Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Worst Two Years: "A woman might pisse it out"

London in the 1600s was a jumble of wooden houses. The streets were so narrow, the overhanging gables of the houses often touched. Fires were not unusual, but they usually burned out after claiming a few streets. Firefighting pumps had just been invented and weren't very effective, but bigger blazes could be stopped by pulling down houses to create firebreaks.

So nobody was unduly worried when a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane went up in flames in the early morning hours on September 2, 1666. Mayor Bludworth, awakened from a drunken sleep at 3 AM, looked at the flames and said, “Pish. A woman might pisse it out.” But nobody called a woman to do so, and before long the fire, pushed by a strong wind, was raging out of control.

Several unfortunate happenings converged to make this fire special. In the first place there was that howling wind, which drove the fire across the city. Second, people in the path of the flames began pulling their belongings out of their houses in a panic. The streets were soon clogged with carts, piles of furniture, people carrying all their worldly goods on their backs, and refugees trying desperately to flee. That made it hard for responders to reach the fire.

London in the mid-1600s was packed with wooden houses on narrow streets
Third, it had been a dry and hot summer, so the houses were primed to burn. And fourth, warehouses along the Thames were packed with pitch, oil, brandy and tar; in the wake of the Great Plague, merchants were stockpiling stuff to sell to residents moving back into the city.

The blaze moved so fast that when people pulled houses down to try to create firebreaks, the flames caught the ruins before they could be cleared away, and the fire roared on.

The aforementioned drunken mayor wasn’t much help. During the crucial early stages of the fire, diarist, naval administrator and man-about-town Samuel Pepys rode to the King and secured the help of soldiers to pull down houses. He rode back to transmit the order to the mayor, only to find him standing in the street, staring at the fire in a daze. “I am spent: people will not obey me,” Bludworth raved. So nothing was done.
London Fire Brigade monument. A fire brigade would have been useful,
but alas, it wasn't founded for another two centuries.
The fire turned London into a different sort of Hell: while the Plague had left it eerily empty, it was now packed with half-crazed crowds and mountains of possessions. Some people threw their furniture into the river with the slim hope of recovering it after the fire; others went out on boats, which rammed each other in the smoke and even caught on fire when sparks blew over the water.

On the fourth day, the wind died down. At the same time, a response had finally coalesced, and men blowing whole streets up with gunpowder had succeeded in creating firebreaks. But 90 percent of the city’s housing had gone up in smoke.

The fire led to many improvements, including wider streets and more graceful houses of brick and stone. It may even have helped clear out the vestiges of the Plague. But after the year they'd just had, Londoners had to wonder what they'd done to bring another disaster down on their heads.

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