What Can We Learn from the Great Fire of London?

Dan Dodman

Middle Ages
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Whilst the Monument might now feel like a poor cousin to the grander views from the Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie, the Gherkin or even St Pauls, its Wren-designed elegance is undeniable. The view from the top is obscured slightly by office blocks and it doesn’t appear to be that big but, at 61.5 metres, it is the tallest isolated stone column in the world.

It’s worth imagining how it must have appeared when it was first completed in 1677, bigger than almost all the surrounding buildings, save for churches, and adorned at the top with its bright gilt-bronze urn.

The Monument was built to commemorate the Great Fire of London, and as such it is a confident statement that the City has and will endure.

Visiting during the UK lockdown, the area is quiet. The usually packed pub around the corner is empty as is the road over London Bridge that overlooks the Monument, save for a few cyclists. It feels like the City has been evacuated: the perfect atmosphere to remember the events of 2-6 September 1666.

Monument (Credit: Own Work).

‘Infinite great fire’

The Fire of London began around 2am at a bakery on Pudding Lane. Fires were common in a city packed with timber houses, with no real planning and where flames were the only light sources. The conflagration was initially treated with some disdain.

When the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was called for, he immediately went back to bed declaring:

Pish! A woman might piss it out.

This would prove a huge error of judgement.

Much of what we know about the fire is provided by England’s greatest diarist, Samuel Pepys. His diaries are distinguished by the frankness with which he treats his daily life. Not a wart, massive drinking session or drunken liaison is missed out. His depiction of the Great Fire is, however, probably what he will be best remembered for (although he also invented the bookcase).

After the first night, Pepys wrote that 300 houses had been burnt down. He went to have a look from a tower and, climbing up,

“there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other end of the bridge.”

Pepys spent the day visiting the King and attempting to mobilise some action. In the evening he described the fire as he could see it from an alehouse on Bankside:

“In the corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious, bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire … We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it.”

Faced with this incredible image, Pepys began to remove valuables from his house on the expectation that it would be burnt. Astonishingly, faced with the end of the world as he knew it, he also had the fortitude to dig a pit in the garden and store his Parmesan cheese in it for safekeeping.

Rising from the ashes

By the time the fire had burnt itself out, almost 400 acres had been burnt within the City (and a further 63 outside the walls). 87 churches were destroyed, along with 44 livery halls and 13,200 houses.

More than two thirds of what we would now call the City was destroyed, at a cost of an estimated £1.7 billion in today’s money. Despite this widespread devastation, fewer than 10 people died (although this has been open to some serious debate).

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Interestingly, there is a second, much less well-known monument to the Great Fire of London very close to Smithfield and opposite St Barts, where a small statue of a naked boy, covered in the same gilt as the Monument, sits above the street.

The statue marks the point at which the Great Fire was stopped and engraged under it is the quote: “This boy is in Memmory [sic] Put up for the late FIRE of LONDON Occasion’d by the Sin of Gluttony 1666.” The connection between the Sin of Gluttony and the fire is not elaborated upon.

The Golden Boy of Pye Corner (Credit: Own Work).

Rebuilding, whilst an enormous job, happened quickly and without much fanfare. Both John Evelyn and Wren put together incredible plans that would have created a city with long vistas and piazzas, but the practicalities of ownership of land and making a working city put an end to this.

The fire did, however, result in other radical changes to the City. Access to water was key, and the reconstructed buildings were built in stone rather than wood.

Great comfort should be taken from this rebuilding process as it puts our current crisis into perspective. The challenges we face today into returning to some sort of normality are no less difficult. But things will recover and, from the ashes of our current difficulties, perhaps some buildings with stone foundations can be built.

An abandoned view of St Pauls (Credit: Own Work).

Samuel Pepys’ diary

There is one final lesson that can be drawn from Pepys and his diaries which has particular relevance for those of us working in the City. Pepys wrote his diaries in code, largely to avoid some of the saucier details of his liaisons and big nights out being read by his wife.

The code was predominantly a particular type of shorthand (Shelton’s Tachygraphy) mixed (when something sensitive came up) with Spanish, French, Italian and a fair splattering of schoolboy euphemism. Unfortunately, Shelton’s Tachygraphy had fallen out of common use by the early 19th century and Pepy’s diaries became the greatest historical source in the country that could not be read.

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Enter an industrious undergraduate called John Smith. He decoded the diaries in a similar manner to the way the Rosetta stone was used to translate ancient hieroglyphics, by using a longhand section of the diary as a key. It was quite an achievement, worthy of no short amount of acclaim.

Somewhat disappointingly though, having decoded large portions of the books, it was pointed out to Smith that the diaries might be written in Shelton’s Tachygraphy. This posed the problem of how one might learn an outdated shorthand.

It turns out Pepys had kept the textbook he had learnt from and it sat slightly above Smith’s head at the desk he was working at. Proof that, sometimes, the answer really is staring us all in the face.

Monument (Credit: Own Work)

Dan Dodman is a partner in Goodman Derrick’s commercial litigation team where he specialises in civil fraud and shareholder disputes. When not working, Dan has spent most of lockdown being taught about dinosaurs by his son and tinkering with his (growing) collection of film cameras.

Dan Dodman