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The Great Fire in London, and Other Entries

By John Evelyn (1620–1706)

From ‘Evelyn’s Diary’

1666, 2 Sept.—This fatal night, about ten, began that deplorable fire near Fish Streete in London.

3—The fire continuing, after dinner I took coach with my wife and sonn; went to the Bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole citty in dreadful flames near ye water side; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames Street, and upwards towards Cheapeside, downe to the Three Cranes, were now consum’d.

The fire having continu’d all this night,—if I may call that night which was light as day for ten miles round about, after a dreadful manner,—when conspiring with a fierce eastern wind in a very drie season, I went on foote to the same place, and saw the whole south part of ye citty burning from Cheapeside to ye Thames, and all along Cornehill—for it kindl’d back against ye wind as well as forward—Tower Streete, Fenchurch Streete, Gracious Streete, and so along to Bainard’s Castle, and was now taking hold of St. Paule’s Church, to which the scaffolds contributed exceedingly. The conflagration was so universal and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirr’d to quench it; so that there was nothing heard or seene but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods, such a strange consternation there was upon them; so as it burned both in breadth and length, the churches, publiq halls, exchange, hospitals, monuments, and ornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner from house to house and streete to streete, at greate distances one from ye other; for ye heate with a long set of faire and warme weather had even ignited the air, and prepar’d the materials to conceive the fire, which devour’d, after an incredible manner, houses, furniture, and everything. Here we saw the Thames cover’d with goods floating, all the barges and boates laden with what some had time and courage to save; as, on ye other, ye carts, &c., carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strew’d with moveables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away. Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seene the like since the foundation of it, nor be outdone till the universal conflagration thereof. All the skie was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seene above 40 miles round about for many nights. God grant my eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame: the noise, and cracking, and thunder of the impetuous flames, ye shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storme, and the aire all about so hot and inflam’d, that at last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forc’d to stand still and let ye flames burn on, wch they did for neere two miles in length and one in bredth. The clouds of smoke were dismall, and reach’d upon computation neer 50 miles in length. Thus I left it this afternoone burning, a resemblance of Sodom or the last day. It forcibly called to my mind that passage—“non enim hic habemus stabilem civitatem”: the ruins resembling the picture of Troy. London was, but is no more! Thus, I returned.

4—The burning still rages, and it is now gotten as far as the Inner Temple: all Fleete Streete, the Old Bailey, Ludgate Hill, Warwick Lane, Newgate, Paul’s Chain, Watling Streete, now flaming, and most of it reduc’d to ashes; the stones of Paules flew like granados, ye mealting lead running downe the streetes in a streame, and the very pavements glowing with fiery rednesse, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them; and the demolition had stopp’d all the passages, so that no help could be applied. The eastern wind still more impetuously drove the flames forward. Nothing but ye Almighty power of God was able to stop them, for vaine was ye help of man.

5—It crossed towards Whitehall: but oh! the confusion there was then at that court! It pleased his Maty to command me among ye rest to looke after the quenching of Fetter Lane end, to preserve, if possible, that part of Holburn, whilst the rest of ye gentlemen tooke their several posts—for now they began to bestir themselves, and not till now, who hitherto stood as men intoxicated, with their hands acrosse—and began to consider that nothing was likely to put a stop but the blowing up of so many houses, as might make a wider gap than any had yet ben made by the ordinary method of pulling them down with engines; this some stout seamen propos’d early enough to have sav’d near ye whole citty, but this some tenacious and avaritious men, aldermen, &c., would not permit, because their houses must have ben of the first. It was therefore now commanded to be practis’d; and my concern being particularly for the hospital of St. Bartholomew, neere Smithfield, where I had many wounded and sick men, made me the more diligent to promote it; nor was my care for the Savoy lesse. It now pleas’d God, by abating the wind, and by the industrie of ye people, infusing a new spirit into them, that the fury of it began sensibly to abate about noone; so as it came no farther than ye Temple westward, nor than ye entrance of Smithfield north. But continu’d all this day and night so impetuous towards Cripplegate and the Tower, as made us all despaire; it also broke out againe in the Temple, but the courage of the multitude persisting, and many houses being blown up, such gaps and desolations were soone made, as with the former three days’ consumption, the back fire did not so vehemently urge upon the rest as formerly. There was yet no standing neere the burning and glowing ruines by neere a furlong’s space.

The coale and wood wharfes and magazines of oyle, rosin, &c., did infinite mischiefe; so as the invective which a little before I had dedicated to his Maty, and publish’d, giving warning what might probably be the issue of suffering those shops about to be in the citty, was look’d on as a prophecy.

The poore inhabitants were dispers’d about St. George’s Fields, and Moorefield’s, as far as Highgate, and several miles in circle, some under tents, some under miserable hutts and hovells, many without a rag or any necessary utensills, bed or board, who from delicatenesse, riches, and easy accommodations in stately and well-furnish’d houses, were now reduc’d to extremest misery and poverty.

