This year is the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. To help mark this celebration, the Architects Company joined forces with others involved in building the City to arrange guided walks through the Square Mile especially designed for members of livery companies. On Wednesday 13 July, around 20 Paviors accompanied by partners and guests met at the Monument, Fish Street, near London Bridge, to be led on a walk by Blue-Badge Guide David Thompson.
The Monument is close to Pudding Lane, where the fire started in the middle of the night at the bakery of Thomas Farriner on Sunday 2 September 1666. The fire was fanned by very strong winds and spread rapidly west through the thatched timber houses across the City of London. The major fire-fighting technique of the time was to create fire-breaks by means of demolition. However, demolishing people’s houses is always a sensitive issue, and decisions to do this were critically delayed, partly because of the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. The fire pushed west and north into the heart of the City. By Tuesday, the fire had spread over most of the City, destroying St Paul’s Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II’s court at Whitehall. The Fire was documented by a number of contemporary diarists, including Samuel Pepys who, as Secretary to the Navy, had access to the King and alerted him to the seriousness of the events that were taking place. The King mobilized troops from the Tower of London garrison, who used gunpowder to create effective fire-breaks and these, along with the strong east winds dying down, eventually led to bringing the fire under control.
The walk traced some of the progress of the Fire and moved first to just beside the modern London Bridge. The bridge at the time of the fire was the only route across the river and, at the best of times, was heavily congested. During the fire, it was a major impediment to people escaping with their valued possessions. Some people escaped using the river, but only a few had access to boats: no doubt the cost of boat-hire increased dramatically at the time. Our guide, David, pointed out many buildings that had been rebuilt immediately after the Fire. Timber and thatch were no longer allowed, so all of these were constructed with brick or stone and had tiled roofs. St Christopher Wren, although only 32, received a commission to design many of the 80 or so churches that were to be rebuilt and we passed by many of these on the walk, including St Paul’s Cathedral. Here, we were given some interesting information about the construction of the famous dome with its completely separate outer and inner skins.
We passed and were shown many of the livery halls that were constructed after the Fire, although most of these have been modified extensively and extended since then, so the original facades are no longer visible. We passed Fishmongers, Innholders, Skinners and Tallow Chandlers, before reaching Stationers’ Hall, where Paviors celebrated the current Master’s installation earlier this year. Finally, we visited the atmospheric courtyard of Apothecaries’ Hall, where current building work has exposed some of the original brickwork to view.
The two-hour walk provided many fascinating insights into the City and its Great Fire, and was made particularly interesting by tour-guide David’s knowledge and very clear exposition of his subject. Afterwards, many of those participating retired to the Blackfriars Pub for well-earned refreshments.