8 June 2010
On a hot September evening in 1666 Samuel Pepys sat in a riverside pub and watched his beloved London burn. He records the scene in his diary: “All over the Thames, with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops…and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, we saw the fire …It made me weep to see it.” On an overcast evening in June 2010 I led a Metropolitan Walkers evening stroll beginning and ending at the Monument that traced much of the territory destroyed in the Great Fire of London. You’ll be pleased to know that in Stew Lane, Pepys is honoured with a riverside pub named after him – I think he’d have liked that. (A quick google shows another Samuel Pepys in Mayfair, another in Kettering and one in Huntingdon.)
The story of the Great Fire is fairly well known. Not long after midnight on Sunday 2 September a stray spark from the embers of Thomas Farriner’s (or Farynor) bakery fire ignited his house in Pudding Lane. The resulting fire gutted the largely timber built medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster, the still newly restored Charles II’s palace at Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated that over 70,000 people were left homeless but the death toll is thought to be small as only 6 deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded anywhere, and that the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims, leaving no recognisable remains. In all London was estimated to have a population of 400,000 to 450,000 which was more than England’s next 50 biggest towns and cities combined. It was still haunted by the recent civil war and in the previous year it had been ravaged by the plague which had killed an estimated 70,000 inhabitants. Life in cities in these times was, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, ‘nasty, brutal and short’.
We began (and ended) our walk at the Monument. We walked up Pudding Lane, which is about 200 metres away from the Thames. The bakery probably baked meat pies and the ‘pudding’ from which the lane gets its name is the resulting detritius from animal slaughter which they just left to flow down towards the river. Then we filed through Leadenhall Market – famous these days as the film locations for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. We briefly headed towards the bottom of Bishopsgate – the eastern boundary of the Fire – and then headed north west journeying up Gresham Street. This street is the home of the Guildhall, the City of London’s present day local government town hall, but back in the 17th century housed many of the headquarters of the city’s Livery Companies. I tend to view these institutions as quaint anachronisms, the first twelve livery companies are known as the Great Twelve City Livery Companies, but of the 108 many are modern. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals (I kid you not).
They are nominally trade associations and almost all are known as the “Worshipful Company of” the relevant trade or profession. The medieval livery companies originally developed as guilds and were responsible for the regulation of their trades, controlling, for instance, wages and labour conditions. Some livery companies continue to have a regulatory role today – the Scriveners – and some have become inoperative except as charitable foundations – the Longbow Makers. Most livery companies, particularly those formed in recent years, are primarily social and charitable organizations. The active livery companies play an important part in social life and networking in the City of London, and have a long history of cultural patronage, and control of the City Corporation which still functions as a Local Authority with extensive local government powers. The Merchant Taylors and the Skinners have always disputed their precedence, so once a year, at Easter, they exchange sixth and seventh place. This is one of the theories for the origin of the phrase “at sixes and sevens”.
Perhaps not as well known is the story of the rebuilding of London following the four days of the Fire. Almost immediately people started congregating in the various open spaces like Moorfields and the piazza of Covent Garden. Tents – reminiscent of today’s refugee camps – began springing up everywhere. They would have looked across a devastated city that would need clearing before building work could start. Almost immediately the great and the good like Sir Christopher Wren submitted their visionary plans. However, over the next 25 years London was rebuilt replicating existing property rights. Legal frameworks – the Fire courts – were established in a matter of days to decide who owned what. The Corporation of London appointed Robert Hooke as a surveyor and he was out on the ground immediately – day 6 – it was cool enough to stand on. Ironically a tax on coal proved to be the main source of income to enable this rebuild.
Although the new city sprang from the roots of the old – it took over a year to just clear the site of St Pauls – it was a different place. There was a new attitude to public and private space and although the sweeping boulevards of Wren never materialised, roads were widened and maps and street names began appearing. Both St Pauls and the Monument are built to full modernity – an homage to science that London would be known for throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed the Monument itself is a functioning zenith telescope. A more topographically coherent city emerges – one that still provides endless walking enjoyment and wonder today.
View this route: