How did the Great Fire of London happen?
by Richard Denning
Thank you for allowing me to visit the Slowest Bookworm. This guest post is one of a series celebrating the release of my historical fantasy novel, The Last Seal. which is set during the Great Fire of London in 1666. I decided to take a look at what caused the fire and how it was able to destroy the third largest city in the world at the time.
|Pudding Lane, London|
British children cover the Great Fire at school but as a reminder and for overseas readers who may not be aware of it at all, here is a summary. In the early hours of September 2nd 1666 a careless baker in Pudding Lane forgot to put out his fire and it spread creating an inferno which would destroy 13,000 houses. The Lord Mayor failed to act and it was down to the trained bands of militia to fight the fire under the guidance of James Duke of York, brother to King Charles II both of whom were even seen on the streets fighting the fire. In the end, though, it was the wind dropping and changing direction coupled with the blowing up of houses that ended the fire.
It is estimated that the destruction included 13200 houses, 87 churches, 44 Guild Halls, St Pauls Cathedral, Baynard’s Castle, the Royal Exchange, Newgate prison and many other important sites. Maybe 1 person in 3 or 4 of greater London was made homeless. Something like £14 Billion of damages in today's terms was caused.
After the fire a monument was built (there is still one present today) close to where the fire started. This was inscribed upon it: “Here by ye permission of Heaven Hell broke loose on this protestant city.” So, then, how did it happen? What was special about London? Why was it so vulnerable? Why in 1666 did it burn to the ground?
The city of London in 1666 was an overcrowded warren of narrow, winding, cobbled alleys. Most houses were wood and thatch. The typical six- or seven-storey timbered London tenement houses leant over to almost touch other buildings.
It contained hundreds of workplaces, many of which were fire hazards – foundries, smithies, glaziers and of course more than one bakery. The riverfront was lined with warehouses which had stores and cellars of combustibles which increased the fire risk: Tar, pitch and hemp was stored as well as spirits in great quantity.
London was also full of gunpowder much of it was left in the homes of private citizens from the days of the English Civil War.
That summer of 1666 had been one of the hottest in living memory making the buildings dry as tinder. Finally there was a strong wind blowing north westerly for the first three days fanning on the fire.
It really was a case of light the blue touch paper and stand well back. All this goes to show how vulnerable the city was. But this was no surprise to Londoners. There has been many fires over the years. There were precautions in place and steps that were supposed to be taken.
So: how did they try to fight the fire? Firstly, fire engines DID exist but there were very few of them. They were all very big, heavy and difficult to move - needing crews of twenty or so. London was full of narrow streets. Although two engines did try to reach the fire they could not get close enough to make a difference.
Each parish was supposed to maintain a supply of buckets as well as “Squirts" which looked like massive brass syringes. Scoops or shovels were also employed to throw soil upon the fire. The problem was that not many of the parishes had maintained this equipment - especially during the plague year of 1665. Chances are most shovels would have been taken to bury the dead. The pump nearest Pudding Lane was out of order! In any event water was in short supply due to the drought and in most cases the river was quite a distance away.
There was no organisation at first. What was needed was someone to take charge. There was a failure of authority in the critical early stages that proved fatal. Let's look through what actually happened.
Day 1: Sunday 2nd September circa 1am Fire starts at the Bakers on Pudding Lane. 4am Lord Mayor Bludworth visits but down plays it and goes back to bed! Later that day he fails to act decisively. Samuel Pepys goes to see king and gets royal orders back to Mayor so he starts to pull down houses BUT it is already too late. The fire is spreading fast and Londoners start to flee. Getting his priorities right, Pepys buried a big cheese and wine in his garden!
Day 2: Monday 3rd September The fire spread throughout the 3rd, despite the efforts of the Duke of York – who was given command of fire-fighting that morning and began to bring better organisation to the fight. The only success came at Leadenhall in the north-east, were a combination of low wind and the leadership and wealth of one citizen – which enabled him to hire sufficient labour to create a working firebreak – stopped the blaze advancing. Paranoia over suspected plots meant that people start attacking foreigners in the street. James is forced to spend a lot of time saving foreigners from attacks by the London mob.
