FIRE: THE PHOENIX

THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON AND THE

ORIGINS OF THE FIRE BRIGADE

 

Leo Hollis

 

It is something of a deep pleasure for me to come to speak at Gresham College.  This place is right at the heart of the story that I tell within The Phoenix.

The history of the Great Fire of London is really a history of accidents, and historians do not like accidents that much.  They seem to disrupt the long term pattern of events because they happen for no real good reason.  They happen at, usually, the worst hours of the day.  On the 1st of September 1666, a Saturday night or early Sunday morning, Thomas Farriner, a King's baker, had probably spent quite a lot of the previous day, which was the day of the markets and of receipts, in the pub.  He came home and would swear blind, a few days later, that he had swept the oven to make sure that there were no embers there.  He also, just for preparation, put two fitches of bacon up into his oven, and then left providence with his slippers and went up to bed.  In the next few hours, the basement of his house began to fill with smoke.  He was then forced to crawl across the roofs of his house into his neighbour's house, and so started one of the greatest turning points in London's history - the Great Fire of London.

By the next morning, the fire had spread in three different directions.  Down along the south, it had hit and broken through onto London Bridge.  Underneath the North Arch was a forcier, a water wheel that brought water into the centre of the City.  Quickly, it was engulfed with flames and rolled off down the Thames.  No longer was water going to be able to be pumped into the centre of the City.  It also headed west along the front of the Thames, breaking into the wharves and the breweries.  Here was all the great goods of the world - the spices from the East, the tar from the Baltic etc. - and the barrels exploded in the heat.  Finally, it headed northwards, up Gracechurch Street towards the Royal Exchange.

John Evelyn, who watched this conflagration from the South Bank, would write: "The noise and cracking and thunder of impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses and churches, was like a hideous storm, the ruins resembling the picture of Troy."  And then he would finally comment: "London was but is no more."

The next day, the fire continued along the Thames Bank.  It also headed north, where it broke into the Royal Exchange.  The fire ran around the galleys, filling them with flames, then descending the stairs, giving forth flaming volleys and filling the courts with sheets of fire.  It was said that the smell of burnt spices lingered in the London air for two weeks afterwards.  By this time, there was almost no way of combating the flames. 

Panic had gripped the population.  As Pepys wrote: "The streets and highways were crowded with people, running and riding and getting carts at any rate to fetch things away." 

As the flames began to crawl up Cheapside, there was a team of people who were trying to pull down the houses and then clear away the debris so that the flames could not travel up the street, but the flames, by this moment, were travelling too fast.  They were creating their own vortex of heat, that at times would get over 1,000 degrees centigrade.  If the fire be a little alaid or beaten down or put to a stand, it is but for a little while.  It quickly recruits and recovers its forces.  It leaps and mounts and takes more furious onset, drives back its oppressors and snatches their weapons out of their hands. 

It then continued up Cheapside, first attacking St Mary le Bow, the famous parish church where the curfew bells would ring.  It then attacked the Guildhall, which was said the ancient the 12th Century beams of the house, glowed like a burning, brass coal in the heat.  Finally, it attacked St Paul's itself, the great hope of the City, the largest building within the City Walls itself.  This, for many of the citizenry, had been the last sanctuary for all their goods.  Down in the crypt, the printers had packed in their manuscripts and the cloth sellers and drapers had hidden and packed their rolls of material in the eves of the church.  Nonetheless, they all succumbed to the fire.

The statistics of the fire itself tell us the true extent: 13,000 houses, homes for nearly 100,000 citizens, were destroyed; 87 parish churches, 6 consecrated chapels; the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange, the Customs House, the Session House, 52 Company Halls; Bridewell and Newgate Prison; Woodgate, Wood Street and Poultry Compter; four stone walls; two million pounds' worth of printed books and papers; 1.5 million pounds' worth of wine, tobacco, sugar and plums. - "London was but is no more."

Up to this point of 1666, the history of firefighting in London is very poor.  This was not an age that truly believed in accidents.  Everything had its purpose and, for many, fire was an instrument of God's revenge.  In 1666, there had been predictions throughout that year that the fire would finally come to the City: the astrologer, William Lilly; the savant Mother Shipton; as well as the madman who ran through Smithfields with a brazier on his head predicting fire.  It was clear that someone was responsible for this fire.  Thomas Vincent, a Puritan preacher from Bethnal Green, would write "God's terrible voice in the City", just to prove that in fact the fire was vengeance against the loss of the Commonwealth and the decadence of the Restoration.

