Friday, 2 September 2011

The Great Fire of London

Today, 2nd September, is the anniversary of the Great Fire of London of 1666, which was the most devastating event in the history of the city. Both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, contemporary diarists, recorded the event in vivid detail. Evelyn wrote: “God grant my eyes may never behold the like, now seeing above 10,000 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 a hideous storme, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it. London was, but is no more!”

The death toll of the fire was considerably lower than the 75 000 who had been carried off by the Great Plague in the previous two years but many thousands were made homeless. The fire started in the house of a baker called Farryner, in Pudding Lane, near the Tower of London and, driven on by a high wind, it lasted for three days, spreading eastwards until it ended at a spot called Pye Corner in Giltspur Street. It destroyed St Pauls Cathedral, the Royal Exchange, hundreds of other public buildings and thousands of houses. The Great Fire is commemorated by a monument which stands 202ft tall near the bakery in Pudding Lane where it all began.

One aspect of the Great Fire of London that is not well known is the role played by William, First Earl of Craven, in the attempts to put the fire out. Whilst many of the nobility and courtiers fled the city, King Charles II remained and so did Craven. Craven had already demonstrated his courage and integrity in not deserting London the previous year during the outbreak of plague, commenting then that someone had to remain to preserve law and order. Now he was reported to be out night after night helping the firefighters. In fact it was said that ever after, when his horse smelled smoke it would turn in the direction of the fire. In 1666 there was no organised fire brigade and firefighting was fairly basic, using leather buckets and squirts of water. Against the force of a fire like this they were totally ineffective. The Navy recommended to the King that they needed to pull down the houses to make a fire break but the flames simply leapt the gap. Eventually it was agreed to blow up the houses in the path of the fire to create a greater fire break. The Navy used gunpowder to do this and by the following morning the fire had been stopped.

William Craven was honoured for his role as a London hero with a fresco on the side of Craven Buildings, off the Strand. He was painted in armour, mounted on a white horse, and with his truncheon in hand, and on each side an earl’s and a baron’s coronet, with the letters “W. C.” (William Craven). The painting was recoloured in oils several times but is now long gone although an engraving of it is preserved in Smith’s “Antiquities of London.”


Betty Hamilton said...

Amazing.... Thank you for sharing.

Diane D - Florida said...

Wow, that's amazing. I just fell in love with William Craven. He was a true hero.

When I was a kid, I remember going to Kensington Palace and seeing replicas of The Great Fire of London. It was a sight to behold.

Thank you for sharing this.

Michele said...

What a wonderful job you have! To spread knowledge of such wonderful history and to work on site and this lovely place.

lostpastremembered said...

I knew about Craven's bravery... but leave it to you to come up with the story about his horse!! Brilliant. During the plague, didn't he also give up his own property for burial grounds? What a guy. I must see this painting!!

Thanks for the great work!

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Betty. I'm glad you enjoyed the blog piece.

Diane, I think William Craven had a great deal of physical courage. He was a hero who, interstingly, has almost been lost to history.

Michele, I think I am very lucky to work at Ashdown. it inspires a great deal of my love of history and is a truly fascinating house, both in itself but also for its place in the wider story of the 17the century and the lives of William Craven and Elizabeth of Bohemia.

Hi Deanna! Isn't it great about the horse! He was a clever beast - and presumably a very brave one too. Yes, you are quite right that William Craven gave land for burial after the plague. He also built a hospital. His father was a great philanthropist and he carried on the tradition.

Minerva Black said...

This is such a wonderful story and you tell it well. And, my goodness The Earl of Craven was a VERY handsome and dashing hero! ; ~ )

Nicola Cornick said...

Hi Minerva! Thank you - I'm glad you liked the story of Lord Craven's role in the Great Fire. He was indeed a very dashing cavalier!