The Things We Lost in The Fire

2018-11-07

Stepping out of Cannon street Station and into the heavy October winds of Central London I’m reminded why I’m here. In September of 1666, a strong easterly wind carried the greatest fire the city had ever seen across London. 13,200 homes consumed, 87 churches destroyed and 6 recorded deaths.

We begin, naturally, at the Monument to the great fire, a four-minute walk from the station, it situates itself supposedly just 61 metres away from Thomas Farriner’s bakery. All five feet, 1 inch of me staring up at the 200-foot monument, it still seemed dwarfed by the city’s skyscrapers. What I had hoped was to get a sense of the gravity the fire would have had for contemporary Londoners, but (perhaps naively) walking alongside the Highrise buildings of the current London cityscape it’s hard to imagine a fire on the other side of one of the office blocks being noticed let alone having it affect you. London is not what it used to be, and that’s the inspiration for this walk. What did we lose in the Great Fire of London? [1]

First Landmark– The Steelyard (location: Cannon street station)

In an effort to keep you on your toes- the second stop on our tour was technically our first, as Cannon street station now stands in the place of the Steelyard of the Hanseatic League. During the 15th and 16th century the Steelyard had been the main trading base for the league of German merchants and was essentially a city within a city. Consisting of its own cloth hall, guildhall, weighing room, kitchen, chapel and even riverfront. A little Germany within London, the relationship between the community and Londoners was strained; the German merchants, who governed themselves within the Steelyard, held rights that their English counterparts did not.[2] Although the animosity towards the community meant the Steelyard had lost much of its power prior to the destruction in the great Fire, noticing the large steel structures detailing the exterior of the office block above Cannon street, you can’t help but wonder if losing this little Germany meant losing key clues to medieval London’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Second Landmark– Bridewell Palace (Current Location: Current site of Unilever House)

Looking at the Imposing, Art Deco design of the Unilever building it’s not difficult to imagine that on the same site once stood the home of Henry VIII and subsequently one of the most prolific prison’s in British history. Bridewell palace must have been equally as commanding with its huge brick structure, three courtyards and three storeys- a building as weighty as its owner.[3] It’s no wonder that once it was given to the city of London that it was eventually used as a confine for the disorderly. The prison had become so prolific that ‘Bridewell’ had been adopted as a synonym for prisons in general- a term which is sometimes still used today.  Although, the Palace had not been entirely destroyed by the fire, and was rebuilt to a degree by 1667, the original structure strikes me as one which would have the same prestige in London today as The Tower of London.

Third Landmark– Old St Paul’s (Current location: Present St Paul’s)

To be specific, what we lost in the Great Fire was a different version of the Cathedral we know today. The Gothic St Paul’s that stood before the fire was officially completed in the 14th Century, constituting one of the largest covered public spaces in the city the cathedral had moved towards predominantly secular uses such as bookshops and general comunity sharing. The Old St Paul’s dominated the contemporary London skyline for about 400 years with its typical large gothic windows, spires and towers.

However, I struggled to reconcile this stop with the theme of loss; maybe because I just prefer Christopher Wren’s Baroque design but also because the St Pauls we know today is such a London Icon. Whether watched by millions during Princess Di’s wedding or immortalized as a symbol of resilience in a photograph showing the cathedral IMG_4492illuminated through the smoke of burning buildings during the blitz, St Paul’s is London’s cityscape. In fact, when looking through my photos afterwards I’d struggled to recognise the cathedral in an image which didn’t show the iconic dome.

Had the Great Fire not destroyed the original cathedral which would we have chosen; Old St Pauls or Current St Pauls? At what point do we decide that something is worth preservation?

