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By Permission of Heaven

de Adrian Tinniswood

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In the early hours of 2nd September 1666, a small fire broke out on the ground floor of a baker's house in Pudding Lane. In five days that small fire would devastate the third largest city in the Western world: London.
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On September 1, 1666, the center of London caught fire (apparently due to an improperly banked bakery oven fire) and, over the next five days, burned down. Figures are not exact, but somewhere around 13000 buildings were lost.


Much of this book describes events before and after The Fire. London had something of a bad streak of luck in the 1660s. There were various riots and upheavals by Republicans (no, not that kind; people who were opposed to the Restoration of Charles II); then the Great Plague of 1665 (20% of Londoners died), and finally, the City burned down. Fire was always a part of urban life - there’s a Middle Kingdom Egyptian proverb that goes something like “Never despise a small soldier, a small document, or a small fire” - and various laws and regulations had been enacted in England to suppress fires or limit damages. The upper stories of houses were not supposed to overlap streets, every parish was supposed to have fire-fighting equipment, and “fire engines” were stationed at strategic places around the city. Unfortunately, none of these things worked very well in 1666. The building laws were unenforced and ignored. The “fire fighting” equipment was hooks (worked by a team of men to pull down buildings and create a firebreak) and “squirts” (basically large brass syringes which held about a pint of water); the hooks were not used until it was too late because the Lord Mayor was reluctant to damage private property and the squirts might have been adequate for a small fire inside a house but were ludicrous against what happened. The “fire engines” were skid-mounted pumps, worked by teams of men on alternating handles. They could put out a decent stream of water, for the time, but while the “fire engine” had been invented, the “fire hose” hadn’t. Thus the engine had to be pushed close enough to the fire so that a direct stream from the output nozzle could reach it, and when the internal reservoir was exhausted it had to be pushed back to a water source to be refilled. Few got into action at all (because the streets we clogged with people fleeing the flames) and those that did were usually quickly abandoned by their crews and overwhelmed by fire themselves.


Author Adrian Tinniswood leans heavily on the diary of Samuel Pepys for actual accounts of The Fire. I read an abridged and censored version of The Diary years ago, but Tinniswood quotes extensively from the unexpurgated version, which reveals Pepys as fascinating if despicable. As an example, Pepys attempts to attend a solemn church service of thanksgiving and repentance after The Fire, but the church is so crowded he can’t get in. He therefore adjourns to a nearby tavern for lunch and a whore instead (perhaps it was Happy Hour?). You have to have a certain admiration for someone who could so adroitly juxtapose the needs of the spirit and the flesh.


One of the interesting things about The Fire was that while the damage to property was immense, very few lives were lost. Of course there were probably fatalities that went unrecorded, but the best estimates of the time put the death toll at less than 10. It’s hard to account for this; contemporary records describe The Fire a pushed along by “gale force” winds, but the actual advance of the flame front seems to have been slow enough that not only could people escape, they could usually haul off a lot of their movable property.


The Fire was finally contained when the wind died down and by the actions of Charles II and his younger brother the Duke of York (later James II), who ignored concerns about property rights and began pulling down and blowing up buildings. While preparing to blow up a building at The Temple, which the flames were rapidly approaching, York was confronted by a lawyer who informed him that it was strictly forbidden to damage a building of the Temple. York turned to an equerry, who promptly knocked the lawyer unconscious with a stick, and the demolition proceeded.


With The Fire out, people promptly began looking for someone to blame. The clergy, of course, saw the Hand of God punishing London for its sins (one of the sins mentioned is “speculative uncleanness”. I’m puzzled as to what exactly that might be; it doesn’t sound nearly as much fun as the other sins). The laity were much more inclined to blame Papists, Jesuits, the French, the Dutch, and foreigners in general (oddly, nobody seems to have blamed the Jews). Even while the flames were still burning, impromptu roadblocks were set up by the populace, who beat up anybody who couldn’t speak good English. They went so far as to hang a member of the Swedish embassy, who had ignored instructions by the Ambassador not to go out (he wanted to visit a woman of his acquaintance). Fortunately he was rescued by the Horse Guards while still kicking. It didn’t help that sometime after The Fire a Frenchman, Robert Hubert, turned up and confessed. Hubert’s statements were generally believed to be false by all the officials that interviewed him. This had considerable legal importance, since property law of the time held that tenants were responsible for any repairs to buildings they leased, and most property destroyed by the fire was leaseholds. There was an exception; if the damage had been caused by an act of war, the landlord was responsible. The city’s landlords may have put the fix in, since Hubert was exonerated as a madman who had falsely confessed (which didn’t do him much good, since he had been hanged some months previously).


The last third of the book is devoted to various plans to rebuild the city. Many of these were ambitious and would have been early examples of urban planning; unfortunately they all foundered on the reality of property law and the need to get the city up and running again. Most of rebuilt London owes its basic design to the plans of Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, but vistas were eliminated, planned wide streets were narrowed, and crooked streets were left crooked. At least Wren got to rebuild St. Pauls and many of the other churches.


