The Great Fire of London and the search for culprits

The 1666 wasn’t a good year to spend in London. First an outbreak of plague killed some 100,000 people–15% of the city’s population. Then, when the plague  was starting to wind down, the Great Fire devastated the place. You begin to wonder if England shouldn’t take out insurance against years that end in ‘66: 1066, 1666. I should be gone well before 2066, so someone else can deal with whatever happens, but if you’re still here, remember, I did warn you.

Before the fire, the part of London that lay inside the old Roman walls was, physically speaking, a medieval city. The streets were narrow and got narrower as you looked up, because the buildings jutted out over them, floor by floor, until you could have passed your across-the-street neighbor a beer from your upstairs windows to his or hers. If you liked your neighbor, had enough beer, and were in possession of long arms, because that description might involve just the slightest bit of exaggeration. But the space was, in all tellings, very narrow. A young and athletic fire could jump from house to house without much effort. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: strawberry leaves after a frost.

But the fire had a lot more than narrow streets to help it along. London’s old buildings were made of wood, the walls of poorer houses were waterproofed with tar,  and what light people had at night came from candles and oil lamps. They cooked and warmed themselves with wood or coal fires. So they were rich in open flames.

And did I mention that they didn’t have fire brigades? Once a fire broke out, all people could do was form a line and pass buckets of water along so that whoever was closest could keep pouring. Unless–as happened once in Northampton when a pub caught fire–they passed barrels of beer from the cellar up to the roof.

Talk about your dedicated drinkers. They did save the pub, but they must’ve wept over the waste of good beer.

Some early water pumps did exist, but the streets where the fire started were too narrow for them to get through, they couldn’t squirt all that much water anyway, and their squirting range was so limited that they had to get dangerously close to the fire to hit it. 

And London’s water pipes were made of wood. According to a BBC article, they didn’t have enough access points, so people broke into them to put out the fire, making holes where the water drained out. In other words, the water supply disappeared just when it was most needed. By the time the fire was over, the city’s water supply system was one of the casualties.  

But if London was a fire trap–and it was–so were other towns and cities. In A Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain (that’s a book–remember books? they’re wonderful), Ian Mortimer provides a handy list of devastating fires that didn’t get as famous as London’s but that fed on much the same combination of problems.

The Great Fire of 1666 wasn’t London’s first. As early as the 1170s, William Fitzstephen wrote that London had two “pests,” by which he meant recurring problems: “The immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires.” In 675, the first St. Paul’s Cathedral burned down, and it burned down again in 1087, taking a good chunk of the city with it. It burned a third time in the Great Fire, making me wonder if St. Paul isn’t the patron said of pyromaniacs.

As a fire safety measure, in the twelfth century the city ordered that thatched roofs be removed. But thatch wasn’t just traditional, it was also easily available and cheap, which made it hard to replace. We can pretty much assume that the order wasn’t effective, because thatch was banned again in the next century, after a fire in which 1,000 people died. Or 3,000. Take your pick. Either way, a lot of people. 

But neither ban was complete. A thatcher’s website cites instances of thatch being used, sometimes legally and sometimes illegally. Still, by 1666 there was less of it, and if you’re looking for something to blame the Great Fire on, thatch isn’t your culprit–or not your main one. 

You might try blaming a dry summer, although it will have lots of company as potential and partial culprits by the time we’re done. The fire broke out in September, when the city’s wood was tinder-dry. 

Or you can blame James I, because sixty years before the fire his order that l new London buildings be made of brick or stone was a partial measure. It only applied to new buildings, not existing ones. And the order was repeated several times, so we can figure it wasn’t a roaring success. And although he may have given some thought to fire, he also had his eye on the timbers that were used to build houses. He wanted them to build ships for the navy. 

But let’s put the search for culprits on hold and talk about the fire itself. It started in a building with a tiled roof–a bakery in Pudding Lane. Almost every tale about the fire mentions Pudding Lane. The baker was Thomas Farriner (or Farrinor, or Farynor–spelling was a liquid back then), who supplied biscuits for the navy. 

On the night of the fire, Farriner put himself to bed without tucking his fire in properly and singing it to sleep. Sparks ignited the firewood stacked beside the oven and the house caught fire. Or they ignited some flour sacks. Or–and this is the version I lean toward–no one knows exactly what they ignited or even whether it was his fault. What matters is that something caught fire. Farriner, his family, and (in some tellings) one servant escaped through an upstairs window and along a roof edge, but one servant (or in some tellings, a bakery assistant) died. In some versions, she was too afraid of heights to go out the window. I have no idea if that’s true, but since I’m useless with heights, I’ll try to remember the lesson tucked inside that story next time my city’s on fire.

