The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)
Part I. Chaos
Chapter 6. Fire
In the fateful year of 1666, a second calamity struck London. Perhaps God had not forgiven sinful mankind, after all. Perhaps those who had prophesied that the world would end in all-consuming fire had been right all along. Plague had been insidious and creeping; the new disaster was impossible to miss. But the Great Plague and the Great Fire had one similarity that outweighed the differences between them. Both were the work of an outraged God whose patience was plainly drawing to a close.
The fire burned out of control for four days, starting in the slums near London Bridge and quickly threatening great swaths of the city. One hundred thousand people were left homeless. Scores of churches burned to the ground. Iron bars in prison cells melted. The stunned survivors stumbled through the ruins of their smoldering capital and gazed in horror. Where a great city had stood just days before, one eyewitness lamented, “there is nothing to be seen but heaps of stones.”
As for who had started the fire, everyone had a theory. Catholics had burned the city down, to weaken the Protestant hold on power. Foreigners had done it, out of envy and malice. The Dutch had done it, because Holland and England were at war, or the French had, because the French and the Dutch were allies. The king himself even figured in the rumors—he was, people whispered, a monarch filled with hatred for London (which had clamored for his father’s execution) and obsessed with building monuments to himself. What vengeance could compare with destroying the home of his enemies and then rebuilding it to suit his own taste?
But all such explanations were, in a sense, beside the point. To focus on who had set the fire was a mistake akin to confusing the symptoms of a disease with the illness itself. Any such calamity reflected the will of God. The proper question was not what tool God had seen fit to employ, but what had stirred his wrath. In any case, even the best of investigations would yield merely what Robert Boyle called “second causes.” God remained the inscrutable “first cause” of everything. He had imposed laws on nature when he had created heaven and Earth, and ever afterward he had been free to change those laws or suspend them or to intervene in the world however he saw fit.
The fire began in the early hours of Sunday, September 2, 1666, in one of London’s countless bakeshops. Thomas Farriner owned a bakery on Pudding Lane, deep in one of the mazes that made up London’s crowded slums. He had a contract to supply ship’s biscuits for the sailors fighting the Dutch. On Saturday night Farriner raked the coals in his ovens and went to bed. He woke to flames and smoke, his staircase afire.
Someone woke the lord mayor and told him that a blaze had started up near London Bridge. He made his way to the scene, reluctantly, and cast a disdainful eye at the puny flames. “Pish!” he said. “A woman might piss it out.”
At that point, perhaps, the damage might still have been confined. But a gust of wind carried sparks and flame beyond Pudding Lane to the Star Inn on Fish Street Hill, where a pile of straw and hay in the courtyard caught fire.
Everything conspired to create a disaster. For nearly a year London had been suffering through a drought. The wooden city was dry and poised to explode in flames, like kindling ready for the match. Tools to fight the blaze were almost nonexistent, and the warren of tiny, twisting streets made access for would-be firefighters nearly impossible in any case. (On his inspection tour the lord mayor found that he could not squeeze his coach into Pudding Lane.) Pumps to throw water on the flames were clumsy, weak contraptions, if they could be located in the first place and if someone could manage to connect them to a source of water. Instead firefighters formed lines and passed along buckets filled at the Thames. The contents of a leather bucket flung into an inferno vanished with a hiss and sizzle, like drops of water on a hot skillet.
Making matters harder still, London was not just built of wood but built in the most dangerous way possible. Rickety, slapdash buildings leaned against one another like drunks clutching each other for support. On and on they twisted, an endless labyrinth of shops, tenements, and taverns with barely a gap to slow the flames. Even on the opposite sides of an alleyway, gables tottered so near together that anyone could reach out and grab the hand of someone in the garret across the way. And since this was a city of warehouses and shops, it was a city booby-trapped with heaps of coal, vats of oil, stacks of timber and cloth, all poised to stoke the flames.
The only real way to fight the fire was to demolish the intact buildings in its path, in the hope of starving it of fuel. As the fire roared, the king himself pitched in to help with the demolition work, standing ankle-deep in mud and water, tearing at the walls with spade in hand. Slung over his shoulder was a pouch filled with gold guineas, prizes for the men working with him.
Propelled by strong winds, the fire roared along and then split in two. One stream of flames headed into the heart of the city, the other toward the Thames and the warehouses that lined it. The river-bound fire leaped onto London Bridge, in those days covered with shops and tall, wooden houses. At the water’s edge, the flames reached heights of fifty feet. Panicky refugees stumbled through the mud and begged boatmen to carry them away.
On the fire’s second night Pepys watched in shock from a barge on the Thames, smoke stinging his eyes, showers of sparks threatening to set his clothes afire. As he watched, the flames grew until they formed one continuous arch of fire that looked to be a mile long. “A horrid noise the flames made,” Pepys wrote, and the crackling flames were only one note in a devil’s chorus. People screamed in terror as they fled, blinded by smoke and ashes. House beams cracked like gunfire when they burned through. Hunks of roofs smashed to the ground with great, percussive thuds. Stones from church walls exploded, as if they had been flung into a furnace.
Through the next day things grew worse. “God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above ten thousand houses all in one flame,” wrote the diarist John Evelyn. “The noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses and churches, was like a hideous storm . . . near two miles in length and one in breadth. Thus I left it, burning, a resemblance of Sodom or the Last Day.”
* * *
After four days, the wind finally weakened. For the first time, the demolition crews—who had resorted to blowing up houses with gunpowder—managed to corral the flames. As the fires burned down, Londoners surveyed the remnants of their city. Acre after acre was unrecognizable, the houses gone and even the pattern of roads and streets obliterated. People wandered in search of their homes, John Evelyn wrote, “like men in some dismal desert.”
One Londoner hurried to St. Paul’s Cathedral, long one of the city’s landmarks but now only rubble. “The ground was so hot as almost to scorch my shoes,” William Taswell wrote. The church walls had collapsed, and the bells and the metal areas of the roof had splashed onto the ground in molten puddles. Taswell loaded his pockets with scraps of bell metal as souvenirs.
Taswell was not the only visitor to St. Paul’s. With their own homes destroyed, many Londoners had sought refuge in the huge, seemingly permanent cathedral. They found little but smoldering rocks. In desperate need of shelter, the refugees crawled inside the underground crypts and took their place alongside the dead.
The city itself lay silent and devastated. “Now nettles are growing, owls are screeching, thieves and cut-throats are lurking,” one witness cried out. “And terrible hath the voice of the Lord been, which hath been crying, yea roaring in the City, by these dreadful judgments of the Plague and Fire which he hath brought upon us.”