Book of da Week: The Great Fire of London by Samuel Pepys

The Great Fire of London - Samuel Pepys
Quite the true tale, this one.

The Great Fire of London started on Pudding Lane in the early hours of Sunday 2nd September 1666. The panicked Lord Mayor of London (Sir Thomas Bloodworth) proved indecisive in the carnage, which led to a delay in appropriate firefighting actions.

As a result, the flames went on to demolish some 13,200 homes in the city before the fire spluttered to a halt on the 5th September 1666.

Despite the colossal rampage of mayhem, there were thought to have been few deaths, and some individuals even found the time to write diary entries to record the incident for posterity – enter legendary letter writer and diarist Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703).

The Great Fire of London

Pepys (pronounced “Peeps”, if you’re wondering) kept a diary from 1660 until 1669 – it amounts to over a million words! It was eventually published in the 19th century, providing us lot now with a detailed insight into a bygone era. This included several iconic moments in the UK’s history.

Whilst Mr. Pepys’ diary recorded key events such as the Second Dutch War (England’s failed attempt to wrest global trade domination away from the Netherlands) and the relentless onslaught of the plague, it also captured one bloody enormous bonfire. He writes:

"Lords days. Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called us up, about 3 in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City."

Pepys went to observe the fire from his window but “being unused to such fires as fallowed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again and to sleep.” By the morning, obviously, this thing was still there, and a concerned Pepys headed out to get a closer look.

What follows is a first hand account of a “lamentable” fire and thousands of panicked Londoners attempting to save their goods. It’s interesting to read how people were emptying their properties of furniture and valuables rather than hurtling off for safety; all of this lot was dragged to safe havens, which included boats on the River Thames.

Pepys remarked: “With one’s face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of Firedrops.” Luckily for him, his business and home survived the blaze. His account stands as a vivid little insight into a epic moment in history.

It’s a medieval marvel this diary extract and we picked it up for 80p as part of Penguin’s Little Black Classics series. Read it and enjoy a slice of horrible history.

The Aftermath of a Disaster

In 1665 the city had been wracked by an appalling outbreak of plague, so you do have to feel rather sorry for the poor medieval Londoners as this enormous fire erupted to further compound their fear and misery. You couldn’t catch a lucky break in those days.

King Charles II observed first hand the social and economic disaster the Great Fire brought to the London, with resettlement required for the tens of thousands of newly homeless folks.

London also had to be rebuilt. Great architects such as Sir Christopher Wren stepped in to propose magnificent restructuring which some suggest would have made London rival Paris for architectural grandeur.

Instead, the old street plan was used with adjustments for (as you’d expect) fire safety and better hygiene. Strangely, the fire did at least bring an end to plague outbreaks, perhaps due to a combination of hygiene improvements and the previous rat population being decimated. This is, however, merely conjecture.

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