Before we begin this episode, I just wanted to put a content warning. I will be discussing child labour which touches on abuse and death, so if you’d rather not listen to that, please give this episode a pass.
In the very early morning hours of September 2nd, 1666 as families slept in their beds, small embers smouldered in the oven of the kings baker, who had retired for the night.
Thomas Farriner was sure that the coals had all been extinguished, as was the law of the land. However, it was commonplace for all the bakers to ignore this practice, and use the left over warmth of the hearth to soften the dough for the next days bread. I am sure he had reasoned to himself that it was fine………
Pudding Lane were he lived and worked, was close to the river Thames, of which London was built upon. In the event of an emergency, the water was close by, though like most things in medieval Britain, nothing was as secure as it seemed.
When the fire inevitably broke out, Farriner, his daughter and a male servant escaped the blaze by climbing out of a window, but their maid, who was frozen in fear, perished. She would be the first of six people to die.
As flames began to rage, smoke billowed out into the streets, leaving a thick blanket of ash on the cold cobblestones. The Farriner family watched as their entire life crumbled before their eyes. FADE OPENING SONG DURING LAST LINE
By the 1660s, London had exploded in population and was quite literally bursting at the seams. Originally a roman settlement, there was a large defensive wall surrounding it. As it grew more crowded, the solution was to build upwards.
Narrow cobbled streets and alleys were lined with wooden tenements, which are multi home dwellings. They were scattered amongst the more expensive stone buildings in the city centre.
These tenements were six or seven storey’s tall and contained jetties, so each storey added on, would stick out further and further into the street as a sort of overhang. Some would be separated across the road by just a few inches/feet/hands/dogs.
These units were built using a technique called wattle-and-daub. Wooden lattice was encased in a mud mixture, which was quite effective in resisting flames…..if they received proper attention and upkeep. Needless to say, that didn’t happen often.
Absolutely everything about this situation was a fire hazard, it also was a breeding ground for disease, as the Londoners unfortunately learned just a year before. The great plague had decimated the population, and was still a big issue among the poorer citizens of the city.
Despite the sudden decline in residents, London was still extremely overcrowded, and the littlest building issue could displace quite a few families.
The main fire-fighting technique at the time, was a combination of things, and relied on community effort. When a fire broke out, and they did often, a bell would be rung to rouse the local militia to come together and contain it. Modern fire brigades didn’t exist, so volunteers would wander the streets at night and watch for danger.
When you were summoned to a fire, it was fought using a combination of demolition and water. The former was when buildings surrounding the fire were preemptively torn down so the flames could not jump as easily, therefore creating what is known as a firebreak.
It was moderately effective, but the smoke would carry embers out into the air, just waiting to land on something and set it alight.
So as the Farriner fire burned, and the community prepared to tear down the homes surrounding it, the Lord Mayor was roused from sleep in order to obtain his permission.
Sir Thomas Bloodworth, arrived on scene of the blaze, and categorically refused to give the order for a firebreak to take place. He was worried it would hurt his standing with the wealthy occupants of the area, and even went so far as to say the fire was small enough that even "a woman might piss it out,” before returning home to sleep.
This would go on the be political suicide as within three days time, the fire would go on to destroy 75% of the city.
I am taking a quick firebreak of my own, to talk to you about Patreon! 75% of London may have burned, but as of now, I only have enough sponsors on Patreon to pay for 25% of what it costs to make these episodes. So, if these stories are something you enjoy and want extras like bonus episodes, my research booklist, and witchcraft related content for only $5.00 per month, head to www.patreon.com/blackandthemoon. I am truly so grateful for each and every donation. They really help in paying fair wages to the voice actors and my amazing editor Esther, allow quality music, episode hosting, and so much more.
So, here we are. The Mayor has declared the situation to not be a threat, and retreated back to the safety of his home. I am sure at that time he was annoyed for being so inconvenienced.
You know how I said the Pudding Lane was close to the river? Well, I failed to mention that the Thames was covered in houses constructed of tar and paper. This method of building was effective for waterproofing, but it was basically like living in a matchbox.
