The London of the 1660s was described as being a “wooden, northern, and inartificial congestion of Houses,” by the contemporary diarist John Evelyn. What Evelyn meant by this was that the city was unplanned and ad hoc as a result of its organic growth and unregulated urban sprawl. The combination of wooden buildings and congestion caused by its 500,000 inhabitants were essentially a great fire hazard waiting to be ignited.
The medieval city had experienced several major fires before 1666, with the most recent occurring in 1632. The use of wood and thatch for constructing buildings had been banned for centuries, but these cheap materials continued to be used regardless.
The only area that was mainly built using stone was the wealthy centre of the City, where the merchants and brokers lived, surrounded by an inner ring of overcrowded poorer parishes whose every available inch of space was used to accommodate the rapidly growing population.
These parishes contained a plethora of workspaces, many of which contained major fire hazards such as foundries, smithies, glaziers etc. and all were theoretically illegal in the City but tolerated in practice.
The typical six or seven storeyed timber London tenement had a projecting upper floor which enabled the creation of extra space by encroaching on the street at the upper levels. All the way along the river, rickety wooden tenements and tar paper shacks of the poor were shoehorned in amongst “old paper buildings and the most combustible matter of tarr, pitch, hemp, rosen, and flax which was all layd up thereabouts.”
London had suffered an exceptional drought since November 1665, and the wooden buildings were tinder-dry after 1666’s long hot summer.
A fire broke out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane not long after midnight on Sunday 2 September. Neighbours tried to put out the fire and after about an hour, the parish constables arrived and decided the adjoining houses had to be demolished to prevent further spread. Naturally the respective householders were less than enamoured by the decision, so the Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bloodworth was summoned as he alone had the authority to override the wishes of parish officials.
When Bloodworth arrived, the flames had consumed the adjoining houses and were slowly making their way down towards the paper warehouses and flammable stores by the river front. As the more experienced fire fighters called for the demolition of buildings in the area, Bloodworth refused on the grounds that most premises were rented properties and the owners couldn’t be found.
Bloodworth is generally thought to have been appointed to office as a yes man rather than someone who was possessed of real leadership qualities and he panicked when faced with a genuine emergency that had to be dealt with. Bloodworth is said to have taken one look at the fire before scoffing his famous remark: “Pish! A woman could piss it out,” and then returning to his home to go back to sleep.
Over the next three days the fire destroyed more than 75 percent of the city which included 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches, 44 Company Halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bridewell Palace and other City prisons, the General Letter Office, and the three western city gates—Ludgate, Newgate, and Aldersgate.
The monetary value of the destruction was estimated to be about £10,000,000 which equates to more than £1 billion in today’s money.
Bloodworth was made a scapegoat for the failure to stop the firestorm, but in reality he couldn’t pull down houses without being made personally responsible for the cost of rebuilding them unless he had authorisation from the King, and he also faced stiff resistance from the aldermen of the city.
When parliament met after the great fire, Bloodworth was rather sardonically named to the committees on the total bill as, ‘providing utensils for the speedy quenching of fire,’ a comment denoted by some to be a sarcastic reference to his chamber pot and its contents.
In our opinion Sir Thomas Bloodworth can rest in peace despite the suggestion that he was responsible for the Great fire of London.
Our publisher Darcus White once fell asleep drunk whilst trying to cook food on a barbecue and just like in 17th century London, there was no adequate water supply in close proximity to keep the flames in check. He attempted to extinguish the inferno by urinating on the now raging conflagration, but unfortunately had his nether regions singed by the flames. This unfortunate event left his todger resembling one of the over-cooked chipolata sausages that were left uneaten after all the onlooking guests had departed in a hurry.