Saturday, 3 September 2016

"wofull accydent of Powder and Fyer"

This weekend London celebrates the 350th anniversary of its Great Fire in 1666, burning from 2nd September for four days and nights.  Fires were a regular hazard but the effects of this one were noticed even in Oxford, carried on the east wind: " the sunshine was much darkened….the moon was darkened by clouds of smoke and looked reddish. "  Antony Wood.

As well as the words of diarists Pepys and Evelyn, other contemporary accounts paint a similar terrifying picture, and many are quoted in Walter Bell's The Story of London's Great Fire. Thomas Vincent for instance,  writes:

…"quickly the flames cross..they mount up to the top of the highest houses; they descend down to the bottom of the lowest vaults and cellars, and march along on both sides of the way, with such a roaring noise, as never was heard in the city of London; no stately building so great as to resist their fury."    God's Terrible Voice in the City, 1667.

All Hallows by the Tower, in 1736

On 5th September Samuel Pepys views the desolation from the new tower of All Hallows Barking, which marked the eastern limit of the burning: "it having only burned the Dyall of Barkeing Church, and part of the porch, and was there quenched." He must have known of the dreadful fire and explosion which occurred alongside the church in January 1649, when barrels of gunpowder exploded at a ships chandler's in Tower Street, demolishing the Rose Tavern, killing 67 people and badly damaging the Church, so that its tower had to be rebuilt in1659.   Did he also know the story of the baby miraculously saved from that fire, or was the story apocryphal, a later urban legend?

" …The next Morning, there was found, upon the upper Leads of Barking Church, a young Child lying in a Cradle, as newly laid in Bed, neither the Child nor Cradle having the least Sign of any Fire, or other Hurt:  It was never Known whose Child it was, so that one of the Parish kept it for a Memorial; for in the Year 1666, I saw the Child, grown then to be a proper Maiden."

John Strype includes this 'eyewitness' comment in his account of the 1649 Barking fire, in his edition and updating of Stow's Survey of London, but he was writing in the next century.   The fire destroyed several businesses whose owners claimed for lost stock, and there are detailed accounts based on official records in the LCC's monumental Survey of London  (Vol. 12, pt. 1) of 1929.  There does not, however, seem to be a record of this baby's miraculous escape.

The church survives, rebuilt again after WWII bombing,  and in its crypt are vestiges of the great burning of Roman London by the Iceni in AD. 60.


  1. Thank you for a fascinating entry. I had read Pepys before but not your other sources.

    1. Thanks. Walter Bell is a good source of contemporary accounts.