In days of old, when London’s present meatmarket was the fashionable jousting-ground of the time, the knights and squires used to ride to Smithfield up a road still called Giltspur Street, either from the armourers who dwelt there, or from the jingling of the champions’ spurs as they clattered by.
Any Holborn bus will take you to the corner of St. Sepulchre’s where the dismal bell tolled the passing to Newgate of the condemned criminals. On the right side of Giltspur Street is St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, that survived the Great Fire only to be rebuilt in 1730. The history of this great London hospital goes back eight hundred years, for it belonged to the Priory, but Sir Thomas Gresham’s father persuaded Henry VIII. to refound the institution in 1546.
There was once a naive inscription under the statue of the fat boy whose stone image is still to be seen at the corner where Cock Lane joins Giltspur Street, on the left. At this point, once known as Pye Corner, the Fire of London was stopped in 1666 by blowing up the houses, and the writing underneath the figure of this extremely obese youth reminded the ‘passer-by that ” the Great Fire . . . was occasioned by the sin of gluttony.” I do not know what authority there was for this allegation. Whoever was responsible for the tablet probably had running in his muddled head the names of Pye or Pie Corner and Pudding Lane in Thames Street where the conflagration started. The fact that it was from the house of a baker that the flames first spread may likewise have influenced him, though it is unusual to be gluttonous on bread alone.
The Fire gave the moralist good cause for thought. It was an event so tremendous, so far-reaching, so overwhelming, that it is strange that the history books of England do not linger over its significance. For in less than a week practically every landmark that went to make up the most interesting old mediaeval city in the world was swept away. The ancient cathedral of St. Paul’s, 89 churches, q. city gates, 460 streets and 13,200 houses perished in the flames. With the exception, perhaps, of the burning of Rome, there has never been so terrible a fire. Pepys wept to see it.
A wonderful account has been left us by Evelyn :
The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirr’d to quench it, so that there was nothing heard or scene but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods, such a strange consternation there was upon them, so as it burned both in breadth and length, the Churches, Public Halls, Exchange, Hospitals, Monuments, and ornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner from house to house and streete to streete, at greate distances one from ye other; for ye heate with a long set of faire and warme weather, had even ignited the air, and prepar’d the materials to conceive the fire, which devour’d after an incredible manner, houses, furniture, and everything. Here we saw the Thames cover’d with goods floating, all the barges and boates laden with what some had time and courage to save, as, on ye other, ye carts, &c., carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strew’d with moveables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away. Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seen the like since the foundation of it, nor to be outdone till the universale conflagration. All the skie was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, the light seen above forty miles round about for many nights. God grant my eyes may never behold the like, now seeing above io,ooo houses all in one flame; the noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, ye shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of Towers, Houses, and Churches, was like an hideous storme, and the aire all about so hot and inflam’d that at last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forc’d to stand still and let ye flames burn on, wch they did for neere two miles in length and one in bredth. The clouds of smoke were dismall, and reach’d upon computation neer fifty miles in length. Thus I left it this afternoone burning, a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day. London was, but is no more!
Everyone lent a hand; even King Charles came down from Whitehall and worked hard beside his meanest subject-doing something useful for once in a way. But it was a case of saving what one could and fleeing. Some stacked their treasures in the churches (the booksellers of Paternoster Row stored their books in St. Paul’s), but of the churches nothing was left. Some buried their valuables underground and perhaps recovered them two years afterwards, when the last of the rubbish was cleared away. By the end of that fatal September the whole of the large district of Moorfields, north of the city, was one vast camp of the homeless, and there they stayed in shacks and shelters till the city was rebuilt, much as the unfortunate people of devastated France were living during the years of the Great War.
The trade of London ceased for a time; there were no shops, the merchants had lost their goods, the warehouses were gutted, all records of debts and commercial transactions were destroyed, there were no schools, no almshouses.
Yet in four short years the English, with the same dogged energy that they were putting recently into the making of trenches and dugouts, had practically rebuilt their capital city. The churches, of course, took a long time to finish; the beautiful and numerous halls of the City Companies were not replaced in a day, but nearly 10,000 houses were up, and since those seventeenth-century workmen were just Englishmen, with no foreigners at hand to tell them to ” ca’ canny,” everything was in a fair way to completion.
As for Sir Christopher Wren, that amazing architect who stamped the impress of his genius on the great city as we know it, who shall give him enough honour? He designed and erected over forty public buildings, amongst them the lovely and unique cluster of churches that lie around St. Paul’s, yet for this work he was rewarded by the miserable salary of L100 a year, with £ZOO a year for the rebuilding of the great cathedral.