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Monday, September 3, 1666. The great fire, now a firestorm like those seen in Moscow in 1571 and 1812 and at Dresden and Tokyo in 1945, was sucking the oxygen out of London, sending plumes of flames through the streets. By now nobody was thinking of how to stop the blaze–that was impossible. People grabbed the belongings they had and made a run for it. The streets leading out of London, particularly those that passed the city gates in the old Roman wall, were choked with carts, horses and foot traffic. Eventually the gates were closed in the hopes of preventing panic, but it didn’t work too well.
In the meantime, while rich people were trying to get out of the city, poor people were trying to get in. Anyone who owned a cart or a boat flocked to London, hoping to transport rich people and their goods out of harm’s way–for exorbitant prices. Even individuals without carts or horses offered to haul belongings on their backs. Of course, the poor already in the city could not get out, as all transportation was monopolized by wealthy and middle-class Londoners.
On the second full day, the city’s financial district was destroyed, including the Royal Exchange. Bankers hastened to haul their gold coins out of cellars and vaults. Not all made it. After the fire there are many reports of people finding huge irregular globs of gold and silver in the charred ruins, from where coins and other precious metals melted from the intense heat of the flames.
The Royal Exchange as it appears today. This is the third building to stand on the site. The first was destroyed in 1666, and its replacement in another fire in 1838.
Diarist John Evelyn (pictured at the top of this article) wrote of the fire on this day:
The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it, so that there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods, such a strange consternation there was upon them.
Tomorrow: the fire reaches its horrifying climax, destroying St. Paul’s Cathedral.