Three hundred and fifty years ago this weekend, the city of London was still recovering from the Great Plague, which had killed up to 100,000 of the population of 460,000 or so. The scale of the contagion, which began in earnest in April 1665 and by that September had reached a peak of 8,000 deaths a week, was chronicled by the diarist Samuel Pepys, who noted "the sad news of the death of so many in the parish of the plague, forty last night, the bell always going . . . either for deaths or burials."
By Sept. 2, 1666, the plague had crested, but it was only fully eradicated by another tragedy that was about to literally engulf England's capital. Again, Pepys provided much of the documentation of events, recording that, having been briefly awoken in the early hours by news of "a great fire ... in the City," he later set out for some high ground near the Tower of London, from where "I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge."
From there, Pepys wrote, that he went, "with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King's baker's' house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus's Church and most part of Fish-street already."
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The baker in question, Thomas Farriner, would swear for the rest of his life that his establishment could not possibly have been to blame for the fire starting, as all his ovens had been raked out; but contemporaries, historians, and the curator of a new exhibit to mark the fire's anniversary are all in no doubt that it was. Perhaps, it has been suggested, the fault lay with his maid for not putting out the ovens at the end of the night; if she was responsible, she paid the ultimate price as, unlike the rest of the family, she dared not leap from a window onto a nearby roof once the house caught alight, and became the fire's first victim.
In fact, very few people perished in the blaze -- there were only six verified deaths -- but once it began, the fire ripped through the city's buildings. From the bakery, sparks leaped across the narrow street to the Star Inn, where they set fire to straw and fodder. From there, the fire spread to Thames Street, lined with riverfront warehouses packed with, in Pepys' words, "oyle, and wines, and brandy, and other things," that provided rapidly combustible fuel. Add to that the fact that the wooden houses, "so very thick thereabouts, (were) full of matter for burning, as pitch and tarr," and that a warm eastern wind was fanning the flames through a city that had experienced a long, dry summer, and the resulting inferno was almost inevitable.
By the end of Sept. 2, the conflagration was so great that, Pepys recorded, "all over the Thames, with one's face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops." Having initially attempted to beat back the flames with buckets of water, many residents and merchants instead now fled, attempting to rescue their possessions and goods whenever possible, many taking refuge in boats on the river or, in the case of the city's homeless, on the surrounding hills.
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Authorities sought to create firebreaks by tearing down houses, but the flames -- the light from which could be seen 30 miles away -- rapidly overwhelmed their efforts. On the 4th, they resorted to gunpowder to explode buildings in the fire's path, rapidly removing potential fuel, and this ultimately had the desired effect; the fire waned on the 5th and, after a brief resurgence, finally exhausted itself on the 6th. More than 13,000 houses and 84 churches were destroyed, and as many as 100,000 people left homeless.
There was a search to blame someone -- anyone -- for the blaze. Even as it raged, Pepys noted, there was talk it had been stated by "the French," indeed, an insane French watchmaker claimed to have done the deed and was hanged for it, although it was later established he was not even in the country at the time. A memorial column placed at the site of Farriner's bakery included an inscription (subsequently removed) that blamed the "treachery and malice of the Popish faction." But the official inquiry acknowledged it was caused by "the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season."
Devastating as the fire had been, it was to prove beneficial. It erased the slums that had been the breeding ground of the plague, and allowed for London to be significantly rebuilt, primarily from stone and brick and with wider streets than before. Responsibility for the rebuilding was handed to architect Sir Christopher Wren, and the most famous of his creations remains the rebuilt St. Paul's Cathedral. Two hundred and seventy-four years later, as the city around it found itself once more in flames, that cathedral stood tall and unharmed: a proud symbol of a defiant London.
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