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Painting the Town Red

Red is London’s colour. The cabs of the early nineteenth century were red. The pillar boxes are red. The telephone boxes were, until recently, red. The buses are characteristically still red. The Underground trains were once generally of that colour. The tiles of Roman London were red. The original wall of London was built from red sandstone. London Bridge itself was reputed to be imbued with red, “bespattered with the blood of little children” as part of the ancient rituals of building. Red is also the colour of violence.

The great capitalists of London, the guild of the mercers, wore red livery. The Chronicles of London for 1399 describe “the Mair, Recourdour, and Aldermen off London in oon suyt, also in Skarlett,” while a poem commemorating Henry VI’s triumphal entry into London, in 1432, depicts “The noble Meir cladde in Reede velvette.” The pensioners of the Chelsea Hospital still wear red uniforms.

Red was the colour used to mark street improvements on the maps of London, and to indicate the areas of the “well-to-do” or wealthy. “Red” was also the Cockney slang for gold itself. The London river-workers, who supported the mobs that poured through the streets in the spring of 1768, invented the red flag as a token of radical discontent.

Novelists have also identified the colour of red with the nature of the city. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Chesterton’s vision of a future London, a protagonist asks: “I was wondering whether any of you had any red about you” and then stabs his left palm so that “The blood fell with so full a stream that it struck the stones without dripping.” This is a prelude to the success of “the red Notting Hillers” in that novel.

Red crosses were placed upon the doors of households shut up with the plague, thus confirming the symbolic association of the colour with that London disease which was once considered “always smouldering” like covered embers. The fire-fighters of London wore red jackets or “Crimson Livery Cloth.” Their commander, dying in a great fire in 1861, performed one telling act—“pausing only for a moment to unwind the red silk Paisley kerchief from his neck.” The colour is everywhere, even in the ground of the city itself: the bright red layers of oxidised iron in the London clay identify conflagrations which took place almost two thousand years ago. Yet there is one fire which has always remained in the memory of Londoners—a fire which, as John Locke noted, created “Sunbeams of a strange red dim light” which covered the whole of the city and could be seen even from his library in Oxford.

“The Great Fire of London”of 1666 was considered to be the greatest of fires, but in truth it was only one of a series of devastations. The fires of AD 60 and AD 125 destroyed most of the city, for example, creating what is described by archaeologists as a “fire destruction horizon.” This is the horizon of the city itself. London burned in 764, 798, 852, 893, 961, 982, 1077, 1087, 1093, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220 and 1227. R.S. Fitter, writing London’s Natural History after the Second World War, noted that “The constant laying waste of large areas of the city must have made the aspect of medieval London often a good deal more like the blitzed London of 1945 than most people realise.” James Pope-Hennessy, compiling a book on that wartime destruction, found in the ruins of London churches “a kind of continuity.” He recalled that “The city fire of December 1940 did at one moment look like Pepys’ famous description of the fire of 1666. The night sky, lit by a wavering orange glare, seemed to display an aura not at all unlike his ‘bow of flame.’”

London seems to invite fire and destruction, from the attacks of Boudicca to those of the IRA. In the literature of the subject, there are references to particularly incandescent areas. Arthur Hardwick’s Memorable Fires in London revealed Watling Street to be “the region in the heart of the City [that] has always been a ‘fiery’ one.” Aldersgate and Silver Street have “the reputation of the ‘danger zone,’” while areas such as Cheapside and Bread Street have been repeatedly subject to flame. Wood Street, too, “has proved a notoriously fiery street”—perhaps because of its name—and mysterious fires have broken out in Paternoster Square. The area of St. Mary Axe was destroyed in 1811, 1883, 1940 and then again in 1993. It is significant, too, that, in the city of spectacle, theatres continually go up in flame; thirty-seven were destroyed in 130 years, from 1789 to 1919, providing an appropriately theatrical scene for those who flocked to watch them. The nature of London fires has also been conceived in theatrical terms. During one conflagration in Paternoster Square, in 1883, “the flames burst through the roof and brilliantly illuminated the City”; a fire two years later in the Charterhouse sent out a fiery glow “as though the sun shone over everything.”