For the establishment themselves, for the court and for the church, it was important to make sure that they did not get the blame for this fire.  There was a concerted effort to allay any spiritual panic, despite anything else, and on the Sunday after the fire, everyone was commanded to huddle into what was left of the parish churches and to give thanks.  Within weeks, William Sancroft, the Dean of St Paul's, preached the official mass of thanksgiving, with a sermon called Lex Ignea.  London had been tested, not punished, and the character of the City would be judged by how it responded to the fire. 

This attitude pretty much sums up a thousand years of firefighting in the capital.  This was basically a reaction to, first, panic when the fire appeared, then prayer that it would go away, and then finally, once it had gone away, just to pray that it would not come again.  Until 1666, God and the hope of miracles was pretty much the only way to beat the flames.  Sometimes it worked.  In 624, in Canterbury, the Archbishop Mellitus held back the flames.  The casting of water would not stop it, and it came rushing towards the Cathedral.  Mellitus, suffering from gout, had himself carried there, and himself, flaming with divine love and sanctity, prayed, whereupon the wind miraculously blew the fire out.  But most often, prayer did not work.

In general, after each fire, there were attempts to find some measure of prevention, but the enthusiasm soon withered away.  There were attempts, on a parish level, to organise some kind of fire team.  There was also, in some ways, an arms race - the provision of technology, even at the most basic - and then, finally, there were always attempts to improve the building regulations.  However, the history of the Great Fires of London proved that these were haphazard and often disregarded.  The most famous, and first, fire of London was in AD 61, when Boudica came down from Essex and brought devastation to the City.  There was also another fire, sixty years later, which destroyed Hadrian's capital.  In the 7th Century, there was a fire that brought devastation, burning down, for the very first time, St Paul's Cathedral, which was still a wooden shack then, first established in 640 AD. 

It was not really until we get to the Normans and William I that we see any concerted effort to create some fire prevention.  What he did was create something called the couvre-feu, something to cover the fire at the end of the day.  At eight o'clock, when the bell would ring for all the foreigners to leave the City Walls, and the City Gates to be closed, this also meant that you needed to cover up your fire.  It is the origins of the word "curfew", because someone would go round crying "Lights out!" in the City.  This was not necessarily the most popular of ordinances, particularly in the winter.  There was, in 1087, a large fire that once again destroyed the holy church of St Paul's as well as many other churches, and as well as the large and fairest part of the City.  Nonetheless, the curfew went out of fashion by the end of the Century, and was only later revived by Richard II.

By the 12th Century, Fitzstephen, one of the great commentators of the City, would comment: "The only plagues of London are in moderate drinking by idle fellows and often fires."  Again, there was a fire, a major fire, within the Century, but very little progress.

It was only in 1189 when the very first Lord Mayor, Henry Fitzailwyn, attempted to regulate the City as part of his new role.  This was one of the attempts that would pepper London's history of trying to find building regulations of a new idea of the City.  He wanted, and demanded, that buildings be done in brick or stone.  He also tried to regulate party walls, and finally, attempted to replace thatch with tiles.  This would be the mantra for building regulations for the next 600 years, but as much as it was issued, it was ignored.  Also with this Century, you get a sense of how dangerous fire was, because arson was finally considered to be an act of high treason, punished by being burnt alive.

In the 13th Century, again, there was another great fire, another hope of change, but once again, very little progress.  There was, in 1212, a fire that killed over 3,000 people.  Until the 17th Century, it was considered the Great Fire of London itself.  This resulted in new building regulations once again, and it is worthwhile looking at one or two of the clauses just to see how much they were ignored.  "All alehouses be forbidden, except those which shall be licensed by the common council of the City at Guildhall, except those belonging to persons willing to build of stone, that the city may be secure, and that no baker bake and no alewife brew by night, either with reeds or straw or stubble.  Whosoever wishes to build, let him take care, as he loveth himself and his goods, that he roof not with reeds or rush or with any matter of litter, but with tile only, or shingle or boards."

