A recent programme on ITV dramatised the inferno which swept through the City of London. Of course, in 1666 photography and film lay in the future; therefore any pictorial representation nowadays would normally present a problem. However, rescue is at hand in the shape of Samuel Pepys and his immortal diary.
Pepys was woken by his maid, Jane, at 3am on Sunday, 2nd September and told of “a great fire” in the City. By 7am (Pepys had gone back to bed) Jane told him “above 300 houses had been burned down.” Pepys made his way to the Tower and saw “an infinite great fire.” He learned that the fire had started in a baker’s in Pudding Lane.
He boarded a boat “went through the bridge and there saw a lamentable fire.” People were desperately trying to board lighters, some even threw their goods into the river. In the midst of the confusion Pepys observed “pigeons loathe to leave their houses [which] hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”
Pepys did not see any attempts to quench the fire, which was fanned by a “mighty wind.” He made his way to Whitehall and apprised the King of the situation. He advised the King to issue an order that all houses in the path of the fire must be “pulled down.” Pepys was despatched to tell the Lord Mayor of the King’s order. Pepys, on his way, saw “sick people carried away in beds.” The Lord Mayor, on hearing the Royal command “cried like a fainting woman.” Again Pepys failed to see any efforts to deal with the fire.
Pepys repaired to his home where he and guests enjoyed dinner before returning to the streets where “people, horses and carts (are) ready to run over one and another.” With his wife and friends he made his way to St. James’ Park having his face almost burned by “Firedrops.” He returned home “with a sad heart.”
At 4am on the 3rd a cart arrived at his house to remove “all my money and plate and best things.” Pepys mounted the cart, resplendent in his nightshirt. Back home there was domestic dissension. Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth, sacked a maid for leaving the house without permission. Pepys was not best pleased, but the deed had been done.
On Tuesday, 4th September Pepys buried his wine in the garden along with his “parmazan (sic) cheese.” The fire was still spreading: Cheapside and St. Pauls were ablaze. Pepys wrote to his father, but was thwarted when he discovered that the post office had been consumed by the flames.
On Wednesday, 5th September Pepys was woken at 2am by his wife: the fire was spreading. He had her taken to safety in Woolwich. He surveyed the scene from the steeple of All Hallows, but was so disconcerted by the raging fire that he descended quickly. He walked into the city, having his feet scorched by the hot “coles” beneath. He heard talk of either the Dutch or the French being responsible for starting the fire. He saw a “Catt” being removed from a chimney. The animal had survived with only its fur scorched.
On Thursday 6th September, 1666 the fire burned itself out.
Primary source: The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A Selection, Penguin Classics, 2003
Secondary source: Samuel Pepys – The Unqualified Self by Claire Tomalin, Viking – Penguin Books, 2002