London Bridge has been destroyed by fire, as have the Royal Exchange, the Guildhall and the Houses of Parliament. In the nine years from 1833 to 1841 there were 5,000 fires in the city “yielding an average of 556 per annum, or about three in two days.” In the city of 1833 there were some 750 fires; in the “Great London region” of 1993 occurred 46,000 “primary” and “secondary” fires. In 1833 there were approximately 180 chimney fires; in 1993 215 such events. More fires spring up in December, and fewer in April, than in any other months; Friday is the worst day of the week for conflagrations, and Saturday the best. The most hazardous time is ten in the evening, and the most benign seven in the morning. Some fires begin with arson, but most by accident—a great conflagration of 1748, consuming more than a hundred houses in the streets and passages by Exchange Alley and killing a dozen people, began “through the servant leaving a candle burning in the shed whilst she was listening to a band performing at the Swan Tavern.” An engraving of the fiery ruins was promptly issued by a printer in Scalding Alley.

Yet fire can also reveal the forgotten or neglected history of the city. The site of Winchester Palace, on the south bank of the Thames, was first uncovered after a fire at Bankside Mustard Mills. The remains of a thirteenth-century barbican, or watch-tower, were revealed in 1794 after a fire in St. Martin’s Court, Ludgate. Flame can recreate, therefore, as well as destroy. It is perhaps significant that, in London folklore, a dream of fire denotes “health and happiness” or “marriage with the object of the affections.”

nineteenth-century correspondent of Le Temps noticed that in comparison with Parisians, Londoners showed “astonishing promptitude” in their reaction to the call of “Fire! Fire!” It was the war cry of the city. In first-century London vigiles or “bucket boys” patrolled the city by night; already there was some fascination or mystery concerned with fire, since they were known for “their liveliness and devilry.” Their organised system of watching decayed in succeeding centuries, but it can be inferred that the early medieval wards assumed responsibility for locating and putting out fires in their vicinity. The next attempt at precaution was the simple curfew or “couvre-feu”; on the ringing of the evening bell, resounding all over the eleventh-century city, all fires were supposed to be covered and the ashes raked. If a fire did rage, then the bells of the churches rang backwards to spread the alarm; it was as if the devil had suddenly re-emerged in the roar of the flames. Barrels of water were kept outside the larger houses and, by the twelfth century, there were elaborate regulations for the quenching of the flames and the pulling down of burning thatch.

In the fifteenth century it was decreed that each new sheriff and alderman, within a month of taking up office, “shall cause 12 new buckets to be made of leather for the quenching of fire.” The successor of the humble bucket was “a kind of syringe or squirt,” which was in turn followed by an early pumping device; this was pulled by the firemen, calling out their familiar cry of “Hi! Hi! Hi!,” and has been termed “the first ‘fire engine’ to reach the streets of London.” It was succeeded in the early seventeenth century by “an Engine or Instrument” which “with the help of tenne men to labor” could pump more water “than five hundred men with the helpe of Bucketts and laydels.” This was the engine celebrated by Dryden, in Annus Mirabilis; he described the spectacle of the flames, and how “streets grow throng’d, and busy as by day.” The impression, again, is of fire as some alternative sun flooding the streets with light. One of the earliest fire insurance companies named itself “The Sun,” and its mark can still be seen on many houses. Fire by a sudden leap of metaphor then becomes the source of energy and power, as if it represented the sporadic and violent irruption of the city’s own heated life. One of the greatest maps of London, “Horwood’s Plan” of 1799, was dedicated to the Phoenix Fire office in Lombard Street which had risen soon after the fire of 1666; again it is a mark of the importance of those who deal with fire in the capital. Curiously enough, the first chief executive of the Phoenix was a Mr. Stonestreet.

Over the centuries the shouts of the firemen were replaced by handbells, then by mechanical and electric bells. Then came the siren, replaced in turn by a complex system of sound including the “two-tone,” the “wail” and the “yelp.” The first firemen themselves were placed in colourful regalia. One company, for example, was arrayed in “blue jackets with elaborate gold cuffs, and gold braiding” with “black knee-breeches, white stockings and gold garters”; on days of ceremony they marched with silver staffs and badges. They were themselves fired by duty—“hearts aglow,” as Hilaire Belloc appropriately put it. Such was their prestige that the headquarters of many fire offices were described as “resembling in design highly-enriched palaces.”

