It was upon the first day of that September, in the dismal year of 1666 (in which many prodigies were expected, and so many really fell out), that the memorable and terrible fire brake out in London, which begun about midnight, or nearer the morning of Sunday, in a baker's shop, at the end of Thames Street, next the Tower, there being many little narrow alleys, and very poor houses, about the place where it first appeared; and then finding such store of combustible materials, as that street is always furnished with in timber houses, the fire prevailed so powerfully, that that whole street and the neighbourhood was in so short a time turned to ashes, that few persons had time to save and preserve any of their goods; but were a heap of people almost as dead with the sudden distraction, as the ruins were which they sustained. The magistrates of the city assembled quickly together, and with the usual remedies of buckets, which they were provided with: but the fire was too ravenous to be extinguished with such quantities of water as those instruments conld apply to it, and fastened still upon new materials before it had destroyed the old. And though it raged furiously all that day, to that degree that all men stood amazed, as spectators only, no man knowing what remedy to apply, nor the magistrates what orders to give: yet it kept within some compass, burned what was next, and laid hold only on both sides; and the greatest apprehension was of the Tower, and all considerations entered upon how to secure that place.
But in the night the wind changed, and carried the danger from thence, but with so great and irresistible violence, that it scattered the fire from pursuing the line it was in with all its force, and spread it over the city; so that they, who went late to bed at a great distance from any place where the fire prevailed, were awakened before morning with their own houses being in a flame; and whilst endeavour was made to quench that, other houses were discovered to be burning, which were near no place from whence they could imagine the fire could come; all which kindled another fire in the breasts of men, almost as dangerous as that within their houses.
Monday morning produced first a jealousy, and then an universal conclusion, that this fire came not by chance, nor did they care where it began; but the breaking out in several places at so great distance from each other, made it evident that it was by conspiracy and combination. And this determination could not hold long without discovery of the wicked authors, who were concluded to be all the Dutch and all the French in the town, though they had inhabited the same places above twenty years. All of that kind, or, if they were strangers, of what nation soever, were laid hold of; and after all the ill usage that can consist in words, and some blows and kicks, they were thrown into prison. And shortly after, the same conclusion comprehended all the Roman Catholics, who were in the same predicament of guilt and danger, and quickly found that their only safety consisted in keeping within doors; and yet some of them, and of quality, were taken by force out of their houses and carried to prison.
When this rage spread as far as the fire, and every hour brought reports of some bloody effects of it, worse than in truth there were, the King distributed many of the Privy Council into several quarters of the city, to prevent, by their authorities, those inhumanities which he heard were committed. In the mean time, even they, or any other person thought it not safe to declare, 'that they believed that the fire came by accident,' 'or that it was not a plot of the Dutch and the French, and Papists, to burn the city;' which was so generally believed, and in the best company, that he who said the contrary was suspected for a conspirator, or at best a favourer of them. It could not be conceived, how a house that was distant a mile from any part of the fire could suddenly be in a flame, without some particular malice; and this case fell out every hour. When a man at the farthest end of Bread Street had made a shift to get out of his house his best and most portable goods because the fire had approached near them, he no sooner had secured them, as he thought, in some friend's house in Holborn, which was believed a safe distance, but he saw that very house, and none else near it, in a sudden flame: nor did there want, in this woful distemper, the testimony of witnesses who saw this villany committed, and apprehended men who they were ready to swear threw fire-balls into houses, which were presently burning.
The fire and the wind continued in the same excess all Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, till afternoon, and flung and scattered brands burning into all quarters; the nights more terrible than the days, and the light the same, the light of the fire supplying that of the sun. And indeed whoever was an eye-witness of that terrible prospect, can never have so lively an image of the last conflagration till he beholds it; the faces of all people in a wonderful dejection and discomposure, not knowing where they could repose themselves for one hour's sleep, and no distance thought secure from the fire, which suddenly started up, before it was suspected; so that people left their houses, and carried away their goods from many places which received no hurt, and whither they afterwards returned again; all the fields full of women and children, who had made a shift to bring thither some goods and conveniences to rest upon, as safer than any houses, where yet they felt such intolerable heat and drought, as if they had been in the middle of the fire. The King and the Duke, who rode from one place to another, and put themselves into greater dangers amongst the burning and falling houses, to give advice and direction what was to be done, underwent as much fatigue as the meanest, and had as little sleep or rest; and the faces of all men appeared ghastly, and in the highest confusion. The country sent in carts to help those miserable people who had saved any goods: and by this means, and the help of coaches, all the neighbour villages were filled with more people than they could contain, and more goods than they could find room for; so that those fields became likewise as full as the other about London and Westminster.
