discovered a Roman temple, but this seems to have been a figment of his imagination. Fortunately, the relics were carefully recorded by a chemist, John Conyers, who used to walk past the building site every day to see what was going on. His notes survive, and we can see that some Roman pottery kilns were found, together with some Roman graves.

This is very interesting, because it indicates that, at one time, the Roman city boundary must have lain a considerable distance to the east of its final Roman alignment through Old Bailey and Ludgate Circus. Burial was prohibited within a Roman city, and so the St Paul's area must have been outside the perimeter, in a suburban district occupied by graveyards and industrial buildings.

Wren also found – and correctly identified – Roman remains at a number of other sites in the City. When preparing the foundations for St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, for example, he discovered a Roman plain mosaic pavement.

I believe that the plaques on the Monument are not the original ones. What did the original plaques say?

The Monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1677. It stands in Pudding Lane, very close to where the Fire started, and is over 200 feet (61 metres) tall (the distance from the base to the supposed origin of the Fire). It is one of the tallest stone columns to be seen anywhere in the world.

The plaques with their inscriptions are the original ones. The writing (in Latin) on the north side summarises the story of the Fire and the damage that was caused; while that on the south side proudly describes the rebuilding programme. On the west side is a rather pretentious sculptured panel, which was nevertheless very much in tune with the tastes of the time. It shows an unhappy woman sitting on a pile of rubble (a personification of London), with the king (in Roman dress) and the gods of Science, Architecture, Liberty and so on helping her scramble to her feet.

Alterations have been made, however, elsewhere on the Monument. What no one could agree about was whether the Catholics were to blame for burning down the City. Two years after completion – and following a Catholic plot to assassinate the king – an inscription was added near the base, stating that 'The burning of this protestant City was begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction ...' It was erased in 1685, after the accession of the Catholic James II; re-inscribed in 1689 when the Protestant William and Mary came to the throne; and only removed finally in 1831.

As I think you will agree, this short inscription provides a frightening insight into the religious divisions that simmered beneath the surface of 17th- and 18th-century London society.

Was Samuel Pepys's own house burnt down in the Fire?

Pepys was jolly lucky, because the Fire stopped almost at the end of his street and his own house was untouched. As a civil servant, he had a house in the Navy Office, which lay between Crutched Friars and Seething Lane, just to the north of Tower Hill (close to present-day Fenchurch Street station). In this area – partly, it seems, at Pepys' own initiative – buildings were pulled down or blown up to create a firebreak, specifically in order to protect government property.

Pepys nevertheless expected his house to be burnt down, and went to considerable lengths to protect his property. On 3 September, he stashed his money in the cellar, and the following morning, at 4 am, he got a cart to take his plate and valuables to a friend in Bethnal Green. It must have been a mild night, because he didn't bother to change out of his nightgown for the journey!

By 4 September, things had taken a turn for the worse, and so Pepys decided to dig a pit in the garden to take his most treasured possessions – a Parmesan cheese and the contents of his wine cellar. The next day he started to panic about his gold. He sent that to a friend in Woolwich, together with his wife, who was evidently locked up in a room with it and told not to budge, night or day.

I know that a large part of the City was devastated by the Great Fire, but can you tell me how many buildings were destroyed and what were the losses incurred?

Contemporary documents and official papers list the following losses: 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, six consecrated chapels, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, 52 halls of livery companies, 3 City gates, the gaol of Newgate, four stone bridges, the Sessions House, the Guildhall (with the courts and offices belonging to it), Blackwell Hall (the central cloth emporium), Bridewell, Poultry and Wood Street Compters and St Paul's cathedral.

The surveyors' calculated that it would cost in the region of £3,900,000 to rebuild the houses, and another £2,000,000 to replace the major public and municipal buildings. A further £2,000,000 was spent on the rebuilding of the cathedral.

The loss of private goods and stock was estimated at £2,000,000. The official figures also include the loss of £150,000,000 worth of wine, tobacco, sugar and plums 'of which the City was at that time very full'. Losses among the booksellers and stationers have been variously estimated at £150,000 and £200,000 and at least one bookseller in St Paul's churchyard lost about £8,000 of stock, leaving him with debts of nearly £3,000.

Individual losses are difficult to calculate, but the fire undoubtedly brought considerable hardship for many and not just those living within the burnt areas. As one contemporary put it '... London is ruined, England is ruined ...'

Did the Great Fire encourage Londoners to improve the quality of their fire equipment, and if so, what measures were taken?

Although the Great Fire of London had demonstrated the need for more efficient fire-fighting equipment, it was not until Jan van der Heyden, the superintendent of fire service equipment in Amsterdam invented an improved engine with a leather hose (known as a 'worm' or 'snake') and published his book Slang, Brand, Spuiten (Hose, Fire, Sprayer) describing them that any real progress was made. Fellow Dutchmen Nicholas de Wael and John Lofting introduced the van der Heyden engine to England, and in 1690 Lofting was awarded a patent for an 'Engine for Extinquishing Fires'. By 1700, there is evidence to suggest that Lofting was engaged in the manufacture of engines and small brass fittings on a considerable scale in his Islington factory.

Alongside the development of the fire engine, an Act of Common Council, passed in 1668, required Londoners to keep a better watch, and larger stores of buckets, squirts, ladders and pick-axes were assembled at central places.

See also The Legacy of the Fire for information on the development of insurance company fire brigades.

On the programme, it was said that the average wind speed for 2 September 1666 was calculated at 7 knots/hour. How was this wind speed arrived at? Tony, Lakenheath

I am equally intrigued! We know how long the fire took to burn and its extent, but we do not know what the wind speed was. I believe the programme writers suggested that the average wind speed in September today is about 7 knots per hour, but I do not know how what evidence they have for suggesting that the wind speeds were similar in the late 17th century. The rate of burn would have been variable and would have depended on the nature of the combustible materials and many other factors that cannot be determined because the evidence does not exist.

From Oxford Film & Television, makers of The Great Fire of London:

[The wind speed we gave was] from Walter Bell's book on the fire published in 1928. Yes, he may be using contemporary average wind speeds, but we got it from him.

Hazel Forsyth of the Museum of London replies:

Although Walter Bell mentions that the winds were high and fierce during the period of the fire, at no point does he mention wind speed. He was too good an historian. All of Bell's comments on the weather conditions are taken from contemporary sources, and although these refer to high, blustery and even storm conditions, the descriptions are subjective and have no scientific basis.

For more discussion of the Great Fire of London by Simon Thurley, see the full transcript of his interview for the programme.

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Old St Paul's goes up in flames

Old St Paul's goes up in flames
(Mary Evans Picture Library)


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