On Monday 3 September 1666, Lady Ann Hobart wrote a letter from her residence on Chancery Lane in central London. The previous day, a fire had broken out at a baker’s house on Pudding Lane and had rapidly spread across the city. Fearful that her own house would be consumed, she wrote: “I am almost out of my wits, we have packed up all our goods & cannot get a cart for money, they give 5 & 10 pound for carts … I fear I shall lose all I have and must run away … O pity me.”
The Great Fire is one of the most well-documented pre-modern disasters in history – and now it’s the subject of a three-part “in real time” documentary on Channel 5. Thanks to exhaustive extant accounts, it is possible to build a picture of not only the sequence of events, but the emotional “journey” Londoners went on as well. From shock, fear and xenophobia, to resilience, latent trauma and exhaustion, many of the hallmarks we have come to associate with disaster were at play in 1666. Perhaps the real story of the Great Fire, therefore, is not the heat, the flames and the statistics (13,000 houses destroyed, 87 churches ruined, and 80% of the City of London scorched), but the emotional maelstrom experienced by those caught up in the disaster.
For Londoners such as the Dutch-born goldsmith Johan Vandermarsh, the rumour that the fire had been deliberately started by Dutch and/or French arsonists had profound consequences. As the Earl of Clarendon put it, almost as soon as the fire erupted the disaster “kindled another fire in the breast of men, almost as dangerous as that within their houses”: violent xenophobia. There are accounts of a Frenchman being felled with an iron bar and of the Portuguese ambassador’s servant being set upon by an angry mob, of gangs of “English women… [that] did knock down severall strangers for not speaking good English”, of a man being dismembered and a woman having her breast hacked off. Vandermarsh used his own money to save his street from fire, but faced a wall of prejudice when he tried to keep hold of his partially damaged property.
Those whose homes were destroyed by the fire had to rely on the charity of family and friends. The newly wed couple Michael and Betty Mitchell were given temporary accommodation in Shadwell. Mr and Mrs Dunston of Thames Street couldn’t afford to rebuild their property and left London altogether. The aged playwright James Shirley was among the thousands of refugees stranded at Moorfields, where the diarist John Evelyn found people “under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag, or any necessary utensils, bed or board, who from delicateness, riches, and easy accommodations in stately and well-furnished houses, were now reduced to extreme misery and poverty”. It is perhaps no surprise that both Shirley and his wife died a month after the disaster from fright and consumption.
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