The Great Fire of London 1666

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On Saturday the 1st September 1666 the City of London was a buzz of activity, with traders selling their goods in the marketplaces and shops around London, carriages pulling goods in and out of the city as well as providing transportation for the rich who were off to spend their money in the fashionable shops along Cheapside, and the poor begging on the streets hoping to make enough money for a hearty meal. The medieval cobbled streets of the city twisted around a variety of timber structures, many with additional jetties which protruded over the sides with thickly thatched roofs. Even the bridges across the Thames were covered with these wooden structures. Stone buildings were rare in the City as they were often too expensive to build so only the richest districts could afford the expense. Five days later London had become a burnt-out shell of a City, being nothing but ash and smouldering timbers 

The blaze began in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane at some point between 12 and 1 am on Sunday 2nd September. It isn’t known exactly how the fire started or who started it but there were many rumours spread around London at the time. The most popular theory was that it was a deliberate act by French or Dutch soldiers who wanted to put an end to the Second AngeloDutch war, or as revenge for the English attack on the Vlie estuary in which the Dutch village of West-Terschelling was set on fire. That particular fire was known as Holmes’ Bonfire and was named after Admiral Robert Holmes who orchestrated the attack.  

A French watch maker named Robert Hubert falsely confessed to starting the blaze and was arrested. In his first statement he alleged that he started the fire in Westminster, but the flames never reached there. In a second statement he claimed that he had started the fire in Pudding Lane by throwing a grenade through a window, but this statement only came after it was revealed that the fire had started there. There were several misgivings about his fitness to plead, as he was crippled and likely had some sort of mental illness. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to death and hanged a day later at Tyburn. It was later discovered that he wasn’t in London at the time of the fire, he had only arrived in England two days after the fire had started, meaning that it was impossible for him to have started it. He has been widely viewed as a political scapegoat, used only to try to calm down the enraged public who had already started to blame foreigners and refugees for the fire 

 There had been a series of small fires in the City before the Great Fire, the last appearing in 1632, but they had been dealt with quickly through the use of fire hooks, used to drag down any nearby timber buildings. This created fire blocks which would prevent the fire from spreading as it had nothing to burn. The weather was a large driving force in making the fire so intense. For the last year London had experienced a major drought following two years of rainy summers, the timber buildings had dried out and were an immediate fire hazard. A strong east wind helped spread the fire quickly. There were large amounts of flammable items stored in warehouses across the City (which included gunpowder, tar, and oil) that increased the fire’s potency. 

The ineffective and disorderly judgements from the Lord Mayor Thomas Bloodworth also greatly impacted the spread of the conflagration, as he greatly misjudged its magnitude as well as refused to follow the orders from King Charles to tear down several buildings and create fire blocks. He likely prevented the demolition of any nearby buildings out of fear from receiving complaints from the owners! His failure to take measures to prevent the spread of the fire caused it to greatly intensify into a fire storm, which had its own wind system, increasing the spread and heat of the fire. It got so hot in fact that the lead roof of St Pauls melted and became a molten stream on the street below! 

Much of what we know about the events for the Great Fire come from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn both of whom were present in London during the fire. The most in-depth description came from Pepys who famously mentioned how, in haste, he buried some of his expensive wine and cheese in his garden in the hope that if the fire spread to his house, he would be able to retrieve these expensive goods from the burnt remains. Luckily for Pepys the fire never reached his home in Seething lane.  

Many believe that the Great Fire is the reason that the Great Plague vanished from London as the fire burnt the diseased rodents and contaminated buildings. However, the vast majority of the poor (who were the most likely to have or carry the disease) lived in the slums outside the City which were not damaged in the fire. Also, the number of plague victims had fallen substantially, to only a handful of cases in 1666 so in all likelihood the plague had died out on its own. However, it is possible that the fire helped prevent it from reappearing as the dirty, rotten, old and potentially contaminated timber buildings were destroyed and the majority of London was rebuilt using stone and brick. 

On the order of King Charles, several radical new designs for the city were created. Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, John Evelyn and architect Valentine Knight all came up with designs, mostly in a baroque style, for the new city. These plans were scrapped after it proved to be too difficult to implement, due to some complexities in land ownership; so, the original design of the city was re-used but the majority of buildings were redesigned to be made of brick and stone instead of flammable timber. Included in this rebuild of the City was the new design for St Pauls and fifty additional churches all by Sir Christopher Wren. 

