The Fire of London

Previous page: The Great Plague

Evelyn's description of the Fire of London, although perhaps not so full as those of some of his contemporaries, is interesting, as he went to Bankside in Southwark and viewed it from there.

From that place he saw all the houses from the bridge, all Thames Street, and upwards towards Cheapside down to the Three Cranes, burning. This was the second day of the fire.

The next day he came again to the same place on foot from Deptford, and described the spectacle as awful: the noise, cracking, and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of the people, and fall of "towers, houses, and churches was like an hideous storm. Here we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save."

Two miles to the city side of the river's bank and one mile in depth all one glowing furnace, was a sight the like of which the old river as it flowed on to the sea had never beheld before, though it witnessed many others from the time of the Romans 1600 years before.

Pepys also saw the ravages the fire was making from the river. First going up to the top of the Tower of London, he saw the houses at the bridge end on fire.

This was on Monday, it had broken out the night before, and he is much alarmed for the safety of two of his acquaintances living on the bridge, poor little Michell and "our Sarah."

So he takes a boat and goes through the bridge, and there sees this lamentable sight. Michell's house as far as the Swan already burnt, and the fire running further.

A little later it gets as far as the Steel Yard. While he is there, everybody endeavours to remove their goods, flinging them into the river or bringing them to barges that lay off.

People wait until the last moment in their houses till the fire touches them, and then run into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs on the waterside to another.

Pepys notes that the poor pigeons, as if to leave their houses, hovering about the windows till their wings are burnt and they fall down.

No one from what he could see was doing anything to put it out; people's only concern was to remove their goods and leave all to the fire. He sees the beautiful lofty spire of St. Laurence Pountney catch fire - it was made of timber and lead - and then burn till it fell down.

He goes on to Whitehall, where evidently the extent of the disaster was not fully known, sees the King, and tells both him and the Duke of York, and says that unless orders are given at once to pull down the houses nothing can stop it.

They are both deeply troubled at the news, and at once he receives the King's command to go to the Lord Mayor and command him to spare no houses, and the Duke of York tells him that if the Lord Mayor wants any soldiers he shall have them. This plan fails through the Lord Mayor losing his head and crying like a fainting woman, "Lord! what can I do? I am spent, people will not obey me."

He takes a boat again at St. Paul's Wharf and takes in Mr. Carcasse and his brother, and carries them below and above the bridge. He sees the King's barge with the King and Duke of York on board, and goes with them to Queenhithe. The King commands the destruction of houses, but little was or could be done. The fire gained ground rapidly, and the wind carrying the flames into the city, they could not see from the waterside what damage was being done there.

The river was full of lighters and boats taking in goods, and good goods swimming in the water; he notices that hardly one lighter or boat out of three had the goods of a house in it. One he sees with a pair of virginalls in it, a sort of spinet, that appealed to his musical tastes.

From there he goes back to Whitehall to meet his wife at St. James's Park, and with her and Creed and another man and his wife, takes boat and goes on the water again, and as near to the fire as they could for smoke with their faces to the wind, and almost burnt with the showers of sparks and firedrops.

When they could endure it no longer they went to a little alehouse on Bankside, opposite to the Three Cranes, and there stayed until it was dark and saw the flames, not like an ordinary flame, but a malicious flame in one entire arch of fire; it made him weep to see it. They go home and pack up all their valuables, and send them in a cart to Sir W. Rider's at Bednall Green.

The fire had actually caught All Hallows, Barking, at the bottom of Seething Lane, where Pepys lived. He goes to Whitehall by boat on the 6th of September, and with his remarks on sees the sad appearance of the river, no houses or churches near it as far as the Temple, Pepys account concludes.

Next page: Rebuilding after The Fire