Now back to Pudding Lane. According to History Extra and the Hearth Tax records that it quotes, the bakery wasn’t on Pudding Lane at all, it was on Fish Yard, which was just off Pudding Lane. But that’s not the kind of  name writers long to drop into a story, so we’re stuck with Pudding Lane. 

From the bakery, the fire spread to neighboring houses, including an inn, where it set the straw and fodder alight. You can get rid of all the thatched roofs you want, but horses still need food and bedding, and horses were the internal combustion engines of their day. No city could function without them. 

Or that’s the sequence one tale tells. Another talks about a 1979 excavation, which found that a house near the bakery had been storing twenty barrels of pitch (that’s tar–in other words, highly flammable stuff) in the basement, so even if you could have magicked all the horses, straw, and hay out of London, it would have still had plenty of stuff to burn.

It’s not that those two versions of the tale are at odds, just that you can follow a story in any number of directions. The one thing you can’t do is include everything. 

At this point, the people in either Pudding Lane, or in Fish Yard, were still dealing with a localized fire–something Londoners had plenty of experience with. They woke the neighbors, poured water, and did what Londoners always did, but this time it wasn’t enough. 

Standard procedure would have been to destroy houses around the fire to keep it from spreading, but the mayor wouldn’t act. Without either an order from the king or the permission of the owners, he’d have had to pay the cost of rebuilding them our of his own pocket.

I don’t know how many owners would’ve given permission when they could have withheld it and hoped that either the fire would miss them or the mayor would act without their permission and have to pay for the rebuilding, but it didn’t matter: Most people in the area were renters, whose permission didn’t matter, so the houses stayed in place, and they caught fire, and the mayor became a handy scapegoat–as did those first fire fighters who decided they’d lost the battle and abandoned it to save their families and whatever belongings they could gather.

From the Pudding Lane area, the fire spread to the warehouses along the river, with their stores of coal, lamp oil, tallow, rope, and everything else that could make a fire happy. 

Melted bits of pottery found in the basement that held the barrels of pitch led archeologists to say that the fire’s temperature reached 1,700 degrees Celsius. If you measure in Fahrenheit, that translates to insanely hot. More than hot enough to melt stone.

Eventually, the king issued an order and houses in the fire’s path were pulled down using the hooked poles that were standard for the job, but the winds were high and the firebreaks were too small to stop the fire.

Before long, people were fleeing in massive numbers. Some headed for the Thames to get away in boats, others filled carts with their belongings, and many left on foot. And as refugees poured out, sightseers poured in to watch and (some of them, anyway, ranging from the famous Samuel Pepys to an otherwise unknown fifteen-year-old schoolkid) leave written records of what they’d seen. 

St. Paul’s burned for the third time and lead melted off the roof and ran in the streets–or as Historic U.K. puts it, the acres of lead form the roof “poured down on to the street like a river.”  

Eventually, larger firebreaks were created by using gunpowder to destroy houses.

The fire burned for four days before it was contained. It left the ground hot enough to scorch people’s shoes, and some spots smoldered for months. Eight-nine parish churches had burned (or eighty-seven, but let’s not quibble), along with theGuildhall and assorted jails, public buildings, markets, and city gates, not to mention 13,000 houses. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. Some 436 acres, containing 13,000 houses, was destroyed.

By some estimates, only six people died in the fire (or eight, or sixteen), but guesses run as high as several thousand.  Considering the number of homes destroyed, the higher number sounds convincing. Nobody sorted through the wreckage to count the dead. If you were poor or the middle-class, you died uncounted.

Not long after the fire was contained, a French watchmaker, Robert Hubert, was charged with starting it. He pleaded guilty and was convicted, even though the evidence he gave in court was contradictory, the jury considered him deranged, and the Lord Chief Justice told the king he didn’t believe a word of the man’s confession. What the hell, they hanged him anyway and the crowd tore his body to pieces.

It’s important, in these situations, to have someone to blame–preferably a foreigner.

Once bit of business was taken care of, evidence emerged that he hadn’t gotten to London until after the fire started. A parliamentary investigation declared the fire an accident. Hubert, however, remained dead.

When the city began to rebuild, a law ordered that  “no man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building, whether great or small, but of brick or stone.” If anyone ignored the rules, their house would be pulled down.

