Preview: The Great Fire of London

Jonathan Self previews a new drama that gives fresh insight into the ways the Great Fire changed London forever.

Before I went to meet the team responsible for making the new ITV series The Great Fire and, therefore, for burning down what was probably the most expensive re-creation of 17th-century London ever undertaken, I thought I’d better bone up on my facts. Naturally, I consulted the one book that can be relied upon to provide concise, to-the-point descriptions of the key moments in our island’s past: 1066 And All That, by those pre-eminent English historians W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman.

After dealing with the reign of Charles I ‘Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right and Repulsive)’ and the life of Cromwell (‘died of a surfeit of Pride, Purges, Warts, and other Baubles’), the authors turn their attention to the main events of 1665 and 1666: ‘During Charles II’s reign, the Great Plague happened in London… and was very fortunate for the Londoners, since there were too many people in London at the time, so that they were always in bad health. In the following year, therefore, London was set on fire in case anyone should have been left over from the Plague, and St Paul’s Cathedral was built instead. This was also a Good Thing and was the cause of Sir Christopher Wren, the memorable architect.’

As an analysis, it’s surprisingly accurate. Prior to the Great Fire, there were too many people in London and they were always in bad health. Indeed, the City itself had become so crowded, unhealthy and disgusting that those with the wherewithal had moved their homes to Westminster or one of its other suburbs.

In 1666, London was the most densely populated conurbation in the world, despite the fact that more than 100,000 people had been wiped out by the bubonic plague. Barely anything had changed in the City since medieval times. The streets were narrow and dark because so many of the houses had projecting upper floors, known as jetties, which blocked out the light. These were often so close together that you could clamber across from one property to another.

There was no sanitation and the lanes, alleys and passageways stank because of the open drains. Moreover, the cobbles were slippery with dung, rubbish and slops. Water, which was in short supply as well as being sluggish and filthy, was provided via a complex and inefficient system of elm pipes partially fed by waterwheels under London Bridge. Illegally tapping the conduit, known as ‘bringing a quill into the home’, was commonplace and had the effect of further reducing the overall flow.

Fire was a constant fear. All but a handful of buildings were constructed of wood, often sealed with tar or pitch and roofed with thatch. Foundries, smithies, glaziers and, of course, bakers, all posed a risk, as did domestic fireplaces, candles, ovens and stores of combustible materials (not least gun-powder left over from the Civil War). Indeed, there were frequent outbreaks of fire and an established system for dealing with them.

Residents were alerted by a muffled peal of bells and would assemble to fight the conflagration, sometimes with the help of the local militia. Long ladders, leather buckets, axes and fire hooks were stored in parish churches and there were also primitive fire engines.

If the flames couldn’t be doused, the usual stratagem was to demolish the surrounding houses in order to create a firebreak. It’s telling that, when the Great Fire started, a little after midnight on Sunday, September 2, Samuel Pepys was fairly blasé about it. ‘Jane called us up,’ he writes, ‘about 3 in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City.’ After watching briefly, however, he returned to bed.

Pepys, as well as horticulturalist John Evelyn, a schoolboy called William Taswell (who later wrote a memoir), the National Archives, the Museum of London and hundreds of other sources (although probably not 1066 And All That) were employed by Ecosse Films when it was researching its new four-part dramatisation, The Great Fire. The mini-series follows a number of characters over the course of the fire, each episode dealing with a single day.

I don’t generally go in for costume dramas, but even I have to admit that this one’s a gripping yarn that manages to explain the political situation at the time with a surprisingly light touch. It alludes, for example, to the fear of a Popish Plot and to the tensions between the rulers and the ruled, but doesn’t overplay either.

By the same token, one comes away with a very good idea about what it must have been like to live in the capital in the 1660s: the clothing, food, furniture, transport and so forth. And the fire itself is so realistic that I found myself choking slightly as I watched. The real hero of the production, however, is the set.

Having grown up among thespians and later cohabited with one of their number, film and television sets hold no glamour for me. In fact, they remind me of the hours I wasted in Winnebagos helping narcissistic actors with their lines or moping around waiting for the wrap. But I would have given away my firstborn (or at least lent him out) to have seen the set of The Great Fire.

Unable to find a sound stage large enough to create the replica version of the City that the script called for, the producers eventually took over a large industrial estate in Henley. Here, they reconstructed several areas of the City, including Pudding Lane (where the fire started), Fish Street Hill, Leadenhall, Newgate Prison and money clearly being no object the Thames.

To further increase the verisimilitude, they commissioned and built 18 complete replica houses that, in every respect, reflected the originals on which they were based. They even built much of this mini-London from materials woods, for example that would have been used at the time.

This is of huge relevance because the director decided not to employ special effects or computer generated imagery to represent the fire. Instead, he had the set, erm, set alight for each take. (I have been assured that no actors were harmed in the making of the series, which, given my indifference to them as a breed, strikes me as a missed opportunity). The result is a tour de force. Instead of a series of ho-hum fire scenes, the action is electrifying. The smoke, flames, coughing and, above all, sense of panic are terrifyingly real.

The real fire burned for four days. At school, we were taught that only half a dozen people perished, but now it’s believed that this is a terrible underestimate. At any rate, the destruction was appalling: 13,200 houses, 87 churches, 52 company halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St Paul’s Cathedral and the General Letter Office were lost. John Evelyn estimated ‘200,000 people of all ranks and stations dispersed, and lying along their heaps of what they could save’.

If you would like to get a genuine sense of London before and during the Great Fire, my strong recommendation would be to turn on your television at 9pm on October 16.

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