Monday, 16 January 2012

BREAKING NEWS! Great Fire Sweeps Across London! Prominent citizen Mr Samuel Pepys gives an eyewitness account of the dreadful conflagration.

The Great Fire of London of 1666 by an unknown artist

- Breaking news on this Lord’s Day, the second of September, 1666. In the early hours of the morning, in the Blackfriars district of the capital, not far from the Tower, a great fire broke out, and even as we speak is raging out of control, devouring everything that lies in its path. Not far from the epicentre of the tragedy, from his house in Seething Lane, the whole sad drama was witnessed by Senior Admiralty Official, Mr Samuel Pepys, who joins us now. Tell us what you saw, Sam? I believe it was your maid Jane who alerted to you to the terrible conflagration?

- Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose and slipped on my nightgowne, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside of Marke-lane at the farthest; but being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off; and so went to bed again…

- (laughs) You went to bed again? Sam, are you telling us you went to be again? What happened next?

- About seven rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window, and saw the fire not so much as it was and further off. ….. By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down Fish-street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places ….. and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge….

- So it was already an inferno? What did you do then?

- So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish-street already. So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire.

- And what about the poor citizenry caught up in the fire? I image they were struggling to save whatever they could?

- Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into the lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into the 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.

- Poor pigeons. Could you tell which direction the fire was moving in?

- Having staid, and in an hour’s time see the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire, and having seen it get as far the Steele-yard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City, and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches….

- I believe you were the first to inform His Majesty and his brother the Duke of York of the terrible event? How did they react?

- They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way. The Duke of York bid me tell him he would have more soldiers he shall…

- So we went to Sir Thomas Bludworth, the Lord Mayor? How did you find him?

- Like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, “Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.” That he needed no more soldiers; and that, for himself, he must go and refresh himself, having been up all night. So he left me, and I him, and walked home, seeing people all almost distracted, and no manner or means used to quench the fire. And houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tarr, in Thames-street, and warehouses of oyle, and wines, and brandy, and other things.

- Was the King still being appraised of the situation as it developed? Did you meet with him again? Did he have any new orders?

- Met with the King and Duke of York in their barge, and with them to Queenhith and there called Sir Richard Browne to them. Their order was only to pull down houses apace, and so below river the water-side; but little was or could be done, the fire coming upon them so fast. Good hopes there was of stopping it at the Three Cranes above, and at Buttolph’s Wharf below bridge, if care be used; but the wind carries it into the City so as we know not by the water-side what it do there.

- Indeed, a terrible tragedy. I believe you’ve seen it once more from the river, with your wife? Can you describe what you saw?

- All over the Thames, with one’s face to the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops. This is very true; so as houses were burned by these drops and flakes of fire, three or four, nay, five or six houses, one from another. When we could endure no more upon the water; to a little ale-house on the Bankside, over against the Three Cranes, and there staid till it was dark almost, and saw the fire grow; and as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of  the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of the ordinary fire. …. And a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins. So home with a sad heart….

- A sad heart for all Londoners, Sam. We’ll take a break now, and we’ll be back with more breaking news on the fire. And as the fad for periwigs continues to sweep across Europe, we’ll be asking the all important question: Should a gentleman have his hair cropped to wear this latest indispensable head adornment? Stay with us…..

Citations from Samuel Pepys’s Diary 2 September 1666.

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