One of the earliest and most significant human achievements, and one which continues to set us apart from all other animals, is the ability to create and make use of fire. In Greek mythology, fire was a gift from the titan Prometheus which elevated humanity out of both a literal and metaphorical darkness, and was the foundation for all later human civilization. This recognition of the significance and importance of fire for humanity is echoed in the myths and legends of countless other cultures.
Of course, many of these legends also recognize another aspect of fire. It is an incredibly powerful ally so long as it is controlled. But when fire goes out of control, it can rapidly lead to terrible destruction. It is, as the old saying goes, a good servant, but a bad master.
Fire has been one of the greatest threats to human settlements ever since such settlements have existed. And I mean that quite literally. One of the earliest known semi-permanent human settlements, a tiny hamlet of several loosely grouped huts along the Sea of Galilee today known as the Ohalo site, was abandoned over 20,000 years ago when a fire burned every one of the dwellings down to their dirt foundations. We don’t know how the fire began, but there is one tantalizing clue. While intentional planting of cereal crops was not to occur in the region for thousands of years, the several dozen inhabitants of this village appear to have been harvesting large quantities of naturally occurring grains from the fertile shoreline, storing it, and grinding it into flour. archaeologists excavating one of the huts discovered a large grinding stone which still, millenia after it was last used, had traces of ground seeds stuck to its surface. This flour would likely have been mixed with water to make a simple dough, and then cooked to make flatbread that would supplement the villagers’ diet of local animals, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. While we cannot know for sure what started the fire that destroyed the Ohalo settlement, it is entirely possible that the fire used for such baking might have been the culprit. And if so, then this earliest known example of a settlement-destroying fire might have a lot in common with another, extremely famous example… one which was raging on this day, exactly 354 years ago. So let’s turn back the clock.
September 4, 1666
On the north bank of the River Thames, a firestorm rages in the heart of London. The blaze is so intense that it is creating its own weather; the rising, superheated air creates a vacuum near the ground, which in turn pulls in air from all around, creating powerful winds that are in some places forming spiraling columns, tornados of flame. The flames themselves are a ghastly red, and a thick smoke chokes the sky. Fragments of debris and liquefied tar caught up by these raging winds fall on the outer edges of the fire as a burning rain, starting new conflagrations wherever they land. Even from the south side of the river, it is possible to feel waves of heat from the inferno.
The Great Fire of London, as it will be known in the decades and centuries to come, has been raging for two days now. And it all began as a result of baking bread.
Thomas Farriner is a well-respected member of the London community, a churchwarden in his parish, and has been running a well known and successful bakery on Pudding Lane for the past 17 years. He’s a widower in his fifties and has three adult children who live with him and help him run the bakery, and he is in most respects doing very well in life. One of his constant clients is the British Royal Navy, for whom he has a regular commission to bake supplies; likely, therefore, he is often engaged in the baking of hardtack.
Hardtack is an exceptionally simple product; it is flour mixed with water and salt, and then double, triple, or even quadruple baked until almost all of the water has been cooked out. The result is a thick, rocklike square of a biscuit that British sailors sometimes called a “molar-breaker,” which had to be dunked in some form of liquid to soften before being eaten, lest it live up to that rather vivid nickname. What hardtack lacks in palatability, though, it makes up for with its cheapness and longevity; properly stored, the ironlike biscuits could last for years. Of course, after months aboard ship, even well-stored hardtack usually started to, let’s say, gain extra protein content… one of the other common nicknames sailors had for their hardtack rations was “worm castles.” I’ll let you just absorb that image for a moment.
When it comes right down to it, though, with the exception of the multiple baking stages, hardtack is more or less identical to the earliest forms of bread humans ever made–identical, in point of fact, to the bread that may have been the cause of the paleolithic Ohalo settlement fire so many millennia before. An interesting coincidence, though not one that Thomas Farriner would likely have found particularly amusing.
In the early hours of the morning of September 2nd, an errant ember from one of the ovens in Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane started a fire. As was extremely common, Farriner and his family lived in a small flat in the upstairs of the bakery. They must have been woken by the smoke. By the time they were out of bed and aware of their danger, the flames were already leaping up the stairs. There was no escape that way. And so Thomas Farriner, his son and daughters, and their maid tried to escape through a second story window, leaping across the alley to land on a balcony of the house next door. Farriner and his children made it. The maid was the last to go, and she hesitated, terrified out of her wits and unwilling to make the jump. She is recorded as the first casualty of the Great Fire, likely passing out from smoke inhalation before being overtaken by the spreading flames.
London has no official fire department, per se, in the year 1666, but night watchmen are quickly ringing the alarm bells and spreading word of the fire. Neighbors set up a bucketline to the nearby Thames, and begin trying to quench the flames, but they are unsuccessful. By the time the local constables arrive on the scene, they judge that the best course of action is to demolish the surrounding buildings in order to create a firebreak.