So in many ways, this idea of prevention of fire from above - from ordinance and building regulations - was not working.  But neither was there a rise in technology to combat the flames.

In the 14th Century, there was an ordinance that all big houses had a ladder and, in summer, a barrel of water outside the front door.  Each ward had a team of ten people, a strong crook of iron, a wooden handle and two trains and strong cords, but this was pretty much it, as far as it went for fire prevention.

It was not until the 1550s that a bell man was employed to walk through the City between the hours of ten and five, from dusk till dawn, calling out the lights.  But this did not stop the Great Fire of St Paul's in 1561.  It is extraordinary to think that, until the 1960s, that building was the tallest building ever built in London, until the Post Office Tower.  The spire was so vast, it was the second largest building in Europe.  But in 1561, it was struck by lightning at night.  Panic filled the City.  Their first idea of how to combat these flames was actually to use canon to blow the spire away.  When it was decided that they could not do that, they attempted to cut the roof away from the steeple, but the crowd was so thick around the Cathedral that they were unable to get their ladders through the crowds.  Finally, they were able to rip back some of the roof and preserve what they could of the ancient tower.  By great labour and diligence, a piece of roof of the north aisle was cut out, and with about 500 persons in carrying and filling water buckets, the fire was halted.

So by the time of the Great Fire itself, there was no real means of preventing it, and in that year, after a summer of dramatic drought, the City itself was absolutely ready - tinder dry - for fire.  The very first night of the fire itself, famously, the Lord Mayor rode in his coach to the top of Pudding Lane, refused to get out, looked at the houses, including Thomas Farriner's, and said, "A woman could piss that out!"  It was not quite irony but it was, in some ways, a testament to what the City could actually do once the fire took hold.

But this radically changed after the Great Fire.  There was a sense of rebirth.  "London was but is no more."  What would the new City be?

It is fitting, I suppose, that we are here at Gresham Hall.  Gresham Hall, at that time, was also the home of the Royal Society.  The building itself had been just missed by the flames, and there was every idea that Robert Hooke was in London during the fire, and that he had probably helped with buckets to keep the flames away from the College itself.  We do not know whether that is true or not, but I like to think that it is.

Within days, some of the leading members of the Royal Society were already putting their mourning clothes aside and thinking about what a new London could be - most famously, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke's very good friend, previously the Gresham Professor of Astronomy.  He was up in Oxford at the time, but within a matter of five or six days he was able to get down to London, meet with his very good friend, John Evelyn, and present to the King a brand new vision of what London could be.  This was a rational city; a modern city.  You might ask me what has that got to do with fire prevention, or fire fighting, but the way that Wren looked at the new City, at its heart, had a sense of "never again".  We would never go back to that medieval, wooden huddle.  Robert Hooke also offered a brand new vision of what London should be.  Evelyn did so as well.

I think it is an important part of this to look at how London was rebuilt and how it played into the whole question of fire fighting and of preserving the City.  The idea was that science, reason and order would actually help far more than instruments or technology in organising a modern city, a city that could cope with fire and that could cope with preservation.  At the heart of the Royal Society was not only a sense of a new philosophy in terms of physics and chemistry, but it also had a deeply practical heart.  Within weeks, almost within a week, Robert Hooke was looking at a way of building new bricks that would be fire-resistant.  So science was, in some ways, the first attempt to combat the horrors of the Great Fire. 

Unfortunately, none of these grand plans would ever see the light of day.  Instead, a new commission was set up within weeks of the fire - three men, including Wren, from the King's team as it were, and three from the City's team, including Robert Hooke.  They would, over the next few months, devise a way of rebuilding the City, which was then encapsulated into the first Rebuilding Act of 1667.  This was, in many ways, a revolutionary document.  This was a document that presented a new City, but also had in its mind a sense that, in order that there would never be a fire again, we would have to organise building regulations.  The many hundreds of years in which building regulations had been ignored would end in 1667.

The first thing that they came up with was four types of houses: the first and least sort fronting by-lanes; the second sort fronting streets and lanes of note; the third sort fronting high and principal streets.  The roofs of each shall be uniform.  The fourth and largest sort of mansion houses for citizens or other persons of extraordinary quality not fronting the three former ways.  So the whole idea that the buildings would be rationalised, and most important, they would be in stone or brick.

