London is in the middle of another renewal. As the construction workers dig down only to build up again they penetrate layers of historic rubble and ash. The City of London proper, once defined within Roman walls and stretching about three kilometres from the Tower to mid-way down Fleet St, has burned and risen many times.
The most cataclysmic conflagration was The Great Fire of London. The blaze started in a Pudding Lane bakery on 2 September 1666, was fanned by a fierce wind and fed by close-set wooden houses in the streets of Europe’s most populous capital.
Five days later, it had left a smoking, heap, with four-fifths of the city, 13,200 houses, 84 churches and 44 company halls razed. About 200,000 people were left homeless.
The bureaucrat John Evelyn reported how the stones of old St Paul’s Cathedral “had flown like grenades” and how lead from the roof flowed in molten rivulets.
A city that in the previous year lost 70,000 to plague, counted only a handful of dead in a blaze that Meriel Jeater, curator of the most popular gallery at the Museum of London, calls “the most infamous disaster in London’s history”.
Finalising the items for Fire! Fire! an exhibition set to open at the Museum in July 2016, Meriel says that while burned glass, tiles and bricks from Pudding Lane are always on view, the expanded exhibition will focus on the experiences of individuals.
New items will include jumbles of molten metal (keys and padlocks that all melted together); letters written in great haste: “I cannot express without horror, the great progress of the fire”; and a piece of unfinished embroidery Meriel finds poignant.
“People picked up and moved their things a few houses away ... and then moved them again, and again.
“Imagine the huge noise of the fire? And the people running and screaming and crying? And the whole scene being like a rugby scrum?”
Diarist Samuel Pepys watched “the infinite great fire” from the tower of his local church after burying his money and Parmesan cheese in his garden.
Along with the Restoration King Charles II who, Meriel says, “was very genuinely concerned for his displaced and traumatised subjects, and who duly organised food distribution and went out on horseback with a bag of money to help his people”, Pepys and the genius architect Christopher Wren emerged from the disaster as heroes.
Few buildings survived the destruction and street layouts were virtually obliterated. Wren and John Evelyn set to surveying for a more ordered city. But the people started rebuilding largely on the wayward medieval street patterns.
Within six years, 8000 plots had been redeveloped and the rebuilt Thames wharves were receiving imports from India and the American colonies. Within one generation, London was four times bigger.
Christopher Wren’s legacy
By then, the skyline was “most elegantly” punctuated by the varying spires and steeples of 60 of Christopher Wren’s new churches which architecturally are held to be “the finest achievements of any era in the City’s history”.
Thirty-two remain including the most important and still visually most dominant, the magnificently domed St Paul’s Cathedral, on Ludgate Hill.
The rounded Baroque style building took 33 years to finish.
Nelson, Wellington and Wren are buried in the church. Wellington’s monument is huge. But Wren’s is more moving. Directly beneath that mighty dome a Latin inscribed brass roundel claims St Paul’s as Wren’s supreme achievement.
“Reader”, it says, “if you seek his memorial – look around you”.
St Paul’s is such an important symbol of endurance that during the Blitz Winston Churchill had an army of fire-fighters ready to save it at all costs.
On any day it is a major tourist drawcard but on Sundays, when the various Anglican services are conducted and the choir’s anthems reverberate around the gold mosaic domes, St Paul’s shows itself to be one of the great living cultural experiences of London.
When the pipes of the organ vibrate the very air, it is spine-tingling.
Radiating out from this hill on which St Paul sits, it is still possible to find elements of the London that emerged from the ashes of 1666. Streets still wind and squeeze and confuse. Alleyways can be shoulder-wide in places. A couple of buildings are survivors: The Elizabethan Prince Henry’s Room on Fleet St, and the stone-built Guildhall. Wren’s churches are everywhere.
The Monument – another Wren structure down by Pudding Lane, is 62 metres from where the fire broke out. You can climb the 62 metres to its top where the inscription (in Latin) insists that “the merciless fire” whose “havoc was swift” will never be forgotten.
Unlike the Blitz, where the destruction was haphazard, Meriel Jeater says the Great Fire “was an event of universal razing”. For her, the most evocative place “where I can almost imagine standing amid the smouldering ruins” is down by the Monument.
“I get tingles walking down Pudding Lane and standing below the monument thinking ‘wow! This is where it all started’.”
Other cities destroyed by fire
In September 1776 during the American Revolution, The Great Fire of New York razed up to 1000 houses in Lower Manhattan.
In November 1872, the Great Boston fire destroyed 26 hectares of the city’s downtown area, including 776 buildings and much of the financial district. At least 30 people died.
In April 1906, the earthquake and subsequent fire that struck the wooden city of San Francisco reduced 15 square kilometres to rubble and made 250,000 people homeless.