By 2 or 3 am, the fire had consumed most of Pudding Lane, and jumped over to nearby Fish Street, due to a powerful easterly wind. From there it headed south to the Thames consuming everything in its path. Those kindling houses were no match for the angry blaze.
By sunrise, much of south London was burning, with no end in sight. Smoke billowed out of windows into the sky, carrying hot ashes that landed all over the city and starting new fires. By midday, King Charles II had placed his brother, James II the Duke of York in charge of the firefighting efforts.
Firebreaks were now being performed in an effort to slow the fire down, but it was too late. Flames sprang up all around the men, faster than they could tear the buildings down.
The famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who I also referenced in the last episode, has one of the best written accounts of the fire. He says that people were “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.”
At this point, the people of London were rightfully terrified. Because the fires seemed to spring up in random spots (by the smoky embers), rumours circulated that they were set deliberately.
Naturally, in their minds, the culprit had to be a “foreigner”. England was locked in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, so they assumed it could be enemy Dutch combatants, or perhaps a French Catholic, who were the original enemies of the kingdom.
A wealthy dutch family by the name of Van Der Mersch, had lived on Lime St for ten years, and until the war, had been liked by their upper class neighbours and peers.
As they were quite wealthy, when the fire inexplicably reached their street, they were able to afford the price of the expensive carts in order to carry their possessions to safety. It is said that Mr. Van Der Mersch, purchased three of them for 60 pounds - the equivalent of 7000 pounds in todays money.
This naturally aroused suspicion in those around them, they assumed the Van Der Mersch’s had prior knowledge of the fires by way of their heritage. Friends quickly turned to enemies all across the burning city.
Tens of thousands of people were displaced at this point, and anyone who was not born in England was forced to go into hiding or face the wrath of an unjust mob. Beatings and lynchings undoubtedly took place, but were not recorded in the official death toll of 6.
French Catholics suffered the brunt of the attacks. They were considered to be the “anti-christ” in comparison to the protestant english. A young school-boy recounted how he saw one man surrounded by an angry mob. They claimed he was holding “fireballs” and viciously attacked him. As the man lay injured, it was uncovered that all he was holding were some tennis balls.
While the common folk were busy handing out vigilante justice, the royals were arresting any French people they came across…..which wasn’t for the reason you may think. This was actually an undercover operation to protect those that were innocent, and provide them with shelter away from the terror. While you’d think this would appease the English that everything was being handled, it actually enraged them more.
Things would only get worse when a French watchmaker named Robert Hubert was caught trying to flee the country. When questioned, he confessed that he had been part of a larger plot to burn the city to ground. He claimed that he had set fire to the house of Mr. Farriner the baker on Pudding Lane.
He claimed he had come to London four months prior on a Swedish ship with a comrade, and they were to stay until the job was done.
This confirmed what Londoners had suspected, and Mr. Hubert was held while his claims were investigated. He was brought to the home that the fire had began and positively id’d it, though, he did not describe the layout of the windows correctly.
However, that was more than enough evidence for the jailer and then the jury, and he was convicted of starting the fire. It didn’t help that Mr. Farriner himself testified against the condemned French man, which I think is the worst part of this entire situation, as it would be discovered just a few years later that Robert Hubert, was not even in London at the time the fire broke out.
Hubert was hanged at Tyburn on October 26th, 1666.
Why he gave a false confession we may never know. Perhaps it was because of torture, or a way to commit suicide, or even the notoriety he now had. People are wrongly convicted all the time, due to false confessions, especially in situations where mass panic is present.
The Great Fire of London would burn until the 6th of September. In the end it destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, The Royal Exchange, Guildhall and St. Paul's Cathedral.
70,000 of the city’s 80,000 population became homeless. Who knows how many people actually died but were not counted in the official death toll.
The ground was too hot to walk upon for days, and a blanket of soot lay across the city.
When the official report came out that the fire was the result of an accident in the bakery, people just quietly stopped talking about Mr. Hubert’s death.
When London was rebuilt, new fire regulations and building codes would lead to another tragedy that wouldn’t end until the 1900s: the use of child chimney sweeps.
