Common section


To Build Anew

In 1666 many of the citizens immediately returned to the smoking ruins, in order to discover where their houses had once stood; they then laid claim to the area by erecting some kind of temporary shelter. On the very day that the Fire was extinguished Charles II was informed that “some persons are already about to erect houses againe in the Citty of London upon their old foundations.”

Three days later the king issued a proclamation to the citizens in which he promised that rebuilding would proceed quickly but declared that no new work could begin until “order and direction” had been introduced. He then went on to formulate certain principles, the chief of which was that all new dwellings were to be built of brick or stone. Certain streets, such as Cheapside and Cornhill, were to “be of such breadth as may with Gods blessing prevent the mischief that one side may suffer if the other be on fire, which was the case lately in Cheapside.” The monarch also showed some concern for the health of his subjects by declaring that “all those Trades which are carried on by smoak,” such as brewers and dyers, should “inhabit together.”

Certain schemes had already been propounded, most notably by Wren and Evelyn, in which the reconstruction of London was planned upon a grand and elaborate scale. Wren proposed a series of intersecting avenues on a European model; Evelyn’s new city resembled a giant chessboard dominated by twelve squares or piazzas. None was accepted, none acceptable. The city, as always, reasserted itself along its ancient topographical lines.

But first the work of demolition had to begin. Those who had lost their trades, or who were otherwise unemployed, were called into city service; the ruins had to be levelled, and the debris carted away. The smoking streets must be cleared, and opened up, while the quays were once again made safe for trade. Makeshift markets were established on the perimeters of the city while the more enterprising bankers and merchants set up their businesses in the area by Bishopsgate which had not been touched by the flames. By the end of the year the tradesmen of the Royal Exchange, for example, had removed to Gresham College. There was in one sense a new, and exhilarating, atmosphere of freedom. Debts and property, mortgages and buildings, were destroyed by the Fire in equal measure. Yet, against this financial cleansing there must be put the loss of stock and of goods, the spices and the wine, the oil and the cloth, all destroyed in the warehouses and manufactories which contained them.

It was a sign of the city’s vitality, however, that within a year the busy round of trade had been resumed. It was still the same city in another sense; thieves and footpads found the new conditions good for their own trade, and “there are many people found murdered and carried into the vaults among the ruins.” This additional detail prompts further speculations. What happened to those prisoners who had, before the Fire, been inhabiting such “vaults”? Many of the compters and gaols were below the surface of the city, and it is hard to believe that all the prisoners were liberated and escaped with their lives. Is it not more likely that they burned or were suffocated to death? The stated mortality was six, but that extraordinarily low figure may in fact obfuscate the loss of life due to official negligence. Did many of those incarcerated escape as their prison bars melted? And what of the others?

committee of six was established to direct the rebuilding of the city. One of its members was Christopher Wren who knew already that his idealised version of London was not to be achieved. A “Fire Court” was set up to adjudicate all the claims and disputes which arose over the ownership of land and property. By February of the following year Parliament had enforced what the commission suggested. Certain streets were widened but, not surprisingly, very few alterations were made. King Street was formed, and a small thoroughfare widened into Queen Street, so that the Guildhall could be approached directly from the Thames. A more noticeable change, however, was enforced upon the size and fabric of the houses themselves. They were to be built of brick or stone, as the king had declared, and there were to be four classes or types of houses “for better regulation, uniformity and gracefulness.” Those on the principal streets were to be four storeys in height, for example, while in lanes and by-streets two storeys were considered sufficient. In other respects the old lines of the city were to be renewed.

Then the work began. The citizens and private householders were compelled to rely upon their own resources, while money for public works such as the rebuilding of the churches was funded by a tax on sea-coal. By the spring of 1667 the lines of the streets had been staked, and the entire country was advertised for “all persons who are willing to serve and furnish this City with timber, brick, lime, stone, glass, slates and other materials for building.” Thus ensued one of the great changes in London’s population.