In this calamitous condition, I return’d with a sad heart to my house, blessing and adoring the mercy of God to me and mine, who in the midst of all this mine was like Lot, in my little Zoar, safe and sound….

7—I went this morning on foot fm Whitehall as far as London Bridge, thro’ the late Fleete Streete, Ludgate Hill, by St. Paules, Cheapside, Exchange, Bishopgate, Aldersgate, and out to Moorefields, thence thro’ Cornehill, &c., with extraordinary difficulty; clambering over heaps of yet smoking rubbish, and frequently mistaking where I was. The ground under my feete was so hot that it even burnt the soles of my shoes. In the mean time his Maty got to the Tower by water, to demolish ye houses about the graff, which being built intirely about it, had they taken fire and attack’d the White Tower where the magazine of powder lay, would undoubtedly not only have beaten down and destroy’d all ye bridge, but sunke and torne the vessells in ye river, and render’d ye demolition beyond all expression for several miles about the countrey.

At my return, I was infinitely concern’d to find that goodly church St. Paules now a sad ruine, and that beautiful portico—for structure comparable to any in Europe, as not long before repair’d by the late King—now rent in pieces, flakes of vast stones split asunder, and nothing remaining intire but the inscription in the architrave, showing by whom it was built, which had not one letter of it defac’d! It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heat had in a manner calcin’d, so that all ye ornaments, columns, freezes, and projectures of massic Portland stone flew off, even to ye very roofe, where a sheet of lead covering a great space was totally mealted; the ruins of the vaulted roofe falling broken into St. Faith’s, which being filled with the magazines of bookes belonging to ye stationers, and carried thither for safety, they were all consum’d, burning for a weeke following. It is also observable that the lead over ye altar at ye east end was untouch’d, and among the divers monuments the body of one bishop remain’d intire. Thus lay in ashes that most venerable church, one of the most ancient pieces of early piety in ye Christian world, besides neere one hundred more. The lead, yron worke, bells, plate, &c., mealted; the exquisitely wrought Mercers Chapell, the sumptuous Exchange, ye august fabriq of Christ Church, all ye rest of ye Companies Halls, sumptuous buildings, arches, all in dust; the fountaines dried up and ruin’d, whilst the very waters remain’d boiling; the vorago’s of subterranean cellars, wells, and dungeons, formerly warehouses, still burning in stench and dark clouds of smoke, so that in 5 or 6 miles, in traversing about, I did not see one load of timber unconsum’d, nor many stones but what were calcin’d white as snow. The people who now walk’d about ye ruines appear’d like men in a dismal desart, or rather in some greate citty laid waste by a cruel enemy; to which was added the stench that came from some poore creatures’ bodies, beds, &c. Sir Tho. Gresham’s statue, tho’ fallen from its nich in the Royal Exchange, remain’d intire, when all those of ye kings since ye Conquest were broken to pieces, also the standard in Cornehill; and Queen Elizabeth’s effigies, with some armes on Ludgate, continued with but little detriment, whilst the vast yron chaines of the citty streetes, hinges, barrs, and gates of prisons, were many of them mealted and reduc’d to cinders by ye vehement heate. I was not able to passe through any of the narrow streetes, but kept the widest; the ground and air, smoake and fiery vapour continu’d so intense, that my haire was almost sing’d and my feete unsufferably surheated. The bie lanes and narrower streetes were quite fill’d up with rubbish; nor could one have knowne where he was, but by ye ruines of some church or hall that had some remarkable tower or pinnacle remaining. I then went towards Islington and Highgate, where one might have seene 200,000 people of all ranks and degrees dispers’d and lying along by their heapes of what they could save from the fire, deploring their losse; and tho’ ready to perish for hunger and destitution, yet not asking one penny for relief, which to me appear’d a stranger sight than any I had yet beheld. His Majesty and Council indeede tooke all imaginable care for their reliefe, by proclamation for the country to come in and refresh them with provisions. In ye midst of all this calamity and confusion, there was, I know not how, an alarme begun that the French and Dutch, with whom we were now in hostility, were not only landed but even entering the citty. There was, in truth, some days before, greate suspicion of those two nations joining; and now, that they had ben the occasion of firing the towne. This report did so terrifie, that on a suddaine there was such an uproare and tumult that they ran from their goods, and taking what weapons they could come at, they could not be stopp’d from falling on some of those nations whom they casually met, without sense or reason. The clamour and peril grew so excessive that it made the whole court amaz’d, and they did with infinite paines and greate difficulty reduce and appease the people, sending troops of soldiers and guards to cause them to retire into ye fields againe, where they were watched all this night. I left them pretty quiet, and came home sufficiently weary and broken. Their spirits thus a little calmed, and the affright abated, they now began to repaire into ye suburbs about the citty, where such as had friends or opportunity got shelter for the present, to which his Matys proclamation also invited them.