Crime in London: a bonus post

In an effort to find material for an article, the New York Times asked  for people’s experiences of petty crime in London. Then the Times tweeted the article and nothing’s been the same since. To read the responses for yourself, you can follow the link or search Twitter using the hashtag #PettyCrime, which for no reason I understand calls up a whole different set of answers. I’ll quote entirely too many. I lost the better part of a rainy afternoon to the thread and I don’t see why you should be spared.

“An American talked loudly on his mobile in a restaurant then drank red wine with a fish course. Gave him an extra loud tut.”

“Increasingly people respond to the question ‘How are you?’ With ‘I’m good’ instead of the grammatically correct (and far more polite) ‘I’m very well, thank you.’ It’s only going to escalate.”

Only the excessively boastful and self-satisfied would respond with “I’m very well, thank you”! The acceptable answers are a) ‘not bad’ and b) ‘not too bad at all’ from which we can infer a) ‘my life is falling apart’ or b) ’I’m positively ecstatic’ “

“I fell down a flight of steps at Bank and immediately apologised for causing such a kerfuffle and holding up people’s journeys. So ashamed of myself”

“I once offered a class set of rubbers to a fellow American teacher, trying to offer some good old Limey hospitality. The response was criminally rude and the offer was declined.
I never knew pencil erasers were so contentious”

Ah, yes, friends. Rubbers are one of those things that shouldn’t be discussed with people from the opposite side of the Atlantic. On one side, they’re prophylactics (translation: birth control, as worn by the male of the species). On the other side, they’re erasers–things you use to rub out pencil marks.

“This morning, in Streatham South London, I said ‘good morning’ as I walked passed a fellow pedestrian, they didn’t say ‘good morning’ back. So rude. This will stay with me all day. Traumatised.”

“I left the house after lunch and a street-sweeper said ‘mornin’ to me.  I had to bite my lip not to correct him.”

“On the tube a young man got up and offered me his seat as the carriage was busy. I saw it as a ploy to mug me so I called the police.”

“I stood on someone’s foot on the train today, and they didn’t even say ‘excuse me’. I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

“I recently took my 10 month old daughter on the underground. She stared at people, it frightened them. She doesn’t know the code. She now lives in the north. The tube is safe once more.”

“I asked a man directions to a Burmese restaurant on Edgware Road, he pointed me in the right direction and said it would take 3 minutes to walk there but it actually took 20. Admittedly I stopped for a pint but he should have factored that in.”

“Kitten stole my croissant. Despite obvious trail of crumbs, stolen item was not recovered”

“I fear I’m responsible for a #PettyCrime as on Monday I took a crowded tube, lost my balance and ended up grabbing the arm of a fellow passenger (who I didn’t know!) in a panicked attempt to stay upright. Totally unacceptable behaviour.”

“I was in a busy pub just yesterday, I knew the gentleman a few people to my right was there before me but he was looking at his phone. I placed my order without alerting him. I haven’t been sleeping since.”

“I was blatantly blocked on escalator by a left standing tourist… I didn’t just sigh loudly but also tutted AND HARRUMPHED. To no avail. Said sightseer turned and looked at me. Obviously I apologized, moved to the right and carried on sighing. These people should be locked up.”

“I stopped to let another car pass down a narrow road. They did not gesticulate a thank  you. I have the police report if you wish for more details.”

“I was waiting for a bus recently. When it came, someone who had arrived at the bus stop after me got on before me.”

“A man got on my tube train wearing brown brogues when everyone knows a gentleman only wears brown in the country and black in town.  It was shocking”

“A close friend and I, approaching from different ends of the street, accidentally acknowledged each other outside a polite speaking distance.  I pretended I was waving goodbye and hid in the nearest shop until they were gone. We have never spoken of this.”

“I witnessed an Italian tourist standing on the left side of the up escalators at Piccadilly Circus station preventing people from walking up. Naturally I said nothing but stood close behind them seething and encouraging fellow commuters to join me in silent rage.”

“I have had entire conversations without mentioning the weather. I’ll go quietly, officer.”

“Some guy didn’t apologise to me once after I bumped into him. I was very dissapointed in that exchange and think he should be banged up”

“When I was 21 years old, I worked in a London hotel and one morning I was asked, by an American couple, how to use the microwave in the room. It was the safe deposit box.”

“A publican of fine reputation went rather overboard with an extra splash or two of Tabasco in my Bloody Mary recently. I was so flustered I nearly told him”

*

My thanks to Mardi for sending me a link to the BBC’s coverage of these outrages.

