Researching the Great Fire of London

I’m delighted to welcome Deborah Swift as a guest author. I’m a great fan of Deborah’s novels and it’s not the first time she has contributed to my website. We have both written several novels set in the seventeenth century and our research into the Great Fire of London has often followed parallel paths.

Here is a link to a post I wrote some years ago about The Rebuilding of London After the Great Fire.

And now, Deborah writes about researching the Great Fire of London in methods old & new.

Methods old

My latest book ‘Entertaining Mr Pepys’ takes place in the years 1665 and 1666, and the climax of the story occurs during the Great Fire of London. Pepys’ Diary tells us much of what we know about The Great Fire, so it was obvious I must start with him:

“So down [I went], with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it began this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding Lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish Street already. So I rode down to the waterside . . and there saw a lamentable fire. .  Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.”

As well as reading Pepys’ Diary, I also looked into other accounts of the time such as the Diary of John Evelyn, who describes the fall of St Paul’s Church;

“The melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them.”

There are transcripts of some eyewitness accounts online too, such as this one from the BBC and a facsimile of The London Gazette of the time.

“The people in all parts about it distracted by the vastness of it, and their particular care to carry away their Goods, many attempts were made to prevent the spreading of it by pulling down Houses, and making great intervals, but all in vain, the Fire seizing upon the Timber and Rubbish and so continuing it self, even through those spaces, and raging in a bright flame all Monday and Tuesday, notwithstanding His Majesties own, and His Royal Highness’s indefatigable and personal pains to apply all possible remedies to prevent it.”

One invaluable book was ‘By Permission of Heaven’by Adrian Tinniswood which details events of the Great Fire day by day and also supplies maps of exactly what was destroyed when.

Methods New

As a novelist though, the bare facts are often not enough to bring the scene to life. I was interested to find out more about fire in general. Fire can be examined on many levels, from the physical to the psychological, and can denote passion, anger, or spiritual inspiration. I was keen to explore this more Pentecostal aspect as well as the more prosaic. A book I found fascinating was ‘Fire – A  Brief History’  by Stephen J. Pynewhich describes how fire first came into the world and how we have tamed it since.

The 17thCentury still dealt with ‘live’ fire much more than we do today. The business of hot water and cooking, staying warm on a winter night, and the way light was supplied by naked flames – all meant that fire was much more present in people’s lives than it is today. The moment when a flint makes a spark is still magic if you watch it being done. Try this Youtube video. Watching videos of burning buildingsmight not be most people’s idea of fun, but for me it was valuable research. Seeing how flames billow sideways from windows, hearing the hiss and crackle, and realising the smoke was as lethal as the flames.

The Great Fire caused the destruction of four fifths of the city of London, including most of the fine guildhalls and civic buildings along with more than 13,000 houses – a disaster Evelyn described as “a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day”.

But the most useful things for a novelist are often pictures. I spent a long time looking at pictures which showed me the ferocity of the fire and its extent. And as a contrast I looked into the role of the Thames, which was to transport goods and people away, but also to be used to douse the flames. Fire and water seemed like good bedfellows for this novelist.

Entertaining Mr Pepys, about one of the first actresses, Elizabeth Knepp, is published by Accent Press in paperback, ebook & audio.

You can buy the book here

Deborah’s website: 

Twitter @swiftstory   Follow Deborah on Bookbubfor her bargain books.

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