It can be assumed that many of those who had lived in the city before the Fire did not return to the scene of devastation. Some migrated to the country districts, others travelled to the United States; in both instances the presence of relatives, and the possibility of work, affected their decision. But once the rebuilding of the city began, thousands of new people were drawn within its orbit. There were earth-movers and brick-makers, carters and moulders, who dwelled just outside the walls; in addition, hundreds of hawkers and traders moved into the city which had lost half of its markets and most of its shops. And there, of course, came the builders who took advantage of the situation to run up whole streets of houses. Roger North has described how the most celebrated of these speculators, Nicholas Barbon, eventually transformed part of London “by casting of ground into streets and small houses, and to augment their number with as little front as possible.” Barbon understood the virtues of simplicity and standardisation—“It was not worth his while to deal little,” he once remarked. “That a bricklayer could do.” But the bricklayers had already been heavily employed.

Within two years of the Fire twelve hundred houses had been completed, and in the following year another sixteen hundred. It was not quite the rapid and vigorous process which some historians have assumed, and for some years London had all the aspects of a ruined city, yet gradually it was rising once again.

John Ogilby’s map of 1677, only eleven years after the Great Fire, shows its new appearance. Most of the city has been rebuilt, although some of the churches are missing and a proposed development of the quays beside the Thames never occurred. The new brick narrow-fronted houses are drawn as square rectangles; already they are packed tightly together, making room for lanes and small alleys which thread among them. Many of these houses have small gardens or courtyards behind them, but the general impression is once more of dense and constricted life. If you were to walk eastwards down Leadenhall Street, one hundred yards from Billiter Lane to the junction with Fenchurch Street, you would pass on the left-hand side no fewer than seven small lanes or alleys—categorised by John Strype as “indifferent good” or “small, nasty and beggarly,” which were either simple “dead-ends” or issued into tiny courtyards. Much of the area is shaded grey to mark small dwellings of brick and stone.

Ogilby’s map reveals the steady spread of London. The area around Lincoln’s Inn in the western district has been marked out for streets and houses; to the north, in Clerkenwell, there are already many new lanes and courts. Nicholas Barbon created Essex Street, Devereux Court, Red Lion Square, Buckingham Street, Villiers Street and Bedford Row. With his skills as a builder and developer, he was surpassed only by Nash in his influence upon the appearance of London. The pragmatism and financial opportunism of Barbon seem subtly to suit the nature and atmosphere of the city which he did so much to extend; both prospered together. Partly as a result of his activities, wealthier merchants and businessmen moved away from the smell and noise of the older trading areas. It was a means of escaping from the “fumes, steams and stinks of the whole easterly pyle.”

Much of the development had in fact taken place before the Fire hastened its progress. The piazza of Covent Garden had been planned and rebuilt in 1631; it was followed by Leicester Fields four years later. The construction of Seven Dials linked the churches of St. Giles and St. Martin, both “in the fields.” Great Russell Street was completed by 1670. In the year before the Fire Bloomsbury Square was laid out. By 1684 the process of western expansion had spread as far as Red Lion Square and St. James’s Square.

The principle of these squares lay in the creation of what John Evelyn called a “little town,” which in theory was not so different from the independent sokes of Anglo-Saxon London controlled by one great lord. In the seventeenth century a lord of the manor, such as Lord Southampton who owned Bloomsbury, might realise that there was money to be earned from his land. He himself would live in one of the residences upon his estate, but the rest was divided into units which were then leased to speculative builders, who constructed the housing before letting or re-leasing it. After ninety-nine years, the houses became the property of the landlord.

The other features of the squares lay in their civic aspect. They were, in the best circumstances, regarded as small communities with church and market attached to their development. It seemed to be a way of creating an attractive and humane city outside the old walls. When the squares were first erected they were considered to be, in Macaulay’s words, “one of the wonders of England,” combining convenience and gentility. The regularity and uniformity of these squares, so unlike the baroque vistas of Paris or of Rome, might have been derived from the example of old monastery courtyards or convent gardens with which London was once familiar. To walk through Queen Square, Russell Square, Torrington Square and Bedford Square was to sense that “the traditions of the Middle Ages had been handed down” and that the tranquillity of the ecclesiastical establishments had been carried westward.