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
Between 1801 and 1901 the population of London grew from 1 million to a mind boggling 6 million people. Despite the “hygiene equals morality” narrative that was pushed by the upper crust, this city, now nicknamed “The Smoke”, was an absolutely filthy place.
Smoke billowed into the sky from factories who were beginning to mass-produce products. And then of course steam trains were now powered by coal and the thick smoke drenched everything in its path.
Toxic fogs would bring the entire city to a standstill some days because people literally couldn’t breathe.
Dust, mud and manure ran ankle deep in the streets, and people were encouraged to wash their faces up to three times a day to remove the soot from their skin and inside their noses and mouths.
Its a far cry from the romantic picture painted by many 19th century writers.
One of the worst offenders for smoke and soot was the home fireplace. Fires were used indoors for everything from heating to cooking. Gas powered lights were in their infancy, but the use of gas for cooking wouldn’t be perfected until 1885, when Robert Bunsen created his first burner.
England was also at the end of a “little ice age” in the Victorian Era. It was colder by 2 degrees Celsius than it was in the 1930s, which granted doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you rely solely on fire for heating, it makes a huge difference. The use of the fireplace would’ve been constant - day and night.
This of course, meant the chimney’s needed to be cleaned often, and in the 19th century it was believed the best way to do this was through the use of Sweeping Boys.
Sweeping Boys was the name given to the children who were sent up the 9 inch to 13 inch wide fireplaces in homes. Because they were so small, the only people who could fit up them were kids, usually between the ages of 6 - 12, but there are reports of boys as young as four being sent up to scrape away soot and dust.
Children usually became apprentices of Master Sweeps, who trained them, and oversaw the operation…..and kept all the money. All the boys got was a place to sleep and a little bit of food. They were also kept malnourished so they were small enough to fit for longer.
Sometimes these children were orphans, other times their families were so poverty stricken that they couldn’t take care of them and sold them to the Master Sweeps, and others were probably kidnapped.
In the memoir The Last of the Climbing Boys, by George Olson, he describes his experience at 10 years old when he became a sweeping boy.
“Immediately testing my capabilities, my new master persuaded me to climb a chimney on my very first morning. With feet standing up on the grate, my body would nearly fill up the width of a chimney. I climbed, with my right arm lifted above the head, the left arm by my side. My elbows were pressed hard against the brick work, to hold my body suspended until my knees were drawn up. Then the knees on one side, bare heels on the other, held me secure, while my right hand applied the scraper to bring down the soot. My knees and elbows through the constant pressing and friction with the brickwork, became peeled and caused the soot to penetrate. It caused festering sores, which took several weeks to heal. Breathing was more or less always a difficulty. A hood, called a climbing cap, was drawn over the head and tucked in at the neck. But even with that protection, I was subject to the taste and inhalation of every kind of soot into my throat and lungs. Where fires had only just been put out, the sulphurous fumes were sufficient to stifle one.”
As you can see, the boys were in constant pain, with chronic injuries and often developing horrible illnesses like Sooty Wart, which was cancer of the scrotum.
If they didn’t work fast enough, the Master Sweep, or sometimes the homeowner, would light a small fire underneath them, which is where that saying comes from, or they prick them with needles.
The way the boys had to climb inside the chimney was precarious, and they ran the risk of becoming stuck with their knees pressed tightly against their chests. If their peers were unsuccessful in getting them out, a brick layer would be called in to dismantle the chimney. Unfortunately this was often too late, and the boy would suffocate to death.
Despite all this, there were laws in place half way through the century that forbade anyone under the age of 21 to be a chimney sweep, yet the general public believed the newly invented brushes weren’t as effective as the boys were.
In fact, the government itself was caught on multiple occasions employing them, just proving that the poor were seen as disposable with the most vulnerable of them being the children:
I can’t help but to think often about the boys tasked to do the most dangerous of all the jobs, in the city, known as The Smoke.
This has been the Memento Mori Oracle Podcast. Special thanks to: Peter for reading the poem: The Chimney Sweep by William Blake, which I will play in it’s entirety at the end of this episode. For more information about the deck this podcast accompanies, head to blackandthemoon.com
full poem reading.....
music fades away.....
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