(Hello, this is Histories, a free weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe.)
And now let any person judge of the violent emotion I was in when I perceived the metal belonging to the bells melting; the ruinous condition of its walls; whole heaps of stone of a large circumference tumbling down with a great noise just upon my feet, ready to crush me to death…
The Great Fire of London broke out 355 years ago this week, on 2 September 1666. Of course the first-hand accounts of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (both of whom have been mentioned elsewhere in Histories, here and here) are well known as eyewitness reports. But there are many others.1
This week, meet William Taswell (1652–1731), a merchant’s son who was sent to Westminster School and experienced the Fire first hand; he later studied at Christ Church, Oxford and became a lecturer in Greek and then a parish priest in Norfolk and London. He wrote a memoir in Latin, which was translated into English by his grandson Henry in 1761 and then published in 1852. Taswell’s account is of course from a man recollecting the events later in life – he wrote the memoir when he was 48. He wrote about his life until 1682, then abandoned his account. He wrote: “I am weary of my undertaking, which begins to increase into a bulk; and, as my avocations abroad call me, I here break off the thread of my narration.” An autobiographer’s key dilemmas in a nutshell. He later resumed this work in his seventies, only covering the years from 1724 on. His life in the interim seems to have been mostly unremarkable, other than his writing a couple of controversial pamphlets railing against the Quakers.
So the account below is by a middle-aged man – but nonetheless it perhaps offers the closest we can get to a schoolboy’s eye view of the Fire. And what’s interesting, if depressing, here is his report on how people, assuming the Fire was caused by an attack, assaulted French people in the city, as well as looting taking place.
And not to pass over in silence that memorable event—the Fire of London, September 2; it happened between my election and admission as scholar. On Sunday, between ten and eleven forenoon, as I was standing upon the steps which lead up to the pulpit in Westminster Abbey, I perceived some people below me running to and fro in a seeming disquietude and consternation; immediately almost a report reached my ears that London was in a conflagration; without any ceremony I took my leave of the preacher, and having ascended Parliament steps, near the Thames, I soon perceived four boats crowded with objects of distress. These had escaped from the fire scarce under any other covering except that of a blanket.
The wind blowing strong eastward, the flames at last reached Westminster; I myself saw great flakes carried up into the air at least three furlongs; these at last pitching upon and uniting themselves to various dry substances, set on fire houses very remote from each other in point of situation.
The ignorant and deluded mob, who upon the occasion were hurried away with a kind of phrenzy, vented forth their rage against the Roman Catholics and Frenchmen; imagining these incendiaries (as they thought) had thrown red-hot balls into the houses.
A blacksmith, in my presence, meeting an innocent Frenchman walking along the street, felled him instantly to the ground with an iron bar. I could not help seeing the innocent blood of this exotic flowing in a plentiful stream down to his ancles.
In another place I saw the incensed populace divesting a French painter of all the goods he had in his shop; and, after having helped him off with many other things, levelling his house to the ground under this pretence, namely, that they thought himself was desirous of setting his own house on fire, that the conflagration might become more general. My brother told me he saw a Frenchman almost dismembered in Moorfields, because he carried balls of fire in a chest with him, when in truth they were only tennis balls.
In this interval of time, when the fury of the common people burst forth with an irresistible torrent upon these unhappy objects of distress, a report on a sudden prevailed that four thousand French and Papists were in arms, intending to carry with them death and destruction, and increase the conflagration. Upon which every person, both in city and suburbs, having procured some sort of weapon or other, instantly almost collected themselves together to oppose this chimerical army.
On the next day, John Dolben, Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster (who in the civil wars had frequently stood sentinel), collected his scholars together in a company, marching with them on foot to put a stop if possible to the conflagration. I was a kind of page to him, not being of the number of King’s Scholars. We were employed many hours in fetching water from the back side of St. Dunstan’s Church in the East, where we happily extinguished the fire.
The next day, Tuesday, just after sunset at night, I went to the royal bridge in the New Palace [Yard] at Westminster,2 to take a fuller view of the fire. The people who lived contiguous to St. Paul’s church raised their expectations greatly concerning the absolute security of that place upon account of the immense thickness of its walls and its situation; built in a large piece of ground, on every side remote from houses. Upon this account they filled it with all sorts of goods; and besides, in the church of St. Faith, under that of St. Paul’s, they deposited libraries of books because it was entirely arched all over; and with great caution and prudence every the least avenue through which the smallest spark might penetrate was stopped up. But this precaution availed them little. As I stood upon the bridge among many others, I could not but observe the gradual approaches of the fire towards that venerable fabric. About eight o’clock it broke out on the top of St. Paul’s Church, already scorched up by the violent heat of the air, and lightning too, and before nine blazed so conspicuous as to enable me to read very clearly a 16mo. edition of Terence which I carried in my pocket.
On Thursday, soon after sunrising, I endeavoured to reach St. Paul’s. The ground so hot as almost to scorch my shoes; and the air so intensely warm that unless I had stopped some time upon Fleet Bridge to rest myself, I must have fainted under the extreme languor of my spirits. After giving myself a little time to breathe, I made the best of my way to St. Paul’s.
And now let any person judge of the violent emotion I was in when I perceived the metal belonging to the bells melting; the ruinous condition of its walls; whole heaps of stone of a large circumference tumbling down with a great noise just upon my feet, ready to crush me to death. I prepared myself for returning back again, having first loaded my pockets with several pieces of bell metal.
I forgot to mention that near the east walls of St. Paul’s a human body presented itself to me, parched up as it were with the flames; whole as to skin, meagre as to flesh, yellow as to colour. This was an old decrepid woman who fled here for safety, imagining the flames would not have reached her there. Her clothes were burnt, and every limb reduced to a coal.
In my way home I saw several engines which were bringing up to its assistance all on fire, and those concerned with them escaping with great eagerness from the flames, which spread instantaneous almost like a wildfire; and at last, accoutred with my sword and helmet, which I picked up among many others in the ruins, I traversed this torrid zone back again.
The papers, half burnt, were carried with the wind to Eton. The Oxonians observed the rays of the sun tinged with an unusual kind of redness. A black darkness seemed to cover the whole hemisphere; and the bewailings of people were great.
It could not be expected that my father's houses should escape this almost general conflagration. They shared the same fate with others. But what rendered our loss still greater was this: certain persons, assuming the character of porters, but in reality nothing else but downright plunderers, came and offered their assistance in removing our goods: we accepted; but they so far availed themselves of our service as to steal goods to the value of forty pounds from us.
There was a large vaulted cellar under our house, where my father kept particular sorts of wood, and some combustible matter, too, for the sake of making some experiments. These were found entire afterwards, contrary to what I had observed in other like places where great citizens placed fuel in, &c. The fire was not extinguished four months afterwards.
The Museum of London’s Great Fire of London website has numerous letters from people such as merchants affected by the fire, for example.