Two children pass the Phoenix Fire office in a novel by Edith Nesbit. “Fire?” one says. “For altars, I suppose?” Yes, for the great sacrificial altar of London.

Fire became one of the principal characteristics of the city. It was even known as “the Fire King.” Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the fires “grew in size and frequency” and, perhaps as a consequence, the crowds became larger. A conflagration at Tooley Street took more than a month to die away; the House of Commons was destroyed by fire in 1834, which provoked some of the most picturesque London paintings. The Westminster burning became, according to the authors of London In Paint, “the single most depicted event in nineteenth century London … attracting to the scene a host of engravers, water-colourists and painters,” among them Constable and Turner. These artists recognised that in the heart of the flame they might also evoke the spirit and presence of the city itself. There are reports of great crowds assembling to view the destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936, as well as of many dock fires and warehouse fires where “the ghost of Victorian” conflagrations was said to walk.

The consuming appetite for fire among the citizens did not diminish until the “blitz” of 1940. On the night of 29 December, the raid timed when the water of the Thames was at its lowest, some 1,500 fires were burning at the same time in the city. It was said then that the “Great Fire” had truly come again.

That Great Fire, one of the most formative events of the city’s history, may be dated from 1 September 1666, when Pepys and his wife were “horribly frightened to see Young Killigrew come in [to a place of public resort] with a great many more young sparks.” These “young sparks” represented the fiery youth of the city. Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys returned to their house in Seething Lane where, at three on the following morning, they were roused by a maid with news of a fire in the City. Pepys saw some flames at the lower end of a neighbouring street, and then went back to sleep. The fire had started one hour before at the house of the king’s baker, Mr. Farryner, in Pudding Lane. At the later enquiry Farryner insisted that before retiring to bed he had “gone through every room, and found no fire but in one chimney, where the room was paved with bricks, which fire he diligently raked up in embers.” The cause of the Great Fire was never discovered. It just happened.

The month of August had been unusually hot, “characterised by an extraordinary drought,” so that the thatch and timber of the neighbouring buildings in the narrow streets and alleys were already “half-burned.” The fire found friendly territory, in other words, and was further aided by a strong south-east wind; it was carried onward from Pudding Lane towards Fish Street and London Bridge, then down through Thames Street into Old Swan Lane, St. Lawrence Lane, and Dowgate. Everyone in a position to do so took to the water with boats, lighters and skiffs carrying the goods of their houses threatened by the flames. Pepys also took to the river, where with his face in the wind he was “almost burned with a shower of fire drops.” He observed that most households took with them a pair of virginals. He also noticed that the “poor pigeons were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they burned their wings and fell down.”

The fire was now out of control, burning steadily to the north and to the west; Pepys eventually took refuge from the incendiary river in an alehouse on the other bank, and there “saw the fire grow … in corners, and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid, malicious bloody flame, not like the fire flame of an ordinary fire.” It was then that he noticed the arch or bow of flame, about a mile in width (which Pope-Hennessy was to observe during the fire-raids of 1940).

That night the fire spread from Cheapside down to the Thames, along Cornhill, Tower Street, Fenchurch Street, Gracechurch Street and to Baynard’s Castle. It had gone so far down Cheapside that it took hold of St. Paul’s which, by chance, was surrounded by wooden scaffolding. John Evelyn, who walked among the streets even at this hour, noted that “the noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it.”

The unprepared citizens were left bewildered; they made no attempt to put out the fires, and simply fled. Those who remained, of the “lower” sort, stole whatever they could take from the burning dwellings. Those who did not take refuge upon the river, itself now choked with smoke and deluged by “fire drops,” went into the surrounding fields of Islington, Finsbury and Highgate, watched and wept.

