The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed 80% of London. Who could have been responsible for this devastation? Was it the baker from the bakery where the fire started, the Pope seeking revenge for England breaking with Catholicism, or was it an Act of God punishing the citizens of London for their gluttony?
In 1666, most of the buildings in London were made of wood, and fires were not uncommon. But they usually just burned down a few buildings before they were put out, and everyone was used to it.
Just an Ordinary Fire
That’s why when the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bludworth was awakened at 3 am on September 2, 1666, to go have a look at this fire, he wasn’t too concerned. He was annoyed at having his sleep disturbed for what he regarded as a run-of-the-mill fire, and he uttered the words he would later regret. He exclaimed, “Pish! A woman might piss it out!” And off he went back home to bed.
Apparently, no women took up the Mayor’s challenge, and the fire continued to spread. A strong wind whipped the flames across the city, and it eluded all attempts to put it out.
Was it Arson?
When Mayor Bludworth awoke the next morning to a still-blazing city, he realized his error and was ordering houses torn down to stop the spread of the fire. But the wind was blowing sparks over the firebreaks and igniting buildings that weren’t even in the fire’s path. To the dismayed Londoners, it looked like someone was starting multiple fires all across the city.
People panicked and blamed the foreigners. They thought it was a retaliation for a recent British attack in the Netherlands, or an attack from their old enemies, the French. Then there was always the possibility that it was another Catholic plot like the Gunpowder Treason of 1605. Those who weren’t running for their lives or trying to save their belongings started attacking foreigners in the streets.
King Takes Control
Chaos reigned as the city burned out of control for four days. It seemed there was no hope for London. King Charles II stepped in, and sent his brother, James, Duke of York, to take charge. James sent patrols into the streets to restore order, stop the looting, and rescue foreigners from angry mobs. He organized firefighters and started blowing up buildings to create firebreaks.
Finally, after four days, the wind died down. When the houses at Pye Corner, in Smithfield, central London, were blown up to create a firebreak, the flames were at last contained.
The fire had claimed 436 acres, 13,200 houses, 84 churches (including St. Paul’s Cathedral). Eighty percent of the city was destroyed and 100,000 people were homeless. Only 4 deaths were officially recorded, but the actual number is unknown. It would take about 50 years to completely rebuild London.
The people needed someone to blame. The baker from the bakery where the fire began, swore it wasn’t him. He was certain he put out the fire in his oven before going to bed, so it must have been something more sinister.
Neither the Netherlands nor France had attacked, so it must have been a Papal plot. Since Guy Fawkes had nearly succeeded in blowing up Parliament in 1605, people were convinced there was a huge Catholic conspiracy to overtake the country, and this devastating fire seemed to confirm their fears.
The Parliamentary committee that investigated the fire, found no evidence of a plot, but people weren’t convinced. The Catholics were blamed, and it was even inscribed on the base of the 202-foot-high memorial built near Pudding Lane where the fire started. (It was later chiseled off in 1831.)
However, not everyone believed in the Papal conspiracy. According to some, the fire was God’s punishment for the Londoners’ sin of gluttony. And the proof was in the pudding: The fire started at Pudding Lane and stopped at Pye (Pie) Corner. For some, that was proof enough, and another memorial was placed at Pye Corner where the fire was stopped.
In the early 1700s, a carved wooden boy (pudgy by 18th century standards) was placed at Pye Corner. Across his chest was written, “This boy is in memory put up for the late Fire of London, occasioned by the sin of gluttony, 1666.” By the end of the 1800s, the inscription was no longer legible and the statue was gilded. In the earlier days, he was known as the naked boy, the fat boy, or the glutton, but since the gilding, he has been known as the golden boy. He hangs at 1 Giltspur Street, near St Paul’s tube station.
An inscription below the statue reads:
“The Golden Boy of Pye Corner
The boy at Pye Corner was erected to commemorate the staying of the great fire which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the sin of gluttony, when not attributed to the papists as on the monument, and the boy was made prodigiously fat to enforce the moral. He was originally built into the front of a public-house called ‘The Fortune of War’ which used to occupy this site and was pulled down in 1910″
The Great Fire shook the people of London and caused them to look for answers. While fear led them to believe that the devastation was caused by religious terrorists, and moralists told people it was a result of their sinful ways, nobody seemed to have questioned whether the baker had really put out the fire in his oven before going to bed.
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*Want to know more? For a bit more about the Great Fire, click here: More about the Fire
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Aha, conspiracy theories – even back then.
Yes, not much has changed… we’re still afraid of those foreigners. 🙂
How interesting..didn’t know about this but then again, what do we Americans know about history!!!! Thanx for enlightening me..
You’re welcome! I think learning history is much more interesting as an adult… especially learning European history while living in Europe. 🙂
My money is on the baker – I mean he’s hardly going to own up starting a fire that decimated 80% of London and who could prove him otherwise.
I don’t know… pudding, pie… it seems the case for gluttony is pretty strong. 🙂
Good Article! Hard to believe the Golden Boy was considered pudgy!
I know – I hate to think what they would have called me… 🙂
Thanks for sharing your article Margo! There’s always a reason for everything and somehow it gives us a lot of learning.
Thanks! Nice to hear from you!
Fascinating yet again, and it has taken an American woman living in France to tell me the whole story of the fire of London! I’m ashamed to say I have not seen podgy boy – but will make a point of searching him out next time I’m there. [He looks a bit like a left-over cherub from somewhere else!]
Hi Lisa, I’m not surprised you haven’t seen podgy boy. He is a bit out of the way – you would have to be looking for him. Who knows, maybe he was a left-over cherub and somebody decided to repurpose him into a moral lesson. I wonder if he had an effect on how much people ate?
There are some great trivia/facts(??) in this post Margo. I knew of the fire, but had no idea it destroyed so much of London. I’m sure that the homeless must have had a miserable life for some time. London has a long history and is absolutely awash in small statues and monuments that have historical meaning, like the pudgy boy. BTW, I love the painting of the fire. ~James
Thanks, James. I used to think that London missed a great opportunity to redesign itself after the fire. Instead of building nice straight streets, it just rebuilt its little crooked ones. But now I’ve come to appreciate all its quirkiness, and I love that there are little monuments everywhere reminding us of historical events (or not to overeat). Best -Margo