An account of the Great Fire of London 1666

by

John Evelyn


 

2nd September, 1666.


This fatal night, about ten, began the deplorable fire, near Fish street, in London.


3rd of September.

 

I had prayers at home.

The fire continuing, after dinner I took coach with my wife and son, and went to the bankside in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole city in dreadful flames near the waterside; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames Street, and upwards towards Cheapside, down to the Three Cranes ,were now consumed; and so returned, exceeding astonished what would become of the rest.


The fire having continued all this night (if I may call that night which was light as day for 10 miles around, after a dreadful manner) when conspiring with a fierce Eastern wind in a very dry season, I went on foot to the same place, and saw the whole South part of the City burning from Cheapside to the Thames, and all along Cornhill, Tower street, Fenchurch street, Gracious street, and so along to Barnyards Castle, and was now taking hold of St Paul's Church, to which the scaffolds contributed exceedingly. The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that, from the beginning, I know not by what despondency, or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it; so that there was nothing heard, or seen, but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods; such a strange consternation there was upon them, so it burned both in breadth and length, the churches, public halls, Exchange, hospitals, monuments, and ornaments; leaping, after a prodigious way, from house to house, and street to street, at great distances one from the other. For the heat, with a long set of warm and fine weather, had even ignited the air, and prepared the materials to conceive the fire, which devoured after an incredible manner, houses, furniture, and everything.

Here we saw the Thames covered with floating goods, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save, as, on the other side, the carts, carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with movables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away. Oh, the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seen since the foundation of it. All the sky was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seen above 40 miles roundabout for many nights. God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame, the noise and cracking and thunder of the flames, the shrieking of the women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of the towers, houses and churches was like a hideous storm; and the air all about so hot and inflamed, that at the last one was not able to approach it, and were forced to stand still, and let the flames burn on, for nearly 2 miles in length and 1 in breadth. The clouds also of smoke were dismal, and reached near 50 miles in length. A resemblance of Sodom or the last day.


4th September.


The burning still rages. All Fleet street, the Old Bailey, Ludgate hill, Warwick Lane, Newgate, Paul's chain, Watling St., Now flaming, and most of it reduced to ashes. The stones of Paul's flew like Grenades, and the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness. so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them. The Eastern wind still driving the flames forward.


5th September.


It crossed towards Whitehall' but oh, the confusion was then at court. It pleased his Majesty to command me, among the rest, to look after the quenching of Fetter Lane end, to preserve if possible, that end of Holborn, and they began to consider that nothing was likely to stop it but the blowing up of so many houses to make a wider gap than any which had yet made by the ordinary method of pulling them down with engines. This same stout Seamen proposed to do to save the whole city, but some tenacious and avaricious men, etc., would not permit, because their own houses were involved.

Then the wind abated, and by the industry of the people, when almost all was lost, infusing a new spirit into them, that the fury of it began sensibly to abate about noon. It then broke out again in the Temple; but the courage of the people and many houses being blown up, that the fire slowed down. The coal and wood -wharfs, and magazines of oil, resin etc., did infinite mischief, and the poor inhabitants were dispersed about St Georges field, Moorfields and as far as Highgate, some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, without a rag or any utensils, bed or board, who from riches and easy accomodation in stately and well furnished homes, were now reduced to extreme misery and poverty.


6th September.


I represented to his Majesty the case of the French prisoners at War in my custody. and besought him that there might be still the same care of watching at all places contiguous to unsiezed houses. It is extraordinary the vigilance and activity of the King and Duke, even labouring in person, and being present tp command, order, reward and encourage workmen; by which he showed affection to his people and gained theirs.


7th September


His Majesty got to the Tower by water. to demolish the houses about the Graff, around the White Tower, where the magazine of powder lay, which would undoubtedly have destroyed the bridge and sunk the vessels in the river. The goodly church St Paul's, now a sad ruin, and that beautiful portico ( for structure comparable to any in Europe) now rent in pices, flakes of large stones split asunder, and nothing remaining entire but the inscription in the architrave, showing by whom it was built, which had not one letter defaced It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heat had in a manner calcined, so that all the ornaments, columns, friezes, projectures of Massive Portland Stone, flew off, even to the very roof, where a sheet of lead covering a great space, no less than 6 acres was totally melted. The body of one bishop remaines entire. Thus lay in ashes that most venerable church and near 100 more. All the lead and iron work melted, the exquisite Mercers chapel, The sumptuous Exchange, the August fabric of Christchurch, all the rest of the companies halls, splendid Buildings, arches, all in dust; the fountains dried up and ruined, and the very waters boiling; subterranean cellars and ,wells and dungeons, still burning and the stench and dark clouds of smoke everywhere. The people who now walked about the ruins, appeared like men in some dismal desert, or in some great city laid waste by a cruel enemy, to which was added the stench that came from some poor creatures bodies, beds, and other combustible goods. Sir Thomas Gresham's Statue remained entire though fallen, when all those of the Kings since the conquest were broken to pieces. Also the standard in Cornhill and Queen Elizabeth's effigies had little detriment, whilst the vast iron chains of the city and the bars of the prisons were reduced to cinders by the heat. My hair was almost singed by the still intense heat.


10th September.


I went again to the ruins, for now it was no longer a city.

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