People ran and pushed goods and belongings INTO ST Pauls or up against the walls hoping it would protect them. It did not! By the midnight of the 4th/5th September, St. Paul's Cathedral was surrounded and literally melting: the lead roofing flowed down the streets and building stones exploded from the heat.
Day 4: Wednesday 5th September & Day 5: Thursday 6th September
On the 5th two events conspired to save London: firefighters started to actively, use gunpowder to clear firebreaks on a wider scale. More crucially, the powerful east wind dropped. There was still a great struggle – Pepys reports than even the King was seen helping – but the tide had turned. Small fires still burnt by midday on Thursday 6th 1666, but they were soon under control.
Who was to blame?
Conspiracy theorists had a field day after the fire. The country was at war with France and Holland so any foreign nationals were hunted down and attacked. People were paranoid about "Papist" plots by Catholics or by republicans. Astrologers who had predicted the fire were accused of starting it and even the King's firework supplier was questioned. One man did admit to causing it but he was a mad Frenchman who it was proven not only was NOT in London at the time but did not even know where the fire started. Alas he was still hung for his confession.
|Pulling houses down during the fire|
My novel follows the five days of the fire but adds a fantasy twist to it. I used the fire in a small way in my Time Travel adventure, Tomorrow's Guardian. When I started researching it and read around what beliefs and superstitions people had, I thought there could be a novel in it. I found about the widespread paranoia about foreign plots and conspiracies that people had at the time as well as their belief in magic being real. All that came together very quickly into a idea. I asked myself what if the fire was not just an accident, what if there really were secret societies involved and a supernatural explanation behind the great event. To find out more take a look at The Last Seal.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
THE LAST SEAL by Richard Denning
A powerful demon has been trapped under the city of London for over 300 years. Now, however, malevolent forces are at work in the 17th century, planning to unleash terror and chaos on the world. Two rival secret societies the Liberati and the Praesidum - are caught in a battle that threatens to destroy the city and its unknowing inhabitants.
When a truant schoolboy, Ben, finds a scroll revealing the location of magical seals that bind the demon, this throws him into the centre of a dangerous plot that leads to the Great Fire of London. Ben must overcome his own problems - fear of failure, desire for revenge, guilt over his parents deaths - if he is to protect the city, and confront the evil demon.
As the plot unfolds, a little more of the mystery about Ben s own past and his parents deaths is made known. Ultimately, Ben and his friends must combat sorcery, defeat the evil Liberati and destroy the demon if they are to save their city and themselves.
Synopsis from Goodreads.
This is the third book I’ve read by author Richard Denning. The first two were from The Hourglass Institute series and I thoroughly enjoyed them. This book however is the first in a new series called The Praesidium and although I was really looking forward to reading it, I was also a little worried in case it didn’t live up to my high expectations. I really needn’t have worried because as usual Richard delivered an awesome array of characters which definitely included the good, the bad and the ugly, and an amazing plot!
If you’ve read the synopsis you’ll know that The Last Seal is set at the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666 and is the story of a schoolboy called Ben, magic and demons! This fascinating plot is like nothing I’ve ever read before – a mix of true factual events, dates and places alongside awesome magical fantasy and I was so involved in their fast, furious and often dangerous world that I didn’t realise the time and ended up having a couple of very late nights!
The characters Richard has created are totally believable 17th century figures and The Last Seal involves a lot of characters. Don’t worry, it didn’t get confusing as each person or group arrived with their own story and there was plenty of time to get to know them. My favourite character was the quick witted, feisty little thief who very early on in the book became friends with the main character, Ben, and I was glad she took on a main role in the story along with guilt-laden Gabriel the bookseller and Tobias the doctor.
This young adult historical fantasy had me totally engrossed and I would recommend it to anyway who loves historical fantasy/fiction (especially British) whether you’re a teen or an adult.
My rating: 5 stars
or buy the book at:
Amazon UK | Amazon.com | The Book Depository
Now you've heard about the total awesomeness that is The Last Seal, would you like to win a copy?
We have two e-books (international) and also one paperback (UK & US only) to give away.
Giveaway closes 15th September 2011. Good luck!
or buy the book at:
Amazon UK | Amazon.com | The Book Depository