By the following day, Monday, the fire had spread down Ludgate into Fleet Street and had burned down the Old Bailey; Newgate and Billingsgate were gone, while the molten lead from the roof of St. Paul’s ran through the streets “glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse or man was able to tread on them.” By now the smoke stretched for fifty miles, so that those leaving the city could travel for hours in its shadow.

That night several fires met together. One came down Cornhill, and one down Threadneedle Street; which, uniting together, in turn met two separate fires coming from Walbrook and Bucklersbury. John Evelyn remarked that “all these four, journeying together, break into one great flame at the corner of Cheapside, with such a dazzling light and burning heat, and roaring noise by the fall of so many houses together, that was very amazing.” It was as if some ancient spirit of fire had reared its head in the very middle of the city.

By Tuesday the wind had abated, and the fire stopped at the top of Fetter Lane in Holborn. The deeds of the Mitre Tavern, at the other end of Fetter Lane, described a boundary by “the tree where the Fire of London divides.” The fire was still raging in the north at Cripplegate and in the east by the Tower but the authorities, advised by Charles II, who had always evinced a strong interest in fire-prevention, were able to stop its growth by blowing up with gunpowder houses in its path.

On Thursday John Evelyn once more walked the streets of his city, now a ruin, “through the late Fleet Street, Ludgate Hill, by St. Pauls, Cheapside, Exchange, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate”—all gone. He found himself “clambering over heaps of yet smoking rubbish, and frequently mistaking where I was.” This was also the experience of Londoners after the bombing raids of 1940; their city was suddenly unknown and unrecognisable. It had become an alien place, as if they had woken from some dream to encounter a quite different reality. “Nor could anyone have possibly known where he was,” wrote Evelyn, “but by the ruins of some church or hall that had some remarkable tower or pinnacle remaining.” The ground under his feet was so hot that he could hardly walk; the iron gates and bars of the prisons had all melted; the stones of the buildings were all calcined and rendered a brilliant white; the water left in fountains was still boiling while “subterranean cellars, wells and dungeons” were belching forth “dark clouds of smoke.” Five-sixths of the city were thus consumed, the area of devastation encompassing a mile and a half in length and half a mile in breadth. Fifteen of the city’s twenty-six wards were thoroughly destroyed and, in total, 460 streets containing 13,200 houses were razed. Eighty-nine churches had gone, and four of the seven city gates were reduced to ashes and powder. It was officially reported that only six people were killed, one a watch-maker in Shoe Lane where on excavation “his bones, with his keys, were found.”

Perhaps the most notable image of this extraordinary fire was that from a clergyman, the Revd. T. Vincent, in a book entitled God’s Terrible Advice to the City by Plague and Fire. He too had seen “the dreadful bow” of light across the city. He had witnessed the burning of the Guildhall “which stood the whole body of it together in view for several hours together after the fire had taken it, without flames, (I suppose because the timber was such solid oak), in a bright shining coal, as if it had been a palace of gold, or a great building of burnished brass.”

In the aftermath of the Great Fire emerged a yellow-flowering plant known as London Rocket and, in 1667 and 1668, “it grew very abundantly on the ruins around St. Paul’s”; it was seen again, in 1945, “just outside the City boundary.” It is the true flower of fire. The Monument, erected on the site of the Fire’s first emergence, is also a form of rocket or vehicle of fire; it was first proposed that a statue of the king, or a great phoenix, should be placed upon its summit. But it was eventually agreed that an urn of flames, known as “the Blaze,” should furnish the column. Daniel Defoe deciphered the object as a great candle, with the urn as “handsome gilt flame!”