A memorial to the fire (called The Monument) was constructed between 1671 to 1677. It was designed jointly by Sir Christopher Wren and philosopher Robert Hooke. The original plaque on the monument included an inscription which blamed the Pope and Catholics for the fire. This was removed following the Catholic Emancipation in 1830. Another monument known as the ‘Golden Boy of Pye Corner’ was erected in Smithfield which blamed the fire on the sin of Gluttony! 

 A contemporary image from one of our books featuring the scene of the Great Fire is currently on display on our ‘Treasures’ photowall which celebrates some of our iconic items including Shakespeare’s First Folio, The Nuremburg Chronicle and 18th Century Lottery Tickets! 

 

New Library Exhibition: Sir Thomas Gresham: Tudor, Trader, Shipper, Spy.

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Portrait Illustration of Sir Thomas Gresham Taken from The Lives of the Professors of Gresham College

Find out about Sir Thomas Gresham and some of the treasures from Gresham College library on display at Guildhall Library from Monday 3rd of June to mid-September.

Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-79) is possibly the best known of all sixteenth century English merchants and financiers. Gresham served four Tudor monarchs, managed to keep his head, and all the while made money. Sir Thomas helped to make London a great international financial centre by importing from Antwerp the idea of a ‘bourse’ or ‘exchange’ for items such as shipping and insurance. He installed the first English shopping mall or bazaar as the first floor in the Royal Exchange. His Will challenged the domination of Oxbridge in higher education at the time.

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Illustration of the original Gresham College taken from The Lives of the Professors of Gresham College

Part of the Library of Gresham College (founded in 1596 under the provisions of the will of Sir Thomas Gresham) the collections were deposited in Guildhall Library 17th December 1958 by the Joint Grand Gresham Committee, a joint committee of the City of London Corporation and the Mercers’ Company, and are held under an agreement of 6th January 1959.

The collections consist of two parts; one of miscellaneous works, mainly travel (circa 381 printed items); and one of music, mainly scores, parts, etc., based on a collection formed at the College by Edward Taylor (1784-1863), Gresham Professor of Music from 1837, and covering principally English and other European music, 16th-18th centuries (circa 324 printed books, plus 123 manuscripts). No new items have been added in recent years.

Purcell Close up

Close up of Henry Purcell’s book of solo songs which is on display at Guildhall Library

The Fletcher’s Company Library at Guildhall Library

Archery

An illustration of an archer from Archery its Theory and Practice by Horace A. Ford

First established by the Worshipful Company of Fletchers in 1973, this unique collection of items relating to archery is one of our lesser known collections. It comprises of a variety of items on the history and practice of archery. While most of the items focus on the history of British archery, books on Japanese, Turkish, Arabic and Native American archery can also be found in the collection.

Royal Company of Archers David Earl of Wemyss

A copy of a painting of David, 4th Earl of Wemyss from The History of the Royal Company of Archers by James Balfour Paul

The word fletcher comes from the French word ‘fleche’ meaning arrow. Therefore, a Fletcher is a person who makes arrows, in particular the feathers attached to the end of the arrow which help keep it aerodynamic. A number of books in the collection contain illustrations of various arrow types in particular the different types of arrow heads.

Archery Its Theory and Parctice arrow heads

Illustrations of the various types of arrow heads from Archery its Theory and Practice by Horace A. Ford

The Fletchers and Longbowstringmakers of London by James E. Oxley is an account of the history of the Fletchers’ Company. There is no mention of the company until 7th March 1371 when the Fletchers petitioned to the Lord Mayor to separate the trades of Fletchers (arrow makers) and Bowyers (bow makers). With their petition granted, the Worshipful Company of Fletchers was founded. As far as we know the Company has never received a charter and is therefore a Company by prescription. A Grant of Arms was awarded to the company on the 12th of October 1467.

Fletchers Coat of Arms

The Fletchers Company Coat of Arms (MS 21116)

The military importance of the bow is a key theme running throughout the collection, in particular British battles in which archery played an important role. A good book to look at is The British Archer or, Tracts on British Archery by Thomas Hastings which lists some of the important battles which were won by British archers. It also lists some of the Monarchs killed by an arrow, such as William II who was accidentally killed whilst hunting in the New Forest and Richard I who was mortally wounded whilst besieging a castle in France, as well as a brief description of some of the monarchs who were noted to have had great skill in archery.