This, incidentally, was and will remain in our modern day too one of the most common and effective ways of controlling a fire; simply remove its fuel source. In 17th century London, the town militia is issued axes and firehooks, essentially long poles with an iron hook mounted at the end, specifically for the purpose of quickly pulling down buildings or walls in order to stop the spread of a fire.
Perhaps understandably, though shortsightedly, the owners of the surrounding buildings were opposed to allowing their homes and shops to be demolished. And so the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was roused from his sleep and asked for a decision. Upon coming to see the fire, Bloodworth decided not to demolish the surrounding houses, and made his famous assertion that the fire was so insignificant that, and I quote, “a woman could piss it out.”
But by dawn, he would be regretting those words.
One of the best sources on life in 17th century London is Samuel Pepys (pronounced as “Peeps”; don’t ask me why.) He is an administrator in the British Royal Navy, is friends with many of the great men and women of the day, and, most importantly from our perspective, he keeps an incredibly detailed diary. And I mean detailed. He even includes extensive and explicit commentary on his various extramarital affairs and his constant attempts to flirt with basically any woman who caught his eye. Once, apparently, he made repeated advances towards a pretty young woman who had the misfortune of sitting next to him on a church pew; he records that he made several attempts to “take her by the hand or body,” upon which she continually scooted further away from him down the pew, and when he still persisted, took pins out of her pocket and threatened to stab him with them if he kept trying to touch her. Moral of the story: ladies, keep pins in your pockets.
But even if Pepys was, well, a rather sleazy and unpleasant human being in many ways, his diaries offer a window into the world of 17th century life, and are therefore almost invaluable for historians of the period. And when Pepys heard the news of the spreading fire, he decided to go and take a look for himself.
Pepys, as a member of the Royal Navy, was able to gain access to the tower of London on the morning of September 2nd, and from one of its high towers, he could see the blaze spreading near the north end of London Bridge. He estimated that 300 houses must have already burned. And he decided that he needed a closer look. So he came down from the tower, found a small boat whose owner was willing to take him out onto the Thames to see the fire, and struck out. He made the following observations:
Everybody [was] endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, [in] their wings, and fell down. Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, [was] endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire…
Later that day, Pepys would report on what he had seen to King Charles II, and be given a message for the Lord Mayor that he was to tear down whatever houses were necessary in order to create a firebreak. Pepys would manage to find Mayor Bloodworth in the streets, running ragged with a handkerchief tied around his neck, clearly overwhelmed. On hearing the king’s order, he cried out that he was trying to tear down houses, but the flames were spreading so quickly that they couldn’t manage to demolish the buildings quickly enough before they were forced to retreat from the oncoming fire. Pepys would then return to the outskirts of the fire, board his hired boat, and continue his observation of the growing blaze.
So near the fire as we could for smoke; and all over the Thames, with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops. This is very true; so as houses were burned by these drops and flakes of fire, three or four, nay, five or six houses, one from another. When we could endure no more upon the water; we to a little ale-house on the Bankside, over against the Three Cranes, and there staid till it was dark almost, and saw the fire grow; and, as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire… We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins.
The fire, however, was just beginning.
Over the next day, desperate attempts to halt the blaze continued to meet with little success. It seems that Mayor Bloodworth fled the city sometime overnight, presumably fearing the consequences of his failure. In his absence, King Charles II and his brother James, the Duke of York, were out on the streets in person, leading fire brigades. The whole riverside was by now ablaze or smouldering, so flight to safety by boat was no longer possible. As the fire spread, so did fears that some might be trapped in places where they would be unable to flee the spreading fire; a particular concern was the old Roman wall which encircles the inner city, and which only has 8 gates. Refugees fleeing the flames with wagons loaded with their worldly possessions clogged the narrow streets of the city, and made it nearly impossible for the fire fighting militias to quickly respond to areas they were needed. Many of those who had already fled from the inner city now gathered across the Thames in Southwark to watch the blaze.
Even by the second day of the fire, rumors are spreading about exactly how the blaze began. Fingers are pointed quickly at any and all foreigners in the city, but particularly French or Catholic foreigners. Even as the fire blazes in much of the city, in other parts of the city riotous mobs are destroying shops owned by French immigrants and dragging other foreigners, Catholics, or otherwise suspicious looking people out of their homes. One account describes a Frenchman being beaten over the head with an iron bar by a local blacksmith.
And that brings us to today, September 4th. Today, the rising east winds which have helped drive the fire since two days ago are joined by the unpredictable air currents generated by the fire itself, which is now hot enough in some places to crack and partially melt the cobblestone roads of the city.
In fact, the sheer heat at the heart of the flame can be seen in another shocking anecdote. A large load of steel ingots imported from abroad are lying on the wharves, having been unloaded from a merchant vessel shortly before the fire began. Days from now, when people are picking through the rubble, it will be discovered that these individual ingots have all melted together into a single blob of steel. The heat required for such a feat would be in the realm of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit–or 1370 degrees Celsius. About a quarter as hot as the surface of the sun.
