7 September 2017: The Great Fire of London
Tuesday 5th September marked the anniversary of the end of the Great Fire of London. The 1666 blaze swept through the central portions of the city and gutted the medieval City of London. The fire destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral and many more buildings.
There has been much documentation and numerous literary works on the fire. We take this opportunity to take a look at several of the works we have in our library regarding the Great Fire of London.
One of the most famous works regarding the Great Fire of London is the diary of Samuel Pepys. We have several copies of the work, such as this lovely morocco bound edition from George Bell and Sons (see photograph at the bottom of blog).
Pepys is best known for this diary he kept as a young man. This is because it is one of the most important primary sources of the English Restoration period, which not only features the Great Fire of London but the Great Plague of London and the Second Dutch War. The portion of the diary on the fire relays that in the early hours of 2 September 1666 Pepys was awoken by his servant who spotted a fire in the Billingsgate area. Pepys felt that the fire was not serious and therefore returned to bed. Later that morning upon awaking his servant informed him of the damage thus far, 300 houses having been destroyed and the London Bridge being threatened. The diary describes in detail what Pepys witnessed during this time and is a fascinating account.
Another contemporary diarist was John Evelyn. We have several copies and editions of Evelyn’s memoirs which have been said to rival those of Pepys. His diary, which he began at the age of eleven, bears witness to more than 50 years of English life. His diary is also of great value due to its primary recollection of key events in English history. The work remained unpublished until 1818. Unfortunately, over time his writings have been overshadowed by those of Samuel Pepys. His work should not be discredited as it holds the same merit.
Another historical work we have from this period is The City Remembrancer. The work is two volumes, bound as one. The first volume regards the Great Plague with the second volume discussing the Great Fire as well as the Great Storm of 1703. The historical work, published in 1769, was said to have been taken from Gideon Harvey’s papers. Harvey was a physician who published several medical works on diseases, including the plague. He was also the physician to the tower of London for fifty years.
The history of this great and devastating fire has also made its mark in the realm of Historical Fiction. William Harrison Ainsworth was a popular nineteenth century historical novelist. He had a successful career in this field and wrote 39 novels in total. Ainsworth’s novel Old Saint Paul’s, A Tale of the Plague and the Fire is a literary romance that describes this historical event. The work details the life of a grocer named Stephen Bloundell. The novel is set near St Paul’s Cathedral and details its use as a place to house the sick during the plague and its destruction during the fire. We have one several copies of this work in our collection, including the first illustrated edition.
Click here to see our selection of Ainsworth’s writings, including several of Old Saint Paul’s.
Not only do we have several books regarding the fire, but we also have some works published the same year as the fire. One example of this is The Practick Part of the Law. The work provides an interesting insight into legal proceedings in the seventeenth century and is in a contemporary sheep binding.