Book of Archery Henry VIII and Elizabeth I

Illustrations of Henry VIII and Elisabeth I from The Book of Archery by George Agar Hansard

Another theme which runs through the collection is the story of Robert Fitzooth. More commonly known as Robin Hood, his story mentioned in several different books in the collection. Anecdotes of Archery by E. Hargrove, for example, includes a family tree of Robin Hood and explains why his name changed from Fitzooth to Hood. In the Ballads of Archery by James William Dodd a number of songs about Robin Hood, Marian and Little John.

 

Robin Hood Family Tree

The family tree of Robin Hood from Anecdotes of Archery by E. Hargrove

 

By Lindsey Keeling

Customer Services Apprentice

Guildhall Library

Happy 120th Tower Bridge!

084We’re wishing a hearty Happy 120th Birthday to our friends at Tower Bridge this month – on the 30th of June to be precise. To celebrate, we have digitised a copy of a lovely little book from our collections, published exactly 120 years ago to mark the opening: ‘Photographs of the Opening of the Tower Bridge, London, June 30th, 1894: by Their Royal Highnesses the Prince & Princess of Wales(London: Talbot, 1984).

078This little tome contains 24 black and white images from the big day itself, creating a real overview of the day. The photographs commence with one of the bridge at 9.30am on the day, then go on to document ensuing events, showing the opening of the bascules and various vessels passing through the bridge, with the final image taken one hour after the ceremony.

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We have created a Pinterest board showing each page from the book – which you can view at: http://www.pinterest.com/guildhalllib/photographs-of-the-opening-of-the-tower-bridge/

But you can of course view the item in real life here at Guildhall Library!

092Don’t forget to visit Guildhall Art Gallery’s striking exhibition of images depicting Tower Bridge throughout the years: 120 Years of Tower Bridge (1894-2014). Paintings, illustrations and photographs show how artists have perceived London’s iconic bridge over the last 120 years, and some engineering plans and ephemera are also on display. You can read London Historians’ excellent review of the exhibition here

Charles Pears (1873-1958), Blitz. Our London Docks, 1940, oil on canvas. Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London.

Charles Pears (1873-1958), ‘Blitz. Our London Docks’, 1940, oil on canvas. Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London. © The Artist’s Estate.

The exhibition is free and runs from 31 May to 30 June. And if you can’t make it in June the good news is that it is returning again during the Totally Thames festival, and will be on show from 12 September to early January 2015.

And if that’s not enough London bridges for you, the Museum of London Docklands’ Bridge exhibition will run from 27 June to 2nd November. Bridge promises to be the museum’s largest ever art exhibition, and will feature art, photography and film from their own collections. This exhibition will cover all of London’s major bridges and is also free to attend.

Anne-Marie Nankivell
Library Assistant

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Sheep Across London Bridge: The Freedom of the City

Guildhall Library was very pleased to welcome Murray Craig, the Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court, to give a talk on the City Freedom, an institution which goes back to the early 13th century. Until the 19th century, one needed to be Free of the City, via a Livery Company or Guild in order to trade within the Square Mile.

Murray’s schedule is a busy one and he arrived, hot-foot from a ceremony, at 2 o’clock on the dot and launched straight into his talk.

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The audience enjoyed hearing about the history of the Freedom and how it is conducted in the present day. We were entertained with tales from his experience of meeting recipients of the Freedom and the Honorary Freedom.

Those receiving the Honorary Freedom are presented with an illuminated copy of the Freedom in a gold box, but there have been some notable exceptions. The boxes presented to Churchill and Florence Nightingale, for example, were made of wood. Churchill’s was made from relics of the wooden roof of Guildhall which had been destroyed in the Blitz. Florence Nightingale had requested something simpler and less expensive than gold for her Freedom casket – the result may have been made of wood – but no one could call it ‘plain’.

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Murray Craig told us about the fascination of hearing the many ways in which the declaration is spoken, sometimes whispered or even shouted, and on one memorable occasion recited in character.  His rendition of these speakers probably made the staff and readers next door jump – but the audience loved it.

A couple of years ago, Murray appeared with Len Goodman on ‘Who Do You Think You Are’.  We shared memories of the rush which descended upon Guildhall Library and the Chamberlain’s Court after the programme went on air and the nation heard that Guildhall Library holds records of City Weavers going back to 1600.  We had visitors forming an orderly queue for the same manuscripts for weeks!

Audience feedback was full of comments words like ‘Excellent’ and ‘Brilliant’ and there were several requests for us to ask him to speak again.  

But can you drive your sheep across London Bridge if you have the Freedom of the City?  Murray says the answer is no…because you would cause traffic chaos!

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian

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