There were many representations of the events of those five days of fire, not least a series of long poems which can be found in an anthology entitled London in Flames, London in Glory. The burning city is severally compared to Rome, to Carthage, to Sodom and to Troy; the classical gods are depicted as wandering through the burning streets, together with Virgil and Jezebel, as the spectacle of flaming London conjures up images of dead or dying civilisations in past ages of the world. The painted images of the Fire were equally ostentatious, although some of them seem literally to have been sketched at the very time of the blaze itself. There are sober studies, including those of Hollar showing “A True and Exact Prospect of the Famous Citty of London” before the autumn of 1666 together with the same “As It Appeareth Now After the Sad Calamitie And Destruction by Fire”; it was sketched from the south bank of the river, and it is possible to see through the ruins right into Cheapside itself. But most works were in the style of “conflagration painting,” according to London in Paint, which found their inspiration in “biblical or mythic city fires.” Two of the most famous paintings, “after Jan Groffier the Elder,” depict the towers and portcullis of Ludgate in flames as if it were the entrance to Hell itself; there may be another explanation for the appearance of Ludgate, however, since the area beside it was considered an “artists’ quarter” in the middle of the seventeenth century. There are many small scenes and episodes reflected in these paintings: the woman running with wild face and arms outstretched from the encroaching fire, the man carrying a bundle of silver plate upon his head, the carts and horses being driven in a great crowd towards the open fields. But the most striking image is that of a man carrying a child on his shoulders against a backdrop of flame; it was re-employed by Blake, Doré, and other artists as a true representation of the mysteries and sufferings of London.

The Great Fire was not simply the inspiration, therefore, of contemporary artists. For over two hundred years it remained the most arresting image of the seventeenth century. Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, a great scenic designer in the London theatres, painted his own version at the end of the eighteenth century and in the following century the Great Fire was recreated every night at the Surrey Gardens.

But the conflation of the city and fire goes deeper than theatre or spectacle. To Panizzi, in the mid-nineteenth century, London had the appearance of a city that had somehow already been burned. In Night and Day Virginia Woolf describes it as “eternally burnt”; it seemed that “no darkness would ever settle upon those lamps, as no darkness had settled upon them for hundreds of years. It seemed dreadful that the town should blaze for ever in the same spot.” In 1880 a Frenchman believed the entire capital to be “a temple of fire-worshippers”; his companion on this urban pilgrimage, Arthur Machen, went on to describe “all the fires of London reflected dimly in the sky, as if far away awful furnace doors were opened.” Mirbeau talked of London in terms “of mystery, of the conflagration, of the furnace” while Monet, at the end of the nineteenth century, wished to depict the sun “setting in an enormous ball of fire behind Parliament.” In some of that artist’s paintings, in fact, London seems to breathe and live within an atmosphere of fire surrounding all streets and buildings with the same unearthly glow.

By the mid-nineteenth century the sky above London was notable for “the glowing atmosphere that hangs over the capital for miles”; the brick kilns on the perimeter of the city in that period created a ring as if of stage fire, while the great dust mountains inside the capital had the appearance of volcanoes. It was a city “where fires can scarcely be kept under” while, in twentieth-century terms, it is characterised as an “urban heat island.” London was popularly known as the “Great Oven” and, in the 1920s, V.S. Pritchett confessed to the sensation of being “smoked and kippered” in the depths of the city. When the fire does eventually go out the city is forbidding, blackened and relentless, some charred monument of eternity filled with what Keats called “the Burden of Mystery.”

It became clear, after the Great Fire, that fire itself must be controlled. The twin visitations of flame and plague had been interpreted by moralists as the handiwork of a God enraged by the sinfulness and dissipation of London. But there were others, including Christopher Wren and Edmond Halley, who began to question the wisdom of placing all responsibility for its disasters on fate or divine displeasure. The Royal Society had been established in London in 1660, and the two visitations prompted its members to find “scientific” or “objective” causes for such violent events. In the name of “Reason”—what is “simple, solid, sensible”—it was hoped that London consciousness might be changed so that, in future ages, such pestilences and conflagrations might be averted. The greatest effect of the Fire, paradoxically, was to promote the advancement of science. Even before the end of September 1666, according to a quotation in London in Flames, London in Glory, “Men begin now everywhere to recover their spirits again, and think of repairing the old and rebuilding a new City.” Specifically it seemed an opportunity to exorcise “the rebellious Humours, the horrid Sacriledges … and gingling Extravagances” of the previous age. This refers to the civil war, and to the execution of Charles I, but it also suggests that extravagant piety and superstitious practice—precisely the citizens’ responses to the plague, as documented by Defoe—were no longer permitted. It was to be a new city in every sense.

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