At 1 a.m. on Sunday September 2, at the end of the particularly long, dry, hot summer of 1666, fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane in London City. Fanned by a fierce easterly wind, it spread quickly to the warehouses on the riverbanks. Filled with pitch, ropes and timber, they exploded and fuelled the fire’s race through the crowded wooden houses which overhung the narrow streets.
Pandemonium followed. People fled in wild panic before the advancing flames. The streets were soon packed with carts stacked with household goods and people laden with whatever treasures they could carry. Carters, exploiting the situation charged outrageous prices. Thieves and looters ran through the abandoned houses seizing whatever they could. Vigilante groups hunted down scapegoats among the city’s long distrusted foreign communities.
Others bravely fought the blaze, including the King and the Duke of York. In a desperate attempt to stop the advancing inferno, forces of soldiers and sailors were organized to blow up houses in its path. Finally, after five days, the wind dropped and the fire died down.
It took the city years to recover. Slowly some people moved into the city, rebuilt their houses and re-established their businesses. Others never returned, choosing to remain in the new settlements further out. Witch hunts continued and foreigners were held in suspicion. However, in the end, the blame was placed on greed, as the blaze had started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. A golden statue of a fat little boy stands on the corner of a building near Smithfield Market as reminder of the fire and of the wages of the sin of greed.
The Museum of London, in Aldergate Street in the City, has a wonderful exhibition on the Great Fire of London. It tells the story through the real life experiences of famous writers, like diarist Samuel Pepys and also of some ordinary citizens. It explores the questions; How did people cope? Who caused the fire? What were the lasting effects?
The museum, which sits alongside the ancient city wall, also explores the history of very early of London and Roman London.
The City of London, generally referred to as “The City” is London’s business and financial centre. It stretches along the north bank of the Thames from the Old Bailey, at the west end, to the Tower of London at the east.
Although there has been a settlement on the site since the 8th century Roman fort of Londinium, it has been razed and rebuilt many times. Most of early and mediaeval London was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. Again, during World War Two, bombing attacks took levelled many18th, 19th and early 20th century buildings.
Today, the city is a showcase of spectacular, towering modern architecture. Ever-rising scaffolding covered in heat shrink wrap and the din of jack-hammers speak of constant renewal and the criss cross of cranes against the sky of the continual upward climb. Although, alongside modern buildings filled with victoria office space, there are still remains of the London of old, with classic architecture that produces a poignant contrast between the modern day and centuries gone by.
The city is the domain of the safety helmet, the yellow vest, the suit, the briefcase and, even sometimes, the bowler hat. It is a powerhouse of construction and commerce, a busy, vibrant place, which hums with daytime activity during the week and pumps on Thursday and Friday nights. Most of the rest of the time it is empty and deserted. Very few people have actually lived here since the 19th century.
Yet, still, threaded through the construction sites and dotted around the twentieth and twenty-first century monoliths are traces of old the city and the lives of the people who lived there. Plaques indicate the homes of famous figures from history, like prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry’s on Threadneedle Street.
There are streets which recall neighbourhoods of another age, like Bread Street, Cornhill Street and Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire started. Some districts are as old as Shakespeare, like Billingsgate, one of London’s oldest quays and home of its fish-market for 900 years until its 1982 re-location to the Isle of Dogs.
The Ornate Victorian Leadenhall Market, on site of the Roman Forum, was designed by Sir Horace Jones in 1881 but has housed a food market since the Middle Ages. Today it offers additional gourmet fare; wine, cheese, chocolates and delicatessen. At breakfast and lunchtime it is crowded with shoppers, stalls and diners.
Nine of the 52 beautiful churches built by Christopher after the Great fire still survive. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1708, still dominates the city skyline. The bells of St Mary Le Bow still chime and the tradition still holds that anyone born within their sound is deemed to be a true Londoner or Cockney. Still standing, also, is Wren’s 62m stone column commemorating the Great Fire. The tallest isolated stone column in the world, it goes by the unassuming name of Monument.
Many public buildings remain too. The Royal Exchange building, 1844, is the third on its site between Threadneedle and Cornhill Streets. The first was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham, Elizabethan merchant and courtier in 1565 and was given its Royal Title by Queen Elizabeth I. It is still one of the sites from which the new regent is announced. Britain’s first public (men only) lavatories, a symbol of the country’s sanitary enlightenment, were built in the forecourt of the Exchange. The Mansion house, official residence of the Lord Mayor of London, designed by George Dance the elder, was built in 1853 and of course housed such legends as Dick Whittington. Also “housed” in its concealed prison was the suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst.
The City of London is many ways a hodge-podge of new, old and older still, with tiny sunless pedestrian alleys curving off at odd tangents and roaring streets full of traffic, intersecting at strange angles. It is a mess of differing heights, styles and media with no architectural uniformity whatsoever and no apparent plan. But, yet it is the contrast of the old and the new, the high and the low, the stone and the glass, the plain and the effusively decorated that give the city its distinctive character. It is the scarred stone church against the gleaming steel diamonds of the glass tower that give it its charm. It is the tall, pale, angular, planes of the skyscraper behind sepia stained statues, friezes and neo-classical pillars or the glimpse of a pristine, white cathedral dome between two dark walls that give it its drama. And it is the reflection of elaborate Victorian façades in the stark steel-framed windows of the modern office block that gives it its magic.