There’s some interesting pseudoscience here. Restoration London was overrun with astrologers, prophets and prognosticators, who had failed to a man or woman to predict The Fire. Their explanations were exactly what we see nowadays; some simply brazened it out and didn’t even mention The Fire; others claimed that they had been given faulty information - told that a comet had first appeared in Taurus when it had in fact been in Gemini, for example. A few claimed that they had predicted The Fire, albeit cryptically; one astrologer pointed to his comment (in 1652) that the malign influences of a comet seen that year might linger for some time. Apparently 14 years gave those influences enough time to work their malignity.


Entertaining and interesting. I’d read a previous book on The Fire by W. G. Bell and thought about doing parallel reviews, but I’ve loaned Bell’s book out to somebody and Tinniswood’s is better written anyway. I want to read Tinniswood’s biography of Wren and a complete Diary of Samuel Pepys now. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 5, 2017 |
An enjoyable, readable and informative story of the Great Fire of London of September 1666 (350 years ago as I write).
It includes a brief introduction to the historical background (a serious outburst of plague in 1665 and war with the Dutch), which helps put the fire in context, and also several chapters about the aftermath, not just in terms of the rebuilding, but also political and cultural responses, with brief comment about key characters.
Although written for the general reader with the brief historical background noted above, some familiarity with the general British history of the period will increase enjoyment and understanding. Having read Peter Ackroyd’s Civil War last year, I was able to place some of the political/social implications quickly, which might otherwise be missed (or prove distracting).

Tinniswood leavens his historical narrative with plenty of interesting facts, such as ‘Pudding’ is a medieval word for entrails or bowels (the fire started in Pudding Lane) and touches of humour:
"It is hard for a society which greets every winter with hysterical headlines about ‘killer flu epidemics’ to understand the effects of the plague." and
"Sir Thomas took refuge in bluster. The fire wasn’t all that serious, he said. ‘A woman could piss it out.’ And with that he went home to bed and a place in the history books."
There are also plenty of appropriate extracts from eyewitness accounts, not just from the justly famous Evelyn and Pepys, but also lesser known individuals.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit the exhibition on the Great Fire at the Museum of London and although there is inevitably overlap between the detailed book and the brief exhibition information boards, it was wonderful to see what fire engines and “squirts” used in the fire might have looked like. ( )
  CarltonC | Sep 1, 2016 |
This was a very readable and multi-faceted examination of this famous event, with a particular focus on the aftermath of the event (the conflagration is extinguished less than half way through the book). This deals extensively with the commendably rapid restoration of the city which got underway very quickly afterwards; the differing plans for reconstruction of the streets (some of which are so soulessly geometric one is grateful they were not taken forward); and, of course, though surprisingly briefly, with Wren's new St Paul's. On the positive side, many other communities in England raised considerable sums of money for stricken and homeless Londoners. On the other hand, another factor extensively covered is the widespread but erroneous view that the fire was deliberately started by Dutch or Catholic plotters, with indiscriminate attacks on foreigners during the events and "Papists" even officially blamed on the inscription near the Monument in Pudding Lane for a century and a half afterwards. It was clearly an emotionally shattering and destabilising event for contemporaries, especially after the Great Plague the year before. Excellent read, and quotes from Pepys always add colour. ( )
1 vota john257hopper | May 25, 2012 |
This is an excellent piece of history, a gripping hour-by-hour account of the Great Fire of London and its aftermath. The descriptions, many of them taken from diaries of the period, make you feel like you were really there. London was completely trashed -- picture New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, except with fire instead of flood. Yet, surprisingly, there were very few fatalities (perhaps a dozen or less), and London as a whole displayed admirable fortitude in coping with the disaster; it was able to stagger to its feet and begin rebuilding almost immediately.

If I can fault the book I may say that I think it began too slowly. There are forty pages of exposition, describing how London and its people were in 1666, before the Great Fire starts. But it's not a big deal, and I think connoisseurs of popular British history would really enjoy this. ( )
1 vota meggyweg | Mar 28, 2010 |
Es mostren 1-5 de 7 (següent | mostra-les totes)
In a deeply satisfying way, By Permission of Heaven affords the literary equivalent of rubber-necking, and we may enjoy this blaze without undue qualms. There were hardly any casualties. It was an age with surprisingly efficient methods of fire-avoidance and no toxic fumes from burning synthetics: an anonymous maid at the bakery too scared to climb the eaves, an old woman flattened by falling masonry and that was more or less it. But Tinniswood also documents the emotional fallout sensitively, not least by having Samuel Pepys making a series of cameo appearances.
 
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In the early hours of 2nd September 1666, a small fire broke out on the ground floor of a baker's house in Pudding Lane. In five days that small fire would devastate the third largest city in the Western world: London.

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