“Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle” wrote John Evelyn on the Great Fire of London, one of the most famous conflagrations in London’s history, which he observed from the Southwark Bankside with his wife and son.
London has combusted numerous times since Boudicca’s rage razed it to the ground in 60AD, a mere ten years after the city’s foundation. Three major fires occurred in the vicinity of the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret.
The Great Fire of Southwark of 1212 is reportedly the single worst disaster in the capital’s history.
Believed to have started near the Bishop of Winchester’s palace, the fire gutted the priory of St Marie Overie, the direct predecessor of St Thomas’ Hospital and now the site of Southwark Cathedral.
Strong winds carried the embers back over the Thames, setting aflame the straw and wood buildings on the northern end of London Bridge. As people fled northwards, others were coming south to fight the fire and both were trapped on the bridge. John Stow, in 1603, wrote “the people between the two fires did nothing but expect present death. Bodies were found in part or half burnt besides those wholly burnt and those whose ashes could not be found.” Many were crushed or drowned in the treacherous rapids of the river while desperately attempting to board the rescue boats below.
Stow estimated 3,000 perished, 7.5% of London’s population, the equivalent of approximately 640,500 today.
In May 1676, John Groves (later executed) and three Irish miscreants were paid £1,000 to start a fire in Mr Wells’ oil and paint shop between the George and Talbot Inns on St Margaret Hill (now Borough High Street). The consequences of 1666 had little effect on Southwark’s timber-framed buildings and narrow streets, and the blaze raged for seventeen hours, finally quenched using a method of blowing up houses to create fire breaks.
20 people – poor, dispensable and easily forgotten – were killed, and over 500 houses were destroyed. St Thomas’ Hospital was happily preserved, some thought as if by some divine interposition.
The event which would have a remaining influence on fire fighting was the Tooley Street fire of June 1861. Originating at Cotton’s Wharf (exactly opposite where the 1666 disaster began), the blaze raged for two days and took two weeks to extinguish, resulting in eleven acres of ruin. Twenty warehouses were destroyed and the flames consumed tens of thousands of tonnes of combustible produce.
30,000 spectators came from all over the city. People struggled onto the roofs of omnibuses for a better view, and every inch of London Bridge was crowded with excited faces. Pubs, in defiance of Acts of Parliament, kept open all night long.
One onlooker described “a pyramid of red flame, sending up a column of smoke that rose high in the air and spread like that over Vesuvius. The facade of St Thomas’ Hospital stood out white and brilliant and fringed atop with lookers on”.
The London Fire Engine Establishment (LFEE), sent to control the flames, was controlled by various insurance companies. The LFEE’s Superintendent James Braidwood died during the fire: the intensity of the inferno meant his body wasn’t recovered for three days. His death was a catalyst for change.
Following the disaster these companies raised their premiums and threatened to disband the LFEE until the government agreed to take it over and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act was passed in 1865. This produced the first real London fire brigade who would now attend future fires at any building, regardless of whether they had fire insurance or not.
Evelyn, John. (1818) 2006. The Diary of John Evelyn. London: Everyman Publisher.
Stow, John. 2005. A Survey of London Written in the year 1598. Stroud: The History Press.
Jackson, Lee. 2007-2016. The Dictionary of Victorian London: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Great Metropolis. www.victorianlondon.org. Last accessed 10/8/2016.
Other information courtesy of the Southwark Local History Library & Archives, 211 Borough High St.
To cite this post : Gareth Miles, “The Dismal Fires of Southwark’”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), August 16th, 2016. [On line] http://oldoperatingtheatre.com/the-dismal-fires-of-southwark-by-gmiles/
Gareth Miles is a Museum Officer at the Old Operating Theatre. He is involved with the museum’s education programme and leads historical and medical walks around the local area.