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This is the second in my series of articles about the Great Fire of London. Last night’s article detailed the start of the blaze in Pudding Lane on Saturday night, September 1, 1666. Rapidly consuming the houses in Pudding Lane and nearby Fish Street (both streets named for the sorts of businesses that clustered around them), they quickly overwhelmed the ability of local fire brigades–equipped only with leather buckets and hooks for tearing down houses–to cope with the growing disaster. By dawn the fire had reached Thames Street. Neil Hanson, who wrote a wonderfully readable account of the fire in his book The Dreadful Judgment, calls Thames Street “the lodge of all combustibles,” from a written source reporting the fire.
Hanson writes of Thames Street:
Among a thousand ‘wares and commodities stowed and vended in those parts’ were oils, pitch, tar, turpentine, brimstone, saltpeter, gunpowder, cordage, resin, wax, butter, cheese, brandy sugar, honey, hops, tobacco, tallow, rope, hemp, flax, cotton, silk, wool, furs, skins and hides, and the wharves where coal, timber and good were unloaded. Among these workplaces, between and around the handful of buildings in stone and brick, was a sprawling rookery of houses built of little more than sticks and mud.
London, being the center of commerce of early modern Europe, was well-stocked with combustible items. When the fire reached Thames Street, it found all the fuel it needed to turn into a firestorm.
One of the famous witnesses of the Great Fire was Samuel Pepys, a government clerk and author of a classic diary (pictured at the top of this article). In the morning of Sunday, September 2, Pepys climbed the Tower of London to examine the fire, and also viewed the disaster scene from a boat in the Thames River. You can read his diary entry (and many others) at the wonderful site pepysdiary.com. Here’s what he saw that day, his words:
Poor Michell’s house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way, and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Steeleyard, while I was there. Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
By nightfall the Great Fire was a firestorm–a huge column of flame conducting air upward, sucking oxygen out of the city along with smoke, with the effect of sheets of flame spreading laterally through the streets. Firestorms have occurred in more modern times, most notably with the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo in 1945.
Thames Street, the “Lodge of All Combustibles,” as it appears today.
Tomorrow: London’s rich leave the poor to their fate as the fire spreads.