It was observed, that where the fire prevailed most, when it met with brick buildings, if it was not repulsed, it was so well resisted that it made a much slower progress; and when it had done its worst, that the timber and all the combustible matter fell, it fell down to the bottom within the house, and the walls stood and enclosed the fire, and it was burned out without making a farther progress in many of those places; and then the vacancy so interrupted the fury of it, that many times the two or three next houses stood without much damage. Besides the spreading, insomuch as all London seemed but one fire in the breadth of it, it seemed to continue in its full fury a direct line to the Thames side, all Cheapside from beyond the Exchange, through Fleet Street; insomuch as for that breadth, taking in both sides as far as the Thames, there was scarce a house or church standing from the bridge to Dorset House, which was burned on Tuesday night after Baynard's Castle.
On Wednesday morning, when the King saw that neither the fire decreased nor the wind lessened, he even despaired of preserving Whitehall, but was more afraid of Westminster Abbey. But having observed by his having visited all places, that where there was any vacant place between the houses, there the progress of the fire was much less, changed its course and went to the water-side, he gave order for pulling down many houses about Whitehall, some whereof were newly built and hardly finished, and sent many of his choice goods by water to Hampton Court; as most of the persons of quality in the Strand, who had the benefit of the river, got barges and other vessels, and sent their furniture for their houses to some houses some miles out of the town. And very many on both sides of the Strand, who knew not whither to go, and scarce what they did, fled with their families out of their houses into the streets, that they might not be within when the fire fell upon their houses.
But it pleased God, contrary to all expectation, that on Wednesday, about four or five of the clock in the afternoon, the wind fell; and as in an instant the fire decreased, having burned all on the Thames side to the new buildings of the Inner Temple, next to Whitefriars, and having consumed them, was stopped by that vacancy from proceeding farther into that house, but laid hold on some old buildings which joined to Ram Alley, and swept all those into Fleet Street. And the other side being likewise destroyed to Fetter Lane, it advanced no farther; but left the other part of Fleet Street to the Temple Bar, and all the Strand, unhurt, but what the damage the owners of the houses had done to themselves by endeavouring to remove; and it ceased in all other parts of the town near the same time.
When the night, though far from being a quiet one, had somewhat lessened the consternation, the first care the King took was, that the country might speedily supply markets in all places, that they who had saved themselves from burning might not be in danger of starving: and if there had not been extraordinary care and diligence used, many would have perished that way. The vast destruction of corn, and all other sorts of provisions, in those parts where the fire had prevailed, had not only left all that people destitute of all that was to be eat or drank; but the bakers and brewers which inhabited the other parts which were unhurt, had forsaken their houses, and carried away all that was portable; insomuch as many days passed before they were enough in their wits and in their houses to fall to their occupations; and those parts of the town which God had spared and preserved were many hours without any thing to eat, as well as those who were in the fields. And yet it can hardly be conceived, how great a supply of all kinds was brought from all places within four and twenty hours. And which was more miraculous, in four days, in all the fields about the town, which had seemed covered with those whose habitations were burned, and with the goods which they had saved, there was scarce a man to be seen: all found shelter in so short a time, either in those parts which remained of the city and in the suburbs, or in the neighbour villages; all kind of people expressing a marvellous charity towards those who appeared to be undone. And very many, with more expedition than can be conceived, set up little sheds of brick and timber upon the ruins of their own houses, where they chose rather to inhabit than in more convenient places, though they knew they could not long reside in those new buildings.
