Horrible Olde London

My Horrible Olde London and Ye Olde City of London walks both cover the Great Fire of London 1666. In fact my Olde City of London walk starts at the Monument and pretty much follows the route of the fire.

It had been an extra dry summer. There was a strong easterly wind blowing. Fire was a constant concern. There were lots of rules in place in the City of London to minimise its risk. But nobody took a blind bit of notice of them. No building out on second floors of houses to abut other houses across street – but everyone did. No work allowed within the City which involved use of fire such as blacksmiths – but there were loads. No roofs to be built out of thatch – but many were.

It started in a baker’s in Pudding Lane. Staff climbed out over the roof except one servant who became the first of only a few to die.

The alarm was raised – men paid by parish to look after streets, arrived. They usually dealt with fire by blowing up everything around it to stop it spreading. But the people who lived in the vicinity said, “er, excuse me! You’re not blowing my house up, thank you very much!”

The mayor arrived to sort things out. He sided with the property owners. “A woman might piss it out” he said of the fire as he left in a huff. Pretty much the whole City then went up in flames. Whoops. Slight miscaluation there by the mayor. Pepys said he was a “silly man”. A silly man as Lord Mayor, surely not!

They did have a sort of fire engine – a tank-like thing on a sledge which they took to the river and filled with water. It had a nozzle which spouted water but it was in a set position, not manoeuvrable. But most people were out to save their own goods and chattels so few stayed to fight the fire. And those that did had their route to and from river blocked by people with their carts. It was mayhem. The fire engine ended up in the river at one point.

Samuels Pepys had the right idea – he buried his wine and his parmesan cheese and left all the unimportant stuff.
Originally people just moved away from the fire but it kept spreading so people had to keep moving. They eventually put all their goods and furniture in St Pauls. It had a large open area around it which would act as a natural fire break and it was made partly of metal and stone – it was the one place in the City which was safe. It was as unburnable as the Titanic was unsinkable. The flames leapt across the fire break. St Pauls may have been made partly of stone and metal, but it was also made of wood. Yes, you’ve guessed it, Pepys reported seeing a river of molten metal flowing out of the collapsing cathedral.

There was mayhem at the 8 city gates – the only way out of the City. That’s Aldgate, Aldersgate, Newgate, Bishopsgate, Ludgate, Moorgate. Can you name the other 2? The 7th “gate” has had its outdated name changed to Barbican, and the 8th doesn’t have the word gate in its title. This one is the only one still surviving, though it’s no longer in its original location.

Every church in the City was destroyed. St Pauls was rebuilt 1669-1694. 25 years was a great effort – the one that had just burnt down had taken over 200 years to complete! Other great churches such as that of Bow Bells fame were also rebuilt. St Bride’s church had a new spire whose design was copied for the tiered wedding cake. How apt. This rebuilding is why there so many nice old pubs in the area – huge numbers of builders, stonemasons, craftsman and artisans had to move into the area and had to be put up somewhere, so lots of inns were built. This area forms a major part of my Ye Olde Taverns & Inns walk.

The City walls acted as a fire break and it was assumed the River Fleet would do likewise, but the fire even jumped the walls and river in places, and was finally stopped in Cock Lane, opposite St Bart’s Hospital.

Many of the streets in this area are named from the obvious – Bread Street had bakers; Milk Street had a herd of cows; Wood Street, Silk Street, Ironmonger Lane were what you would expect. Not sure what went on in Love Lane! Actually I do, but you’ll have to come on one of my walks to find out. As for Cock Lane – it’s one of two isn’t it. No, it’s the other one – it was where cock-fighting too place.

There’s a statue of a fat golden boy in Cock Lane, on the spot where the fire was halted. Question – why has God done this to us – first the 1665 Great Plague, now this? Answer. We’ve been enjoying ourselve too much! Gluttony and greed. Hence a fat golden boy.

This golden boy stood on the outside wall of a pub for many years. This pub was the centre of London’s body- snatching trade. I’ll tell you all about it when I guide you.

The concept of insurance came out of the fire. The first fire insurance companies were set up from 1680. Each fire insurance company had its own fire service. If you bought fire insurance, you placed a plaque on your wall with the name and design of your insurance company on it. When a fire broke out, all the fire services turned up to see if it was a client of there’s, and the company whose plaque it was stayed to put the fire out, whilst the others just went home. If there was no plaque, everyone went home.

These plaques are worth a few bob on e-bay these days, so there are very few left. But on my Suffragette walk and my Westminster walk, I show you one of the very few fire insurance plaques still there.

The concept of insurance spread to shipping (with a bit of help from pirates! – hear all about it on my pirates walk in darkest Wapping) – Lloyds Coffee House started in 1688 and quickly became a shipping insurance hub. The Lloyds coffee house is long gone but on my Ye Olde City walk I show you a pub that was originally London’s first coffee house.

But that’s enough of fire. There’s lots of other horrible stuff on my Horrible Olde London walk.
The trials of Lady Jane Grey & Thomas Cranmer, the dissoution of the monasteries, the murder of Wat Tyler, the hanging, drawing and quartering of Sir William Wallace; burnings at the stake by Bloody Mary Tudor, boiling a forger in a cauldron, starving monks to death, pressing to death, selling ugly wives, V2 rockets, zepplins, plague pits, burial alive, haunted gardens, pubs & walkways; animal slaughter, anthrax, public hangings, Newgate prisoners eating each other, gaol fever, prostitution, bear and bull-baiting, cock-fighting.
And if that’s not enough, I’ll show you where Fagin’s den was set, where the local workhouse and ragged school were, where Bill Sykes used to drink (still standing, now a rather nice very gastro pub – I don’t think they’d let Bill & Bullseye in these days!), and I’ll tell you how London’s most evocative street address, Bleeding Heart Yard, got it’s horribly apt name.