By: Scott RossPublished: September 2, 2022

Thomas Farriner

The city of London is known by some as simply "The Smoke," and one would be forgiven for thinking the nickname has something to do with the city's propensity for burning. Major fires raged in the city in the year 60 AD, as well as 120, 961, 1087, 1135, 1212, 1633, 1698, 1834, 1861, and 1940. But the big one, The Great Fire of London, started on September 2, 1666, in the bakery on Pudding Lane owned by one Thomas Farriner.

Farriner was awakened that fateful morning by the smell of smoke, only to find that his bakery and home were on fire. He quickly woke up his daughter and his maid and tried to usher them out an upstairs window to safety. Farriner and his kid made it, but the maid was more afraid of falling than she was of burning, and so the latter was her fate.

As you might imagine, firefighting techniques in the mid-seventeenth century were lacking. There were no hydrants, hoses or trucks, just ladders and buckets, and if things got bad, they'd simply make a firebreak by demolishing nearby homes. As the fire grew, the constables on the scene decided that demolition was their only hope of containing the blaze and sent for the mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, to sign off on the razing.

Arriving on the scene after about an hour, Bludworth refused to give the OK, his reason being that most of the people living in the buildings to be leveled were renters and there was no way to get the consent of the owners. The constables pressed Bludworth, but the old boy wouldn't budge, famously dismissing their pleas by saying, "A woman could piss it out," before returning to the comfort of his bed.

In his diary, Samuel Pepys recounts his maids waking him at 3am to tell him of the fire, and then awaking at 7 to see it still going strong, later heading up the Tower of London to get a proper view and then reporting to King Charles II what he saw. Charles in turn told Pepys to "command [Bludworth] to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way."

Bludworth by this time had totally lost his chill, to hear Pepys tell it.

To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, “Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.”

By September 5 the "Great Fire" had died down, thanks to the efforts of the Royal Navy, which had been blowing up houses to create a firebreak, though there still burned smaller fires across the city. On that day, Pepys ascended the steeple of Barking Church from where he witnessed "the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw."

Ironically, things could've been a lot worse were it not for the fire of 1633, which had destroyed an as yet unrepaired section of London Bridge, thus creating a firebreak that spared the south side of the city.

In all, the city of 350,000 people lost 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, and St. Paul's Cathedral, the total destruction being valued at £10 million, though official fatalities were reportedly in the single digits. To put that £10 million figure into context, the entire country's GDP that year was ~£52 million, which is to say that in addition to rendering as much as a third of Londoners homeless, the fire destroyed two and a half months worth of GDP.

Incredibly, Farriner rebuilt and went right back to work, escaping any blame for the fire. Instead, a Frenchman and suspected papist named Robert Hubert falsely confessed to having thrown a firebomb through the bakery's window, and was hanged at what is now Marble Arch. It was later learned that Hubert had arrived in town two days after the fire started and didn't know where the fire started.

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