Many have assumed that the blaze will be unable to cross over the wide road that marks the boundary between the central city and the storefronts of Cheapside; today, the fire manages to leap that natural firebreak. Perhaps it is a result of the so-called firedrops which Pepys described, bits of burning debris or liquefied tar which have been flung skyward by the winds and fall, still flaming, back to earth.
Another place that had been assumed to be safe is St. Paul’s Cathedral. This grandest church in all of London stands in a wide cobblestone plaza, far from any of the surrounding houses. But today, wooden scaffolding around the Cathedral becomes so hot due to the nearby inferno that it bursts into flames. The rest of the structure quickly follows. Within minutes, observers in the distance can see that the lead tiles of the cathedral’s roof have become a river of molten metal pouring down onto the streets below, and the very stones of the church itself are described as bursting like grenades from the intensity of the heat. As the massive, grand building gradually collapses, stones falling from high on its walls smash through the ground and into the burial crypts below.
In the destruction, it is more than the Cathedral itself that is lost; many of the city’s merchants, and particularly its bookshop owners and printers from the nearby Paternoster Row, had assumed the Cathedral would be a safe place to temporarily store their goods, and had filled both the central nave and the crypts with their wares. Tens of thousands of books and thousands of pounds worth of other products are destroyed as the greatest church in England falls into smoldering ruin.
By the end of the day, the fire’s own internal weather has become so powerful that it begins to spread eastward, directly against the prevailing wind. In its path now lies the Tower of London, and its massive underground stores of gunpowder.
As it turns out, though, those very stores of gunpowder are what save the Tower, and much of the rest of the city. Pulling down buildings with axes and firehooks is, as Mayor Bloodworth had discovered several days ago, far too slow when facing a fire of this magnitude. And so King Charles and his brother authorize the use of gunpowder to begin literally blowing up houses in the path of the flames.
By tomorrow, this strategy will have created an effective firebreak that saves the Tower of London and much of the northeastern city. And over the next two days, such dramatic strategies will finally get the fire under control. Unfortunately, the sounds of massive gunpowder explosions across the city will play into the fears and suspicions that are running rampant among the displaced and terrified members of the city. Memories of Guy Fawkes and the famous Gunpowder Plot from a little over 50 years before will trigger further violence towards Catholics and foreigners, as rumors spread that a foreign attack on the city is underway.
Even after the physical fire is fully contained, the wildfire of public outrage will continue. In the end, the crowd will find its scapegoat in the person of Robert Hubert, a French watchmaker. Hubert is described as simple minded; in other words, he suffers from mental retardation. He will confess to having started the fire on behalf of the Pope, initially saying that he started the fire in Westminster–an odd claim, given that Westminster did not burn down in the fire. When this is called into question, he will change his testimony, saying instead that he started the fire in Pudding Lane. While some will express concern that, given his obvious mental disabilities, his testimony can’t be trusted, he will be found guilty and hung in front of a cheering crowd less than a month from now, on September 28th. And then, just days later, evidence will show up that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was on board a vessel in the North Sea on the day the fire began, and didn’t arrive in London until two days later.
Even so, the narrative that the fire was deliberately started by Catholics will persist so strongly that the monument built in memory of the fire will include the inscription: “Here, by permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city… begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction. The Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors is not yet quenched.”
Shockingly few people are recorded as having died in the Great Fire of London; no contemporary source places the figure higher than ten. Modern historians tend to raise an eyebrow at these figures, suspecting that the census records of 17th century London would be inaccurate, particularly for the urban poor, and bodies could easily have been so completely consumed by the flames that there were no remains left to find. But we simply don’t know. It seems quite likely, though, based on what we do know, that more people were killed by angry and fearful mobs than perished in the flames.
When I first began writing this episode, I found myself thinking about natural disasters, in a broad sense, and their effects on human civilization. Fires, of course, are only one form of these. Earthquakes have devastated cities, volcanic eruptions have shaken whole civilizations to their knees, and hurricanes can bring terrifying devastation to coastal regions. We don’t have to look far, or far back, to be reminded of the terrible and majestic power of nature, and of how small we really are in the face of it.
It’s tempting, though, given stories like the mob violence in the midst of the Great Fire of London, to say something pithy like “maybe humanity is the real natural disaster.” Certainly, times of terrible fear and stress have an unfortunate way of sometimes bringing out the worst in us. But that’s not the whole story. Part of the story is soot stained kings, abandoning their royal robes and chambers to stand shoulder to shoulder with the common man and try to save their homes. Part of the story is those people who tirelessly fought the fire for the better part of five days, many continuing to help long after their own homes had been burned to ash.
People who study history seriously generally tend to be pretty cynical about the belief that humans are inherently good. History, which is the best (and the only) empirical evidence we have about human nature, just doesn’t really support that claim. But at the same time, history reminds us that, while humans are often, well, inhuman to one another, they are also capable of selfless nobility. Each one of us has the capacity for tremendous good, as well as tremendous evil. Perhaps it’s when disaster strikes, when everything is on the line, that the choice we have before us becomes the clearest.