When I finished writing The Apothecary’s Daughter I couldn’t free my mind of the picture of the Great Fire of London sweeping through the city and destroying everything in its path. Thousands of people’s lives were changed forever and every one of them would have a different story to tell. Katherine Finche, the spice merchant’s wife’s, is only one of them.
The Great Fire of London began in the small hours of 2nd September 1666 after a scorching hot summer of drought. The city was as dry as a tinderbox and before the night was out the warehouses by the river below Thames Street had ignited and become an unstoppable inferno.
The fire leaped from building to building, fanned by a fierce east wind. The populace, led by the Duke of York and Charles II, frantically pulled down houses to form firebreaks but to no avail.
After the flames had raged through the city for four days, the wind died down and the progress of the fire slowed and finally came under control.
A smoking wasteland under a glowering red sky was all that remained. Almost everything within the city walls was destroyed, including an estimated 13,000 houses. Over 100,000 homeless citizens fled to camp out in Islington or Moor Fields with their few remaining possessions gathered around them. Something had to be done and done very quickly.
Incredibly, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and John Evelyn produced plans for the rebuilding of the city in a matter of days. Their vision for the new city was on a geometric plan with wide, straight roads, open piazzas and grand boulevards designed to reduce the traffic congestion that plagued the city even then. But it was not to be. The difficulties in registering the ownership of so many plots of land and the Crown’s lack of funds to buy them resulted in rebuilding on almost the same higgledy-piggledy street plan as mediaeval London.
Every story needs a good villain and whilst researching the aftermath of the Great Fire, I discovered Dr Barbon, who ignited the fire of my imagination.
Whilst Christopher Wren was designing cathedrals and guildhalls, Dr Barbon saw the rebuilding of the city as an opportunity to make his fortune. The son of a preacher called Praise-God Barebones, Dr Barbon had been christened If-Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hads’t-Been-Damn’d.
Who could blame him if he asked his friends to call him Nicholas? He attended university in Holland but never practiced medicine, preferring instead to turn his skills to property speculation.
After the fire, Barbon began to build his empire with astonishing speed and the extraordinary opportunities were there for the grasping.
He began buying leases from landlords whose property had burned and who didn’t want, or couldn’t afford, to rebuild. New laws had been made for the rebuilding, which set clear rules.
Houses had to be built of brick or stone with no windows or jetties projecting from the face of the house. A lesson had been learned and ramshackle and combustible wooden hovels would no longer be tolerated.
Barbon didn’t have the funds to build all the new houses himself so he sought other investors, constantly borrowing money from one to start a project, delaying payments to another for as long as possible and only settling his large debts when the percentage of capital and costs were about half the cost of borrowing.
A Member of Parliament, Barbon used his position to shield himself from the courts when he defaulted on payments and defrauded partners.
His projects were often underfunded and he skimped on the quality of building materials. Some of his houses collapsed due to unsafe foundations. He didn’t bother to apply for the necessary licenses and simply moved onto a building plot, violently beat off any objectors, demolished what remained of any previous house and set to work to cram in as many new houses as possible onto the site.