Wednesday 5 September 1666: an end in sight to the Great Fire of London?
As dawn broke on Wednesday 5 September 1666, 355 years ago today, some 60 per cent of the city of London had been laid waste by the greatest fire ever to have engulfed England’s biggest and most important city. We have already seen how, on the previous day, things had begun to move in the Londoners’ favour. By blowing up entire streets with gunpowder, those fighting the fire had created wider firebreaks that were beginning to check the fire’s spread. Moreover, the change in wind direction was now aiding the containment efforts, too, and more citizens were returning to the city to play their part in bringing the hellish nightmare to an end. But we should not at all think that the battle against the inferno had been won. Pepys awoke at 2am and travelled downriver to Woolwich, some seven miles from London Bridge, from where it still looked as if the whole city was ablaze. Upon his return to London some five hours later, he climbed the steeple of All Hallows Barking, a church close by the Tower of London, and from that vantage point he ‘saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw. Everywhere great fires. Oyle cellars and brimstone and other things burning.’ There was still much to do to bring the fire under some sort of control.
Samuel Pepys is England’s greatest diarist. He was honest, inquisitive, reflective, funny, evocative, thorough and exact. His account of the Great Fire is the fullest and most vivid account of the fire’s progress, effects and consequences. When Pepys tells us that, having come down from the steeple of All Hallows church, the hot coals and ashes on the ground burned his feet as he walked through the ruined city, we really do gain an unmatched impression of the contemporary scene. When we imagine Pepys hurriedly burying a ‘parmezan cheese’ in his garden to protect it from the flames, we smile at the homely image which it conjures in our minds. As Robert Latham, the editor of Pepys’s wonderful diary has noted, only Pepys noticed that ‘the poor pigeons’ which were trapped on window ledges perished, or that ‘a poor Catt [was] taken out of a hole in the chimney’ at the Royal Exchange, ‘with the hair all burned off the body and yet alive.’ Without Pepys’s diary, our understanding of the Great Fire, and of course of Restoration London, would be so much the poorer.
In the evening, Pepys was back in his office, where he confided in his dairy that he had almost forgotten what day of the week it was, such was the confusion and turmoil of the preceding days. By midnight, the fire had been brought mostly under control, but that hardly meant that calm prevailed. Indeed, around that time Pepys was woken up by a ‘great alarme of French and Dutch being risen’. In the end, this was nothing more than a false alarm, but we should not be surprised that so many of Pepys’ fellow Londoners, shocked, fearful and distraught, continued to jump at shadows. Pepys himself continued to dream of fires and destruction for weeks after the fire had been put out. It was clearly going to take a very long time indeed for the citizens of London to sleep soundly in their beds.