The second scheme, which is just as important, was a system of street widening.  It was decided that the widest high street would be seventy feet apart, and the other streets, fifty feet, and then alleys, if there were any, at sixteen feet.  This was important because it stopped fire moving from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

In March 1667, Robert Hooke then started to stake out the new City.  He did it in a matter of weeks.  It was one of the most extraordinary achievements of this age, that he, with a team of carpenters, staked out eleven miles' worth of the new streets.  By the end of that year, building had started again on the individual houses, and by the end of 1669, there was already 1,600 private houses completed. 

But alongside the Rebuilding Act, there the 1667 Act for the Prevention and Suppression of Fire within the City of London and the Liberties Thereof.  This was perhaps the most important idea of fire prevention itself.  It divided the City into four zones, each with 100 buckets, 50 ladders, 24 pickaxes, 40 sod shovels, and a hand squirt.  Each livery also had to have one engine, thirty buckets, two squirts, and three ladders.  A bell man was appointed for each zone.  There was ordinances on safe disposal of ashes and, in particular, not to put them underneath your own staircase.  Then finally, there were officials appointed in each ward in case of fire.

What is interesting is that once these Acts are up and running and people are willing to actually listen and do something about it, you get something of a market for instruments.  Beforehand, there was not a market in buckets and hoses, and therefore nobody made them, and nobody invented them.  The Royal Society might have been one of the most inventive group of people in the world, but until people wanted engines and squirts, they would not explore the possibilities of them.  So you get not only this rise of science, which were able to build instruments and to invest in something brand new, but with the rise of these Rebuilding Acts and these Fire Acts, you get a market for technology.  Therefore, what one sees over the next 150 years or so, if not beyond that, is a technological revolution.

Yet, despite all of this, the individual houses themselves would remain unprotected.  Every house had to be built by its tenant.  For many people, this would take a long time.  They would have to build it stone by stone themselves.  There was very little help from the Government on rebuilding.  In many ways, this reflects another character of the City that was to be rebuilt from the Great Fire - that this was a trading capital.  This was a centre of finance.  It was a centre of speculation.  It is no surprise therefore that the task for fire fighting and the protection of private property fell upon the owner rather than the corporation or the civic authorities.  It fell to speculators rather than officials to protect the City from the flames and, out of this, came a very unusual opportunity.

My book, The Phoenix, tells the story of five people, and one of the people is unlike all the others.  He was a man that was baptised "If-Jesus-hadn't-died-for-thee-thou-wouldst-be-Damned Barbon" which is a good name!  He changed it later, surprisingly, to Nicholas Barbon.  He was born just a few hundred yards from where we are now, on Fetter Lane.  His father was a leather seller, a firebrand, Puritan preacher.  He was - oddly enough, in the Fire and his house was one of the last houses to be pulled down, actually by John Evelyn.  Fetter Lane marks, in some ways, the last barrier of how far west the fire had got. 

Nicholas Barbon was a Puritan during the Civil War.  His father came to prominence under Cromwell.  There was the very famous Barebone's Parliament, called the Parliament of Saints, in 1653, which was, in some ways, Cromwell's last attempt to bring about a new Jerusalem through Parliament, and it was named after Praise-God Barbon.  In the 1660s, with the prospect of Restoration, Barbon made one final attempt to stop the return of the King, and was instantly put into jail for treason.  As a result, the son did not feel London was perhaps the best place for him, and took exile in Holland.  He studied to become a doctor in Leiden and Utrecht, and I think there is something in those places, and something that he saw while he was there, in terms of rebuilding of a new commercial city.  He was back in London for the Great Plague in 1665, and there is evidence that he wrote to the Guild, to the Lord Mayor, to help in any way he could to cure and ease the sorrow and the suffering of the ill; yet, he was considered to be so subversive and so dangerous, as a Puritan, that he was not allowed to even help.  He probably spent the majority of the Plague working in the pest house in Soho. 

Nonetheless, he reappears, just after the Fire, in the surveyor books of the City Surveyors, who were slowly measuring out the new houses.  His name appears on Fetter Lane, where his family had its house, but also Mincing Lane and Newgate Market.  In 1670, he applied to work on land near The Monument.  He was clearly buying up land cheap.  The fire had really had a terrible effect on land prices within the burnt area, and here was a man who saw an opportunity to rebuild.  This he did was some skill and élan, despite the fact that the house of Mincing Lane collapsed very quickly.  Nonetheless, he became the leading speculative builder of his generation. 