Fourth Landmark– The Great Conduit (Current location: Cheapside, Tesco Metro)

Before this walk I had never heard of conduits, in fact they’re an aspect of Medieval London that’s rarely mentioned, but even today cities struggle to maintain fresh water supplies to growing populations. The conduits had been a revolutionary 13th century idea to transport water from fresh springs in the countryside using gravity, in effect they were medieval public fountains and the ‘Great Conduit’ was the first. Damaged and rebuilt several times over its life, it was finally taken down after 1666 when it was deemed irreparable. But standing in front of the Tesco metro it is now situated in front of and struggling to get a picture of the chewing gum stained plaque as commuters walk over it, I wonder what’s the significance? By the time the Great conduit had been torn down it had already been superseded by alternative water supplies and by 1669 the remaining structure was declared a “hinderance to the neighbourhood”[4] The plaque dedicated to the conduit had only been installed in the 1990’s after its remains were rediscovered by telecom workmen under the pavement. What must it have been like for the everyday worker to suddenly find himself surrounded by medieval London; in the under croft of a fountain which had once been the hub of a neighbourhood that gathered around it to listen to speeches, read information posted on it or drink the wine that ran through it during Henry VIII’s wedding to Anne Boleyn?[5] London is built on the ruins of a London before it, which is why as you walk you could potentially be stepping on something significant. Maybe I’ll remember that the next time I pop out a store with my bottled water and pack of chewing gum; but probably not.

Fifth Landmark– The Royal Exchange (Current Location: Current Royal exchange)

There are certain aspects of London’s cityscape that are undeniably historically significant, our final stop, the Royal Exchange, is one of them. Officially opened as the Royal Exchange in 1571 by Queen Elizabeth I; it was intended as a centre of commerce for the city by merchant Thomas Gresham. It was a lively four storey building consisting of a shop floor, offices, trading floor and an open courtyard in which traders would meet twice a day.[6] A testament to the importance of the Royal Exchange to a growing British Empire of trade, the building was rebuilt and ready for use by 1669, just three years after the great fire.

Walking through London, there were several more plaques and sites affected by the fire that I had not included or realised, it seems the Great Fire was pretty substantial.

But London’s always been burning, as a 12th century cleric once put it “the only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools, and the frequency of fires”.[7] In fact, the initial formation of London the city (then known as Londinium) had begun by being set alight by Boudicea. The Great Fire of Southwark in 1212 had killed approximately 3000 people, far more than the 1666 fire. The old St Pauls had been damaged by fire at least twice before being completed in 1314 and the Royal Exchange had been destroyed in 1838 by yet another fire before being rebuilt once again. London learns from its burns.

Several of the fire safety measures we have in place today can be traced back to the Great Fire of 1666. The post fire London Building act of 1667 is arguably one of the most

IMG_4504

important legislations in British history; it banned thatched roofing, timber framing and jettied floors as well as introduced surveyors to enforce the regulations.[8] This also led to a change of the city architecture into the Georgian, brick and stone London we know today.

Safety regulations had improved too, with new fire equipment such as fire squirts and leather buckets introduced into parishes. Not to mention the rise of the insurance business.[9]

After three emergency vehicles zoomed past me, countless fire safety signs and barely noticing the Dowgate Fire station on my way to the Steelyard, it is clear that London’s history and what we have learnt is taken for granted.

So, what did we lose in the Great Fire of London? Not much. Churches burnt, homes were destroyed, lives were lost, and sundry contemporary destructions were suffered but as a society we seemed to have gained much more.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/30/great-fire-of-london-1666-350th-anniversary-which-buildings-disappeared

[2] https://www.jstor.org/stable/1512741?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

[3] https://janeaustenslondon.com/2017/01/21/from-palace-to-prison-a-short-history-of-bridewell/

[4] https://c17thlondontokens.com/2016/07/19/the-three-tuns-tavern-against-the-great-conduit-in-cheapside/

[5] https://exploring-london.com/2015/09/11/lost-london-the-great-conduit/

[6] https://londonunveiled.com/2013/11/30/royal-exchange/

[7] http://mentalfloss.com/article/501164/7-other-great-fires-london

[8] https://www.building.co.uk/focus/how-the-great-fire-shaped-modern-london/5083502.article

[9] https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/how-great-fire-london-created-insurance

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