London's Two Most Unfortunate Years

17/04/2020 09:13

In the seventeenth century two fateful years were inscribed in the history of the British capital hurting mercilessly its population and its goods. It was 1665, the year of the Plague followed by that of the Great Fire, 1666.

London retained its medieval urban structure within the walled enclosure, narrow streets and wooden buildings, enjoying rather poor sanitation conditions. Seven gates controlled access by closing at night, but they also set Lord Mayor authority limits until they were demolished in 1760. These were Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate. Currently they are just the names left. Looking like are St John Gate which belonged to the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem Order, near Smithfield market and Temple Bar, which was the ceremonial gate on the way between Westminster and the City. This was removed in 1878 and installed again, this time near Saint Paul's Cathedral, in 2004. In the original location, on Fleet Street, a neo-Renaissance memorial was set up.

Out the walls London continued expanding on the Liberties, settlements with their own jurisdiction as was the case of Westminster or the site of the Tower of London and in the slums that gathered the people that migrated to the city in search of better living conditions. In the map drawn up by Ralph Agas in 1663, can be seen St Paul's Cathedral and the spires of numerous churches that stood out from a dense urban grid and, on the right, the Bridge of London, completely covered with buildings as Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

Originally from Asia, the Black Death had first arrived in Europe in the 14th century causing devastation of terrifying proportions. The epidemic decimated at least a third of the continent's population. Then it was yet unknown that the disease was caused by a bacterium, Yersina pestis, which would not be discovered until 1894 by the scientist of Swiss origin Alexandre Yersin and that was spread by fleas that parasitized rats. It was not until the year 2016 when DNA analysis definitively confirmed the presence of this bacterium in exhumed bodies of people who had died during the London outbreak of 1665. They were found during the construction of the Crossrail on Liverpool Street, where formerly there was the cemetery of New Churchyard or Bethlam Burial Ground.

The presence of the disease in Europe became endemic but without reaching episodes of the proportion it had in the fourteenth century, the establishment of quarantines became a frequent protocol, particularly in seaports. Other outbreaks occurred in Great Britain in 1563 when a thousand people died weekly, in 1593 there were 15,000 cases, in 1603 more than 33,000 deaths, in 1625 more than 41,000 and eleven thousand in 1646. The one that reached London in that fateful year of 1665 it arrived almost with absolute certainty after the outbreaks that affected Amsterdam and Hamburg in 1663. The outbreak of 1625 was known as the Great Plague, until it was largely overwhelmed in 1665.

The winter that turned 1664 in 1665 was cold, in fact not prone to the spread of diseases other than the flu or the common cold, there were frosts that twice blocked river traffic in the Thames and, even so, it is believed that the black death arrived loaded on a load of cotton from Amsterdam.

Shortly before the outbreak a meteorite crossed the skies, as it would happen shortly before the fire. Promptly interpreted as a bad omen, profiteering visionaries and false prophets soon appeared, among them one who probably had his reasoning closer to the meteor than to the earth. His name was Solomon Eagle and the blessed used to walk the streets, sometimes completely naked, with a bowl lit on his head.

The first cases occurred between the end of November and the beginning of December in the upper side of Drury Lane, west of the city, where three deaths were recorded in a single dwelling. The list of deaths began to grow above average in the parishes of Saint Gilles in the Fields, Saint Andrew, Saint Bride and Saint James in Clerkenwell, all of them outside the walled enclosure, which was considered safe until at the beginning of May the first case occurred in Bearbinder Lane, belonging to the parish of Sainte Mary Woolchurch. At the end of that month the plague continued to spread without being controlled despite the measures that were taken with ordinances that limited the concentrations of people signed by the Lord Mayor, at that time Sir John Lawrence and the sheriffs Sir George Waterman and Sir Charles Doe, among several others: “That all plays, Bear-Baitings, Games, singing of Ballads, Buckler-play, or such like Causes of Assemblies of People, be utterly prohibited (…) That all publick Feasting, and particulary by the Companies of this City, and Dinners at Taverns, Alehouses, and other Places of common Entertaiment be forborn” (sic).

Blabbermouths and healers took advantage of the trusting citizens who sought remedies for the disease. They advertised themselves in the streets in pamphlets that offered detailed advice to be followed in case of infection, antipestile pills, incomparable potion, universal remedy... In June wealthy families and members of the court left the city in an exodus that was on the rise during the two following months, a fact that also helped to spread the disease out of the city. The period of maximum expansion of the pest was recorded between mid-August and mid-October, in nine weeks in which an average of a thousand people died daily. The plague had already reached the eastern neighbourhoods of Wapping, Ratcliff, Limehouse, Redriff and Poplar while ravaging those of Saint Sepulchre, Clerkenwell, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate and Shoreditch. Defoe wrote that in that period nobody could “there was scarce any passing by the Streets, but that several dead Bodies would be laying here and there upon the Ground”. New cemeteries were created at Bunhill Fields, at Goswell Street, at Moorfields, at the end of Holloway Lane, at Shoreditch, at Hand Alley, Bishopsgate...