1685, 13 Feb.—I can never forget the inexpressible luxury and profanenesses, gaming, and all dissoluteness, and as it were total forgetfulness of God,—it being Sunday eve’g,—wh this day se’nnight I was witness of—the King sitting and toying with his concubines, Portsmouth, Cleveland, and Mazarin, etc.; a French boy singing love-songs in that glorious gallerie, whilst about twenty of ye great courtiers and other dissolute persons were at basset round a large table, a bank of at least £2,000 in gold before them, upon wh two gentlemen who attended with me, made reflections with astonishment. Six days after, all was in the dust.

31 Oct.—I din’d at our greate Lord Chancellor Jeffries, who us’d me with much respect. This was the late Chief Justice who had newly ben the Western Circuit to try the Monmouth conspirators, and had formerly done such severe justice among the obnoxious in Westminster Hall, for which his Majesty dignified him by creating him first a Baron, and now Lord Chancellor. He had for some years past ben conversant at Deptford; is of an assur’d and undaunted spirit, and has serv’d the Court interest on all the hardiest occasions; is of nature cruel and a slave of the Court.

1688, 18 Sept.—I went to London, where I found the Court in the utmost consternation on report of the Prince of Orange’s landing, wch put White-hall into so panic a feare, that I could hardly believe it possible to find such a change.

Writs were issu’d in order to a Parliament, and a declaration to back the good order of elections, with great professions of maintaining the Church of England, but without giving any sort of satisfaction to the people, who shew’d their high discontent at several things in the Government.

1689, 21 Feb.—I saw the new Queene and King proclaim’d the very next day after her coming to White-hall, Wednesday 13 Feb., with great acclamation and generall good reception: bonfires, bells, guns, etc. It was believ’d that both, especially the Princesse, would have shew’d some (seeming) reluctance at least of assuming her father’s Crown, and made some apology, testifying by her regret that he should by his mismanagement necessitate the Nation to so extraordinary a proceeding, wch would have shew’d very handsomely to the world, and according to the character given of her piety; consonant also to her husband’s first declaration, that there was no intention of deposing the King, but of succouring the Nation: but nothing of all this appear’d; she came into White-hall laughing and jolly, as to a wedding, so as to seem quite transported. She rose early the next morning, and in her undresse, as it was reported, before her women were up, went about from roome to roome to see the convenience of White-hall; lay in the same bed and apartment where the late Queene lay, and within a night or two sate downe to play at basset, as the Queene her predecessor used to do…. She seems to be of a good nature, and that she takes nothing to heart; whilst the Prince her husband has a thoughtful countenance, is wonderful serious and silent, and seems to treate all persons alike gravely, and to be very intent on affaires: Holland, Ireland, and France calling for his care.

1698, 6 Aug.—I dined with Mr. Pepys, where was Capt. Dampier, who had been a famous Buccaneer, had brought hither the painted Prince Job, and printed a relation of his very strange adventure, and his observations. He was now going abroad again by the King’s encouragement, who furnished a ship of 290 tons. He seemed a more modest man than one would imagine by the relation of the crew he had assorted with….

1699, 25 Nov.—There happen’d this weeke so thick a mist and fog that people lost their way in the streetes, it being so intense that no light of candles or torches yielded any (or but very little) direction. I was in it, and in danger. Robberies were committed between the very lights which were fix’d between London and Kensington on both sides, and whilst coaches and travellers were passing. It began about four in the afternoone, and was quite gon by eight, without any wind to disperse it. At the Thames they beat drums to direct the watermen to make the shore.

1700, 13 July.—I went to Marden, which was originally a barren warren bought by Sir Robert Clayton, who built there a pretty house, and made such alteration by planting not only an infinite store of the best fruite, but so chang’d the natural situation of the hill, valleys, and solitary mountains about it, that it rather represented some foreign country which would produce spontaneously pines, firs, cypress, yew, holly, and juniper; they were come to their perfect growth, with walks, mazes, &c., amongst them, and were preserv’d with the utmost care, so that I who had seen it some yeares before in its naked and barren condition, was in admiration of it. The land was bought of Sir John Evelyn of Godstone, and was thus improv’d for pleasure and retirement by the vast charge and industry of this opulent citizen. He and his lady receiv’d us with greate civility….

1703, 31 Oct.—This day, being 83 years of age, upon examining what concern’d me more particularly the past year, with the greate mercies of God preserving me, and in some measure making my infirmities tolerable, I gave God most hearty and humble thanks, beseeching Him to confirm to me the pardon of my sins past, and to prepare me for a better life by the virtue of His grace and mercy, for the sake of my blessed Saviour.

1705, 31 Oct.—I am this day arrived to the 85th year of my age. Lord, teach me so to number my days to come that I may apply them to wisdom.