Yet it is never wise to underestimate the atavistic elements of London life, even as it grows beyond all of its old boundaries. Expansion takes place in waves, with a sudden movement and roar succeeded by a calm. The city will on one occasion brush against an area, or on another colonise it wholly. Leicester Fields and Soho Square, for example, were already so close to the burgeoning capital that no attempt at creating a graceful public or communal space was ever made. In this context, too, it is important to note that the restless movement of the city was, in the words of John Summerson, established upon “the trade cycle rather than the changing ambitions and policies of rulers and administrators.” For a while the city stopped to the west at what is now New Bond Street but what was then “an open field.” Building had come to a temporary halt on the southern side of Oxford Street which was little more than “a deep hollow road, filled with sloughs” and bordered by hedges. Regent Street was then a “solitude” and Golden Square, previously employed as a plague pit, “was a field not to be passed without a shudder by any Londoner of that age.”

The new squares did not necessarily remain models of civic or communal harmony for very long. Macaulay notes that by the end of the seventeenth century the centre of Lincoln’s Inn Field “was an open space where the rabble congregated every evening” and where “rubbish was shot in every part of the area.” St. James’s Square became “a receptacle for all the offal and cinders, for all the dead cats and dead dogs of Westminster”; at one time “an impudent squatter settled himself there, and built a shed for rubbish under the windows of the gilded saloons.” It is further evidence of the contrast and contrariness of London life, but it is also suggestive of a city which was even then established upon a basic brutality and offensiveness. It is tempting to think of the new squares as separate communities still surrounded by fields, for example, but in fact the fields themselves were being built upon. “At this end of town,” one resident of Westminster complained, “whole fields go into new buildings and are turned into alehouses filled with necessitous people.”

Where most of the developments of the western suburbs of London were conducted by means of leasehold arrangements and governed by Acts of Parliament, the extension of the eastern regions was confused and haphazard, governed as it was by ancient statutes of the manors of Stepney and Hackney which provided for only short “copyholds” of thirty-one years. Thus from the beginning the expansion of the city at the east end remained unplanned and underdeveloped. Wapping and Shadwell had taken shape ten years after the Fire, while Spitalfields was “almost completely built over” by the end of the century. Mile End was emerging as a populous district while the bankside from Ratcliffe to Poplar was a continuous mean street of houses and of shops.

The Ogilby map does not include the meaner streets of the east, nor the confused development of the west. Instead it reveals what in his poem, Annus Mirabilis, Dryden glorified as “a city of more precious mold.”

More great then humane now, and more August,

New deified she from her fires does rise:

Her widening Streets on new Foundations trust,

And, opening, into larger parts she flies.

A view of Lambeth Palace, painted in the 1680s, reveals a distant prospect of Westminster and the Strand. It is altogether a model of elegance, with the spires of St. Clement Danes and St. Giles-in-the-Fields clearly visible together with stately representations of Durham House and Salisbury House. If the artist had turned his eyes only slightly to the east he would have seen, within the newly built city, the tower of the re-erected Royal Exchange which, as the financial centre of London, was naturally graced with the very first of the brand-new steeples. The great steeple of St. Mary-le-Bow had also been rebuilt, and was followed by that of St. Clement Eastcheap and St. Peter upon Cornhill, St. Stephen Walbrook and St. Michael Crooked Lane, as well as those of forty-seven other churches designed by Wren and his colleagues.

·  ·  ·

In Wren’s visionary design of London, the great cathedral of St. Paul had been the central point from which the streets were to be extended, and he tried to hold fast to his original conception of its grandeur and immensity. He had found the old cathedral in ruins where, Pepys noted, “strange how the very sight of the stones falling from the top of the steeple do make me sea-sick.” As late as 1674, eight years after the Fire, the ancient edifice had been neither replaced nor restored. London was still in part a ruined city. But Wren then began the task of demolishing the old walls with gunpowder and battering rams, and the first stone was laid in the summer of 1675. Thirty-five years later Wren’s son, in the presence of his father the master architect, placed the highest stone of the lantern upon the cupola of the cathedral in order to mark its completion. “I build for eternity,” Wren had said. Yet in that sentiment he was pre-empted by the poet, Felton, who predicted that nothing would last as long as the stones of Newgate.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!