There was a very odd accident that confirmed many in what they were inclined to believe, and startled others, who thought the conspiracy impossible, since no combination not very discernible and discovered could have effected that mischief, in which the immediate hand of God was so visible. Amongst many Frenchmen who had been sent to Newgate, there was one Hubert, a young man of five or six and twenty years of age, the son of a famous watchmaker in the city of Roan; and this fellow had wrought in the same profession with several men in London, and had for many years both in Roan and in London, been looked upon as distracted. This man confessed 'that he had set the first house on fire,' and that he had been hired in Paris a year before to do it: that there were three more combined with him to do the same thing, and that they came over together into England to put it in execution in the time of the plague; but when they were in London, he and two of his 'companions' went into Sweden, and returned from thence in the latter end of August, and he resolved to 'undertake it; and that the two others went away into France.'
The whole examination was so senseless, that the Chief Justice, who was not looked upon as a man who wanted rigour, did not believe any thing he said. He was asked, 'who it was in Paris that suborned him to this 'action?'' to which he answered, 'that he did not know, having never seen him before;' and in the enlarging upon that point he contradicted himself in many particulars. Being asked 'what money he had received to perform a service of so much hazard,' he said, 'he had received but a pistole, but was promised five pistoles more when he should have done his work;' and many such unreasonable things, that nobody present credited any thing he said. However, they durst not slight the evidence, but put him to a particular, in which he so fully confirmed all that he had said before, that they were surprised with wonder, and knew not afterwards what to say or think. They asked him, 'if he knew the place where he first put fire;' he answered, 'that he knew it very well, and would show it to any body.' Upon this the Chief Justice, and many Aldermen who sate with him, sent a guard of substantial citizens with the prisoner, that he might show them the house; and they first led him to a place at some distance from it, and asked him 'if that were it;' to which he answered presently 'no, it was lower, nearer to the Thames.' The house and all which were near it were so covered and buried in ruins, that the owners themselves, without some infallible mark, could very hardly have said where their own houses had stood; but this man led them directly to the place, described how it stood, the shape of the little yard, the fashion of the door and windows, and where he first put the fire; and all this with such exactness, that they who had dwelt long near it could not so particularly have described all particulars.
This silenced all farther doubts. And though the Chief Justice told the King, 'that all his discourse was so disjointed that he did not believe him guilty;' nor was there one man who prosecuted or accused him: yet upon his own confession, and so sensible a relation of all that he had done, accompanied with so many circumstances (though without the least show of compunction or sorrow for what he said he had done, nor yet seeming to justify or to take delight in it; but being asked whether he was not sorry for the wickedness, and whether he intended to do so much, he gave no answer at all, or made reply to what was said: and with the same temper died), the Jury found him guilty, and he was executed accordingly. And though no man could imagine any reason why a man should so desperately throw away his life, which he might have saved, though he had been guilty, since he was only accused upon his own confession; yet neither the Judges nor any present at the trial did believe him guilty, but that he was a poor distracted wretch weary of his life, and chose to part with it this way. Certain it is, that upon the strictest examination that could be afterwards made by the King's command, and then by the diligence of the House, that upon the jealousy and rumour made a committee, that was very diligent and solicitous to make that discovery, there was never any probable evidence (that poor creature's only excepted) that there was any other cause of that woful fire, than the displeasure of God Almighty: the first accident of the beginning in a baker's house, where there was so great a stock of faggots, and the neighbourhood of much combustible matter, of pitch and rosin and the like, led it in an instant from house to house through Thames Street, with the agitation of so terrible a wind to scatter and disperse it.
Let the cause be what it would, the effect was very terrible; for above two parts of three of that great city were burned to ashes, and those the most rich and wealthy parts of the city, where the greatest warehouses and best shops stood. The Royal Exchange with all the streets about it, Lombard Street, Cheapside, Paternoster Row, St. Paul's Church, and almost all the other churches in the city, with the Old Bailey, Ludgate, all Paul's Churchyard even to the Thames, and the greatest part of Fleet Street, all which were places the best inhabited, were all burned without one house remaining.