There are lots of important things to say about what he did to London in a completely new way.  In many ways, he is the man responsible for the London terraced house.  For instance he is behind the types of houses you might see in Devonshire Square, just outside Bishopsgate, and in Bedford Row.  He was really the man who can be thought of as standardising the London terraced house.  But more important than that was his role as the inventor of fire insurance.

As he was taking up new land within the City, and then, later, outside the City Walls, so places like Devonshire Square, but also Holborn and Bloomsbury, just around the corner at Red Lion Square, he was also thinking of a way of how to make some money out of the fear of the fire.  This he did quite brilliantly.  Although the timing is not clear, it is pretty certain that, after the fire, he set up the Fire Office, located at the back side of the Royal Exchange.  He was offering, on a sliding scale, firstly, rates premiums for preservation of houses.  It was 2.5% of yearly rate for brick houses, and 5% for wooden houses, and he offered terms for 7, 11, 21, and 31 years.  By the 1680s, he had over 4,000 subscribers, yet competition was never far away, and throughout the 1670s and '80s, there was a wonderful series of pamphlets and broadsides, which you can see at the British Library, where he was forced to fend off and preserve his territory and shout out his claims above the competition.

The first competition came from the City Corporation itself, who pondered whether it was able to offer policy for life.  Barbon saw that this was economically a mad thing to offer, but he also knew that if they had pulled it off, it would ruin his business.  Nonetheless, more importantly, competition coming from other speculators: in 1684, there was the Friendly Society; in 1685 was the General Insurance Company; in 1695 was the Amicable Contribution for Insurance from Loss of Fire, which was rather a mouthful and so was reduced to the Hand-in-Hand Company; and then in 1704, there was Lombard House.  By the beginning of the 18thCentury and by the time Barbon had, in some ways, sort of sold off his stake, there was the Charitable Corporation, the Exchange House, the Sun, the Union and the Westminster.  This had also begun to spread to other cities, so this was the time when you see Norwich Union.  It also even began to appear in the United States.

What is particularly interesting about the Sun Fire Office is it had its origins in Barbon's old fire office.  Barbon was always looking for ways to expand his business, through mergers and acquisitions.  It became, first, the Phoenix office, and then, in 1705, it merged with the Sun office, which then became the Sun Fire Office in 1710, though as part of that business was the constant need of resources.  Barbon was always a man who liked to lay out as little as possible and therefore was constantly looking for new investment into his ventures, but with this competition, you can imagine that there was a constant need to come up with new strategies, new offers, that would entice competition from other people and ensure that one remained on top.  As I was saying, the idea of mergers and acquisitions, the combination of offices was constant throughout this period.  There was also an endless competition on premiums, offering as little for as much as possible. 

There was the rise of the fire marks.  These were absolutely essential markers for the company.  As soon as a premium was signed and a deal done, someone would go round and nail to the front of the house a fire mark.  These were sometimes symbols but they were also with numbers on them, just to show the policy number itself.  As a result, each house had its own advert on the front of it.

They also began to offer other things. In 1704, Lombard House was the first to offer contents insurance, and it hired a porter to collect all the valuables out the flames, as well as housing a warehouse, just by the Thames, in order to store all the goods. 

But most significant was the creation of the firemen, or the water men as they were first called, or as Barbon called them the "Cohortes Vigiles", not a man who minced his words lightly.  He thought that it was important to attach his own prestige to the Roman history.  There had not been firemen within London since the age of the Roman Emperors.

The rise of the firemen would change the system of firefighting itself.  Once a team was gathered together, one would have a ready market, going back to that initial idea of technical goods.  If you had a good team, you also would be able to sell the team as well as the equipment that you had with you.  It also allowed the corporations and the institutions to avoid doing anything for themselves - it became a competitive market.  Protection was offered to any house with a fire mark on the front, but also, at the beginning, it meant that there were many houses that had no fire marks at all, and so this left huge gaps within the City.  You can imagine what would happen if there had been a fire in Rookery or the Seven Dials or Gin Lane, where there was no insurance whatsoever. 

