The Great Fire – Lessons in History for Winter Reflection

The Great Fire of London in September 1666 is an historical event to reflect on during the winter period in Australia, with the threat of a firestorm ahead.

Its terrible tale is still told in all its graphic detail to every English child, so that is ingrained in its national consciousness.

The Great Fire of London story is certainly not a tale for the feint hearted.

It is a continuing reminder about the frailty of humankind, especially when faced with living ‘hell’ in the fury of a firestorm.

The fire that gutted London inside its old Roman city wall and threatened Westminster and Charles II‘s Palace of Whitehall, was a huge event in its history. While it didn’t reach these illustrious haunts it did consume some 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, the old St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities.

It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants

The Great Fire of London in 1666 has been re- examined many times in the light of recorded eyewitness accounts, contemporary documents, private papers and personal letters by people with expertise.

They have traced the exact route of the fire, from where it started in Pudding Lane. It did not only claim lives, destroy buildings, goods, people’s possessions and livelihoods, but also obliterated virtually every trace of the old medieval city of London, one six centuries in the making.

In history endeavouring to discover how this fire started meant that a ‘line up’ of the usual, and some of the most unusual suspects, included foreign agents, religious fanatics, political factions and, the King’s baker Thomas Farriner in whose premises the fire started.

The Duke of York and even the King himself Charles 11, was on an extensive list of people to investigate.

It seems the King was known to be frustrated because on his return from living in Europe to the throne of England he wanted to make drastic changes to the century old wood frame buildings and paper shack shanties that made up most of the city at that time.

On 2nd September everything was in place just waiting for someone to light a tinderbox.

There had been a ten-month drought and the warehouses in the city of London, which was one mile square, were well stocked for winter with wood, coal and every other type of combustible material known to seventeenth century man.

Also a gale had sprung up, providing just the right amount of oxygen to feed a fire once it had started.

When it did it raged through narrow alleyways, where the overhanging timber framed houses virtually met across the street, allowing the fire to quickly catch hold and leap from roof top to roof top, much like the ‘devil himself’.

It was certainly a case of experiencing hell on earth for London’s people.

The Great Fire of London is a story of chaos and bureaucratic bungling.

When the blaze began fire was a frequent phenomenon in the old city. So full of complacency, were the residents of London, that virtually everyone ignored it except for diarist Samuel Pepys.

He, being alerted by his maid that one had started not far from where he lived and, knowing that such information would win the King’s favour, he left his wife dozing but not before burying his treasure – a piece of Parmesan cheese.

He then hastened away to Whitehall Palace where he could report on what he had seen.

Now to do this he had to walk a great distance, hire a boat to go upstream on the Thames to the old Palace, while all the way the fire was gaining a great foothold back in London.

Once there, he had to make his way through the rabbit warren of old buildings (except for Inigo Jones new and superb classically inspired Banqueting House) that made up the palace precinct, giving an account of what was happening to a group of courtiers gathered in the King’s Chamber.

They then sent word to the King who summonsed Pepys beyond the Presence Chamber, through the Privy Chamber, Withdrawing Room and finally into the royal presence in His Majesty’s bedchamber.

There he reported to a King, as he recorded in his diaries, who was ‘reclining on his bed with his King Charles spaniel) dogs with the ‘stink of dog shit heavy in the air’.

This was not unusual, the whole court was filled with ‘colourful characters’ who were reputedly ‘nasty and stinking’ despite the expensive finery they all lounged about in. It was a ’louche lifestyle’ that they embraced, an unsavoury low point in life.

It didn’t help what happened either that ‘visionaries’ had long heralded 1666 as a year in which hell fire, or damnation would rain down on these decadent sinful Londoners, 666 being the number of the Beast in the Book of Revelation.

As if it hadn’t been enough that the year before the citizens of London had been totally ravaged by the abominations of the Great Plague, which killed thousands of people.

Now there was also a threat of comets crashing or blazing stars smashing into the earth, which must have been a terrifying thought London’s thousands of illiterate and starving homeless people.

The lechery and debauchery the court of Charles II was at the time becoming renowned for, only served to reinforce an earlier claim of members of the Puritan religion.

That divine retribution would ‘lend a hand on the day of a dreadful judgment’.

Today our knowledge about the physics of any fire in Australia is informed by modern forensics and history.

The English military and the free settlers, who fist populated this place during its early colonial period, were well aware of the devastating effects of fires at home.

Fire has been present on the Australian continent for millions of years and is an integral aspect in the renewal and regeneration of its landscape.

Today our knowledge about the physics of any fire in Australia is informed by the history compiled since European settlement and the brilliant new ways of gathering forensic evidence about arson.

Despite all the information gathered for over two centuries many were still caught out last year in Victoria on Black Saturday and ignored early warnings to leave.

Stay and go warnings were subsequently found to be not very clear or well understood and so many of the residents who stayed with their homes were included in the very large loss of life.

The fires also took place in some of the most designated dangerous high-risk areas in the world.

So why do we continue to build in such places when we know the risks?

Are the reasons similar for those people who choose to stay living around the edge of a volcano or, to build on areas such as world fault lines, despite warnings it is too dangerous to live there?

Why do people constantly put their possessions ahead of cherishing their own life?

Why is it we do not learn from what has gone before? And, why is it we are reluctant to leave when faced with the cataclysmic fury of a fire?

The psychology about why humans fail to flee will surely need to be a major part of any form of future study in fire behaviour.

Is it about the ‘it cannot possibly happen to me syndrome’, that still exists in Australia 200+ years after settlement.

English military and the free settlers, who populated this place during its early colonial period, were well aware of the devastating effects of fires at home in England.

Today the English still prioritize warnings about what to do in case of a fire. Instructions are on view in every public space and place. They are all fiercely fire conscious.

Perhaps it is because they still have only one fire in mind, the like of which they never want to encounter again, as a constant reminder.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

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