The value or estimate of what that devouring fire consumed, over and above the houses, could never be computed in any degree: for, besides that the first night (which in a moment swept away the vast wealth of Thames Street) there was not anything that could be preserved in respect of the suddenness and amazement (all people being in their beds till the fire was in their houses, and so could save nothing but themselves), the next day with the violence of the wind increased the distraction; nor did many believe that the fire was near them, or that they had reason to remove their goods, till it was upon them and rendered it impossible. Then it fell out at a season in the year, the beginning of September, when very many of the substantial citizens and other wealthy men were in the country, whereof many had not left a servant in their houses, thinking themselves upon all ordinary accidents more secure in the goodness and kindness of their neighbours, than they could be in the fidelity of a servant; and whatsoever was in such houses was entirely consumed by the fire, or lost as to the owners. And of this classis of absent men, when the fire came where the lawyers had houses, as they had in many places, especially Serjeant's Inn in Fleet Street, with that part of the Inner Temple that was next it and Whitefriars, there was scarce a man to whom those lodgings appertained who was in town: so that whatsoever was there, their money, books, and papers, besides the evidences of many men's estates deposited in their hands, were all burned or lost, to a very great value. But of particular men's losses could never be made any computation.
It was an incredible damage that was and might rationally be computed to be sustained by one small company, the company of Stationers, in books, paper, and the other lesser commodities which are vendible in that corporation, which amounted to no less than two hundred thousand pounds; in which prodigious loss there was one circumstance very lamentable: all those who dweit near Paul's carried their goods, books, paper, and the like, as others of greater trades did their commodities, into the large vaults which were under St. Paul's Church, before the fire came thither; which vaults, though all the church above the ground was afterwards burned with all the houses round about, still stood firm and supported the foundation, and preserved all that was within them: until the impatience of those who had lost their houses, and whatsoever they had else, in the fire, made them very desirous to see what they had saved, upon which all their hopes were founded to repair the rest.
It was the fourth day after the fire ceased to flame, though it still burned in the ruins, from whence there was still an intolerable heat, when the booksellers especially, and some other tradesmen, who had deposited all they had preserved in the greatest and most spacious vault, came to behold all their wealth, which to that moment was safe: but the doors were no sooner opened, and the air from without fanned the strong heat within, but first the dryest and most combustible matters broke into a flame, which consumed all, of what kind soever that till then had been unhurt there. Yet they who had committed their goods to some lesser vaults, at a distance from that greater, had better fortune; and having learned from the second ruin of their friends to have more patience, attended till the rain fell, and extinguished the fire in all places, and cooled the air; and then they securely opened the doors, and received all from thence that they had there.
If so vast a damage as two hundred thousand pounds befell that little company of Stationers in books and paper and the like, what shall we conceive was lost in cloth (of which the country clothiers lost all that they had brought up to Blackwell Hall against Michaelmas, which was all burned with that fair structure) in silks of all kinds, in linen, and those richer manufactures? Not to speak of money, plate, and jewels, whereof some were recovered out of the ruins of those houses which the owners took care to watch, as containing somewhat that was worth the looking for, and in which deluge there were men ready enough to fish.
The Lord Mayor (Sir Thomas Bludworth), though a very honest man, was much blamed for want of sagacity in the first night of the fire, before the wind gave it much advancement: for, though he came with great diligence as soon as he had notice of it, and was present with the first, yet having never been used to such spectacles, his consternation was equal to that of other men, nor did he know how to apply his authority to the remedying the present distress; and when men who were less terrified with the object pressed him very earnestly, 'that he would give order for the present pulling down those houses which were nearest, and by which the fire climbed to go farther' (the doing whereof, at that time, might probably have prevented much of the mischief that succeeded), he thought it not safe counsel, and made no other answer, than 'that he durst not do it without the consent of the owners.' His want of skill was the less wondered at, when it was known afterwards, that some gentlemen in the Inner Temple would not endeavour to preserve the goods which were in the lodgings of absent persons, nor suffer others to do it, 'because,' they said, 'it was against the law to break up any man's chamber.'
The so sudden repair of those formidable ruins, and the giving so great beauty to all deformity (a beauty and a lustre that city had never before been acquainted with), is little less wonderful than the fire that consumed it.