The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Great Fire of London
By Neil Hanson
Corgi Books (2001)
Hanson begins this book with detailed historical background on the period in which the great fire of London occurred. In the century between 1566 and 1666, London’s population had quadrupled in 100 to 300,000. The poor areas within the city walls were extremely overcrowded. According to Hanson, as many as 2,000 tenants could be crowded into a single wooden tenement. In addition to overcrowding, the city was also in the grips of a 10-month drought and at the tail end of a plague epidemic. Fear of plague miasma* resulted in a May 1, 1666 law requiring all buildings to keep a fire burning during the day (which was believed to ward it off).
Even though house fires were fairly common in the capitol city, London’s fire fighting equipment, which hadn’t been updated since Roman times, was extremely primitive. Each of London’s 120 churches were required by (poorly enforced) laws to have leather buckets, axes and fire hooks** available at all times.
Hanson goes on to describe in excruciating detail how an easterly gale force wind whipped up a fire storm that expanded so quickly that it entrapped people who showed any hesitation in exiting the city walls. It continued to spread for four days until the gale abated, despite heroic efforts to contain the fire by pulling down and even blowing up buildings in its path. It’s believed the majority of residents evacuated the city to camp out in the fields surrounding the walls.
In all, five-sixth of the area within the London city walls was destroyed. This included 13,000 residential buildings, 87 churches and the halls of 852 livery companies.
Once the wind died down, it became possible to extinguish smoldering fires by creating fire breaks and via bucket brigades and residents’ efforts to smother them with long handled brooms. Under the direction of King Charles II, his brother the Duke of York, the army, navy and the King’s guard, 1,000 people who had fled the city returned to help extinguish fires that continued to burn.
Although isolated areas continued to smolder until Mar 1667, a week following the fire, all evacuees had either moved to other counties or returned inside the walls to live in makeshift shacks and tents or to shelter in remaining churches, company halls, inns and taverns. Even though all the bakers and brewers had fled, there was plenty of food, thanks to supplies the King requisitioned from surrounding counties and the release of ship’s biscuit from the naval stores.
The immediate death rate is estimated at several hundred to several thousand. With 80% of the city left homeless and jobless, many thousands more died the following winter of starvation and cold.
The cause of the fire, which started in a baker’s home workshop was never precisely determined. There were powerful rumors it was started by Papists opposed to Protestant rule or hostile French or Dutch agents (England happened to be at war with with both countries). A mentally unstable Swedish naval officer was tried and hanged for starting the fire (based on confession under torture) for starting it, despite serious doubt (even at the time) of his guilt.
What I liked best about the book was Hanson’s exquisite depiction of daily life in 1666 London.
*Miasma – According to obsolete medical theory, infectious diseases such as cholera or the black death were caused by miasma, a noxious form of “bad air,” originating from rotting organic matter.
**A fire hook was a large hook on a long pole used to pull down wooden houses to create a fire break.
***Also known as hard tack needed to be soaked overnight or smashed with a hammer or rock to be edible.