Beneath London’s streets

Deep beneath the streets of London lurks a monster that knows how Londoners live today–what they eat, how they clean themselves, what gets them through the day. What will it do with the information? Either write a cheesy screenplay and make a fortune or come up through the plumbing and eat everyone it finds. Probably the first, because it’s eating well. It doesn’t need human flesh, which not only fights back but screams. Or at least it does in cheesy movies.

The monster’s called a fatberg, and in the best tradition of promos for cheesy movies, I’ve misrepresented it. The biggest one (roughly 750 meters long) has already been killed and autopsied. The ones still lurking underground are smaller, and although they’re growing, not one of them is alive. 

Fatbergs are made of solidified fat, sewage, and all-purpose gunk. And they’re clogging up the sewers not just in London but in other big cities around the country. So British TV being what it is, the big one was autopsied for our viewing pleasure.

This isn’t just an irrelevant photo, it’s stolen from an earlier post. I’m putting this post together on a toy typewriter and, what the hell, it’s available. Given the topic, we could do with a few flowers.

What do I mean about British TV being like it is? Well, it does a lot of nonfiction, which ranges from glorious to turn-the-channel. This one was somewhere in between. Beyond that, I’m not the best person to sum it up. I figured I was being vague enough that I could get away without having to explain what I meant, thanks. It may not have been enlightening, but at least it’s accurate.

Fatbergs form when a bit of cooking fat–or several gallons of the stuff–is poured down the drain and combines with the calcium it finds in the water to form a solid, which then sticks to a rough bit of sewer wall. Then a wet wipe comes along (wet wipes were the villains of the piece) and sticks to it. Then more fat sticks to that, and anything else that gets flushed down the toilet piles in on top, on the bottom, and on the sides, and while you’re still watching British TV, deep below you is 750 feet of solid crap–in the literal sense of the word– and other stuff blocking the sewer. Whatever gets flushed down the sewer, except the purest of liquids, can be part of a fatberg.

Isn’t your Friday getting off to a great start? Isn’t it just uplifting to read Notes?

So what did the autopsy tell us about how folks live in London? Well, they use cocaine, ibuprofen, caffeine, syringes and needles, paracetamol, morphine, heroin, condoms, magic mushrooms, steroids and gym supplements, tampons, amphetamines, sweetcorn, and hair tonic.

It’s the hair tonic that does the damage.

You didn’t think anyone has used hair tonic since the 1950s? Or maybe that was the 1920s? I didn’t either. I suspect they mean–to use a technical phrase–is hair goop. Or what the British call products. Not even hair products, just products. As if nothing else gets produced in the country.

A word about paracetemol: When my partner, Wild Thing, and I first moved to Britain, we figured it was some strange oracle the British consulted about aches and pains. Every country has its superstitions. As an outsider, you learn to live with them and not make funny faces. It turns out, though, that it’s what Americans know by the brand name Tylenol.

It’s not that Americans are more heavily oriented to brand names than the British. The British call vacuum cleaners hoovers, and using one to clean the floor is hoovering. Presumably Hoover made the first vacuum cleaners to hit the market here. The thing is, the British and Americans choose different things to call by brand names, making us sound eccentric to each other. But that’s a different post. Let’s go back to the fatberg.

So, Londoners use paracetemol. They also eat out a lot, because restaurants are the source of a lot of that cooking oil. The pattern is use, cool (presumably), pour down drain. Of course, home cooks contribute their share. From each according to their deep fat fryer…

And our bodies contribute whatever we put into them. The residue from prescription medicines, including antibiotics and estrogen. All those lovely bugs that cause digestive disasters–e coli, campylobacter, listeria. And antibiotic-resistant bacteria, although those may not come directly from us but from the uncontrolled combination of antibiotics and biota. I don’t know that. I’m guessing.

The things we drink out of also makes a contribution. Plasticisers from cups and plastic bottles can  mimic estrogens, and they’re in there too. The ones that don’t get trapped in fatbergs make their way into the rivers and oceans, doing some very weird stuff to the fish.   

The folks whose job it is to free up the sewers do it the modern way: by hand. They suit up, drop down into the sewers with shovels, and chop pieces off, which their buddies up top winch to street level. They manage not to pass out from the smell, or even complain about it. The only high-tech part of the job (and we’re relying on my memory here, which is an iffy proposition) is the gizmo (I love high-tech words) that beeps when it finds a toxic gas buildup.

On screen, they were not only good humored but very funny. In short, they’re heroes.

What can we learn from this? That image tourists have of historic Britain? It’s not the whole picture.