355 years ago today, on 2 September 1666, Londoners woke to the news that a fire was raging in the southeast of the City and spreading rapidly. In an early draft of my children’s novel, The White Phoenix, set in a London bookshop in 1666, I had my characters living by St Paul’s Cathedral, and finding out about the fire when hordes of people started streaming past them through the narrow streets, pushing handcarts piled high with children and furniture.
Londoners flee the burning City in September 1666
Then I realised that it would be far more exciting to put my characters slap bang in the middle of the action, so in the final version, 13-year-old Lizzie Hopper and her family are staying with their uncle in Pudding Lane when the fire breaks out. They witness first-hand the efforts of the firefighters to put out the flames, becoming part of the human chain passing leather buckets up and down the lane from where someone had pierced the water pipes running below the streets. They hear the bells of St Magnus’s church ringing backwards – the equivalent of an emergency siren sounding today - and experience the fierce heat and falling embers blowing around in the wind. They also witness the failure of the one person who might possibly have been able to stop the fire at this early stage and prevent it becoming the Great Fire of London – the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth.
Seventeenth-century firefighters using buckets and firehooks to fight a fire in Tiverton, Devon
The firefighters wanted Bludworth’s permission to use firehooks to pull down some of the unburnt houses nearest the blaze, creating a firebreak. The Lord Mayor said that he couldn’t do this without the permission of the owners, but as most of the houses were rented, the owners were not around to ask. Bludworth then famously declared that the fire wasn’t that bad anyway: ‘A woman could piss it out,’ he said and went home. Later that day, he did start to pull down houses but by then the fire was burning out of control. Who knows what would have happened if he had been more decisive?
In The White Phoenix, my character Lizzie experiences what actually happened next. Like thousands of other Londoners, she and her family flee east to Tower Hill, then an open green space near the Tower of London, on the outskirts of the City. Many others fled north to Moorfields, another wide open field. Remarkably, according to contemporary accounts, all the refugees had gone within four days – some leaving the City for good, others returning to see what they could salvage from their burnt homes, or moving to stay with family and friends in untouched neighbourhoods.
Nevertheless, the Great Fire was a deeply traumatic experience for Londoners. Samuel Pepys records in his diary on 2 September how he wept to see the City burn. In my book, Lizzie and her brother Ralph have tears streaming down their faces as they watch St Paul’s Cathedral engulfed in flames.
Near the end of my story, Lizzie goes back into the burnt City. She finds it almost impossible to work out where the streets had been because there is so much rubble and fallen timber everywhere. The ground was too hot to walk on for several days after the fire died out.
Of course today barely anything remains of the City that Lizzie knew - many of the buildings rebuilt after the Fire were destroyed in the Blitz during World War II. The exception is some of the City churches, many of which were rebuilt after 1666 by Sir Christopher Wren, and rebuilt again after the Blitz. You can still visit St Magnus, for instance, at the south end of Pudding Lane, where the bells first rang out to warn of the Fire. The street names and the line of the streets also remain broadly the same, so it is possible to trace Lizzie’s footsteps through the City, both during and after the Fire. The sketch map below shows the extent of the Fire, as well as Tower Hill and Moorfields where Lizzie and the real refugees fled. It also shows the fictional site of the White Phoenix, the bookshop that Lizzie Hopper fights so hard to save in my novel.
Discussion points for teachers/parents :
The people who lost their homes in the Great Fire of London often did not travel far from the City, but they were still refugees, relying on the goodwill of others to feed and house them. What places can you think of in the world today where people have been forced to become refugees in their own countries because of natural disasters?
For what other reasons, besides natural disasters, might people have to flee their homes?
In 1666, lots of towns across England sent money to Londoners to help them rebuild their homes. Often, money was collected at Sunday church services. Other people opened their homes to the refugees while they rebuilt their homes and businesses. In what ways can we help refugees today?
What possessions would you save if you had to leave your home very quickly? Do you think they would be the same sort of things that fleeing Londoners took with them in 1666?
The White Phoenix by Catherine Randall is an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in London in 1666, and is shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021.
Published by the Book Guild, it is available from bookshops and online retailers.
For more information, see www.catherinerandall.com.