The first brigade was set up by Barbon at the Temple, and he advertised it as "Servants in livery with badges, who are watermen and other lusty persons who are always to be ready when any sudden fire happens, which they are very laborious and dextrous at quelling, not stopping in case of necessity to expose themselves to great hazards in their attempts." 

The first firemen were recruited from the Watermen Livery, one of the great livery houses of the City itself.  There were obviously huge advantages in becoming a fireman.  Not only did you get the most resplendent uniform, but also, you would be on a permanent retainer.  Most importantly, you would not get press-ganged, and so, throughout the 18th Century, to say that you were a fireman meant that you got out of the horrors of Nelson's Navy.

A very significant factor was the uniform itself.  For the Hand-in-Hand, they had yellow plush breeches, cotton stockings, and silver-buckled shoes.  The Sun had blue breeches with white stockings, blue tonics with silver buttons.  Looking after the uniforms was obviously a real problem as you stepped into the fire, and there were constant complaints about silver buckles, but nonetheless there were wonderful annual occasions in which the whole brigade would come together to celebrate and would be given new uniforms.

So as this market for firefighting was emerging, evolving and becoming fairly rigid by the beginning of the 18th Century, this became the way to define, as it were, enlightenment firefighting within the City.  There was, up until this time, and certainly not until the beginning of the19th Century, any attempt to create some sort of corporate or civic firefighting mechanisms on the same scale.  It was left to the market to decide.

But you get some anomalies as a result, because not only was the uniform useful in combating flames, it was also a very good advert in itself, and so when a fire was called, quite often you would get the firemen strolling to the fire with musicians playing, just so the bystanders would know that this was the team, and this is what they were going to do.  There was also the problem that perhaps they might take so long to stroll there that the next house over would also catch alight which might have a different fire mark.  You would then get two fire teams fighting over the same resources, and there were endless stories of fights breaking out.  It was so bad that the Norwich Union had to set out a code of conduct, that you would get fined five shillings for hitting part of the opposition, and 2.5 shillings for pouring water at them.  Also, there was a rise of privileges, that anyone who was working the pump was allowed to get free beer, and sometimes they would not work until the beer arrived.

But it got even worse, in the 1740s, when it was finally decided that any house that did not have a fire mark on it was an open market.  So if there was a house that was not protected by any of the companies, then they would have first-come, first-served, and the first watermen would get a reward.  So there was, again, another huge excuse for a big fight.

But what we get also, as I was saying, is this arms race, that suddenly there is a market for great innovation, for scientists and engineers to really focus in on patents.  In the 1690s, it is hard to believe, the first flexible hose was invented by a group of Dutch brothers, and this became wildly popular in England.  It was called a leather worm, and it was soon taken up by all the major watermen companies.

You also get engines, which are increasingly ingenious.  In 1708, the British Government passed the Parish Pump Act, a law that ordered that every parish keep a water pump for use in extinguishing fires.  This was all fine in reason, but most often, the engines just did not work and they were extraordinarily ineffective.

Richard Newsham was perhaps the man who is called the Father of the Fire Engine.  He finally developed, at the beginning of the 18th Century, his parish fire pump.  This was able to squirt 400 litres of water per minute at flames forty metres away.  It was so popular that copies of his pump were sent, almost immediately, to New York City and to Boston, and apparently, his adverts were so popular that even George II ordered one to protect his palace.

So by the mid-18th Century, one gets this fairly solid structure of firefighting, in which there are insurance teams inspiring and paying for new technology with which to fight the flames.  This would pretty much continue until the Victorian period, which is a whole new chapter in London's history.  Then it would finally no longer work, and this is when we see the story of the rise of the London Fire Brigade, and in many ways, this is where my story ends. 

If we can return to the Great Fire itself, and the origins of this story, you had an extraordinary moment - a turning point in London history - one that revolved perhaps around the smell of bacon, but nonetheless was incredibly transformative.  Although it is difficult to say, it offered an opportunity for a new generation, of a new philosophy of science and technology; a new opportunity for London to become a trading and a speculative capital.  Many of the things that we see London as today has its origins in that time, and I think firefighting is one of the stories which reflects the way that that City was reborn after the Great Fire.

 

 

©Leo Hollis, Gresham College, 27 October 2008