It is estimated that about one hundred thousand people were victims of the plague throughout the eighteen months that the outbreak lasted. The official figures made a precise count of 68,596 deaths due to the plague although many of the deaths hid their cause not to harm the families and in many cases were unknown so that by then the real number of deaths was supposed to double the official figures.

When the deaths caused by the plague were no more than an anecdote and the city life had completely recovered normality, the following misfortune came. The fires were not an extraordinary incident; in fact they were practically inevitable in a city with most of its buildings built with wood and, despite the prohibition, with thatched roofs. Ovens, fireplaces and candles were common. After two rainy summers London suffered an abnormal drought since November 1665, so multiple factors that would propitiate the disaster were met.

In the early hours of Sunday, September 2, a fire broke out at Thomas Farriner's bakery in Pudding Lane, near Eastcheap. A fire that, favoured with the east wind, would ignite quickly in the adjacent dwellings. On Monday, from his residence on Seething Lane, near the Tower of London, Admiralty member Samuel Pepys, witness of the disaster wrote in his diary: By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge.  (   )...  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. 

The indecision and lack of reflexes of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, in creating firebreaks by demolishing houses facilitated the flames spreading rapidly towards the northwest. Showing not much delicacy declared about the fire: a woman might piss it out.

Tuesday, September 4, was the day when the destruction reached greater proportions; the fire had already spread throughout the city and had even surpassed the western walls and the river Fleet, although the walls had served as containment at the height of Noble Street. Along the way, Saint Paul's Cathedral had burned down as also did the Temple.

On Wednesday 5, the disaster subsided, Pepys noted the damage caused: I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; everywhere great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning.

In four days the flames destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 churches in addition to the cathedral and most public buildings, including the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, Bridewell Palace, the General Letter Office and three of the seven gateways: Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate. Four fifths of the city were devastated, leaving 70,000 people homeless. In spite of everything, only six victims were counted, although other more realistic estimates raise the figures to hundreds considering that many bodies would probably be reduced to ashes.

After the Great Fire the British capital was almost completely rebuilt, basically following the same urban scheme that it had, only two wide new streets were drawn cutting diagonally the old plot, they are Queen and King Street, discarding the global plans that presented John Evelyn and Christopher Wren. The latter would be responsible for the reconstruction of most churches, including the cathedral. In 1667 new laws were drafted on homebuilding to prevent new fires forcing all the master walls to be raised with brick or stone, the width of the streets and the maximum height of the buildings were also regulated.

A map drawn by John Leake and William Leybourne and published in 1667 shows the area that devastated the fire which, despite its extension, some notable buildings survived: the Guildhall, the churches of All Hallows by the Tower, Saint Andrew Undershaft, Saint Etheldreda, Saint Gilles without Cripplegate, Sainte Katharine Cree and Saint Olave. Other notable buildings are the taverns of The Hoop and Grapes, The Olde Wines Shades, The Seven Stars and The Stapple Inn, a colourful 1586 Tudor style building in High Holborn, and also the buildings of Prince Henry's Room and The Old Curiosity Shop.

Very close to Pudding Lane, where the fire started, in the place once occupied by St Margaret Fish Market Hill, a large column was raised, the Monument to the Great Fire of London, known simply as The Monument. Designed by Wren and Robert Hooke and concluded in 1677 it reaches 202 feet high, the same distance that separates it from the place where the fire started. A spiral staircase lead to a viewpoint located at the top and to prove the effort there is a certificate that recognizes having climbed one after the other the 311 steps. Charles Dickens described it in his 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit: If the day were bright, you observed upon the house–tops, stretching far away, a long dark path; the shadow of the Monument; and turning round, the tall original was close beside you, with every hair erect upon his golden head, as if the doings of the city frightened him.

In Smithfield, in the corner that forms Giltspur Street with Cock Lane another monument, this one of considerably smaller dimensions, indicates the limit point that reached the flames. This is the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, a wooden statue of a child covered in a golden layer. At its feet there is the inscription: This Boy is in Memmory Put up for the late Fire of London Occasion’d by the Sin of Gluttony. With the sin of gluttony it is jokingly referred that the fire started in Pudding Lane and ended in Pye Corner.

© J.L.Nicolas


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