Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Rookeries of London, by Thomas Beames, 1852 - Postscript

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     WE have frequently alluded to the Fire of London, and the effect it had upon the present condition of the Metropolis; a long account of this great national calamity would have been out of place in the middle of this volume, but, perhaps, it may be welcome to some few at the end of the book. There is, in fact, a striking difference between the older parts of London, and those of foreign cities, which is mainly owing to the fire. In other countries we are enabled to trace the different periods of domestic, ecclesiastical, or civil architecture, by the buildings which survive in different parts of the Metropolis. In London, the Hotel de Ville, or Mansion House, is little more than one hundred years old. The City Halls of the olden times must have been glorious buildings, if we may judge by Crosby Hall; and the dwelling-houses quaint structures, if the Holborn end of Staple's Inn is a fair specimen; but the fire has been fatal to our curiosity in this respect; so that Bristol, York, and Chester still preserve more models of a bygone age than London itself. The palace of Bridewell, the residence of Henry VIII.; the remains of John of Gaunt's House, Old St. Paul's, which, however Inigo [-268-] Jones is supposed in his ignorance of Gothic architecture to have spoiled; the Old Custom House, on the site of that rebuilt by Charles II., were the victims of this dreadful catastrophe.
    The fire broke out on the 2nd of September, 1666, in the middle of the night; a high wind aided its fury. The following is the account given in the London Gazette.
"On the 2nd instant, at one of the clock of the morning, there happened to break out a sad and deplorable fire in Pudding Lane, near New Fish Street, which falling out at that hour of the night, and in a quarter of the town so close built, with wooden pitched houses, spread itself so far before day, and with such distraction to the inhabitants and neighbours, that care was not taken for the timely preventing of the farther diffusion of it by pulling down houses, as ought to have been; so that this lamentable fire, in a short time, became too big to be mastered by any engines in working near it. It fell out most unhappily too, that a violent easterly wind fomented it, and kept it burning all that day and night following, spreading itself to Gracechurch Street and downwards, from Cannon Street to the waterside, as far as the Three Cranes in the Vintry. The people in all parts about it distracted by the vastness of it, and their particular care to carry away their goods, many attempts were made to prevent the spread of it by pulling down houses and making great intervals, but all in vain, the fire seizing upon the timbers and rubbish, and so continuing itself even [-269-] through these spaces, and raging in a bright flame all Monday and Tuesday, notwithstanding His Majesty's own and his Royal Highnesses indefatigable and personal pains to apply all possible remedies to prevent it, calling upon and helping the people with their guards; and great number of nobility and gentry, unweariedly assisting therein, for which they were requited with a thousand blessings from the poor distressed people.
    "By the favour of God the wind slackened a little on Tuesday night, and the flames meeting with brick buildings at the Temple, by little and little it was observed to lose its force on that side, so that on Wednesday morning we began to hope well, and his Royal Highness never despairing or slackening his personal care, wrought so well that day, assisted in some parts by the Lords of the Council, before and behind it, that a stop was put to it at the Temple Church, near Holbourn Bridge, Pie Corner, Aldersgate, Cripplegate, near the lower end of Bishopsgate Street, and Leadenhall Street, at the Standard in Cornhill, at the church in Fenchurch Street, near Clothworkers' Hall, in Mincing Lane, at the middle of Mark Lane, and at the Tower Dock. On Thursday, by the blessing of God, it was wholly beat down and extinguished; but so as that evening it unhappily burst out again fresh at the Temple, by the falling of some sparks (as is supposed) upon a pile of wooden buildings; but his Royal Highness, who watched there that whole night in person, by the great labour and diligence [-270-] used, and especially by applying powder to blow up the houses about it; before day most happily mastered it. Divers strangers - Dutch and French-were, during the fire, apprehended upon suspicion that they contributed mischievously to it, who are all imprisoned, and informations prepared to make a severe inquisition thereupon by my Lord Chief Justice Keeling, assisted by some of the Lords of the Privy Council, and some principal members of the city, notwithstanding which suspicions, the manner of the burning all along in a train, and so blown forwards in all its way by strong winds, makes us conclude the whole was an effect of an unhappy chance, or to speak better, the heavy hand of God upon us for our sins, showing us the tenor of his judgment in thus raising the fire, and immediately after, his miraculous and never enough to be acknowledged mercy in putting a stop to it when we were in the last despair, and that all attempts for the quenching it, however industriously proposed, seemed insufficient. His Majesty then sat hourly in council, and ever since bath continued making rounds about the City in all parts of it, where the danger and mischief was greatest, till this morning that he bath sent his Grace the Duke of Albemarle, whom he bath called for to assist him in this great occasion, to put his happy and successful hand to the finishing this memorable deliverance.
    "About the Tower, the seasonable orders given for plucking down houses to secure the magazines of powder, were more especially successful, that part being [-271-] up the wind, notwithstanding which it came almost to the very gates of it, so as by this early provision, the several stores of war lodged in the Tower, were entirely saved. And we have further, this infinite cause particularly to give God thanks that the fire did not happen in any of those places where His Majesty's naval stores are kept, so as though it pleased God to visit us with his own hand, he bath not by disfurnishing us with the means of carrying on war, subjected us to our enemies.
    "It must be observed that this fire happened in a part of the town where though the commodities were not very rich, yet they were so bulky that they could not be removed, so that the inhabitants of that part where it first began have sustained very great loss; but by the best inquiry we can make, the other parts of the town, where the commodities were of greater value, took the alarm so early that they saved most of their goods of value, which possibly may have diminished their loss, though some think that if the whole industry of the inhabitants had been applied to the stopping of the fire, and not to the saving of their particular goods, the success might have been much better, not only to the public, but to many of them in their own particulars. Through this sad accident it is easy to be imagined how many persons were necessitated to remove themselves and goods into the open fields, where they were forced to continue some time, which could not but work compassion in the beholders; [-272-] but his Majesty's care was most signal on this occasion, who, besides his personal pains, was frequent in consulting all ways for relieving those distressed persons, which produced so good an effect, as well by his Majesty's proclamation, and the orders issued to the neighbour justices of the peace to encourage the sending in provisions to the markets, which are publickly known, as by other directions, that when his Majesty, fearing lest other orders might not yet have been sufficient, had commanded the Victualler of his Navy to send bread into Moorfields for the relief of the poor, which for the more speedy supply he sent in bisket, out of the sea stores, it was found that the markets had been already so well supplied, that people being unaccustomed to that kind of bread declined it, and so it was returned in great part to his Majesty's stores again without any use made of it."
    We are told, in another account, that the fire broke out in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, in the lower part of the city, near Thames Street, amongst rotten wooden houses. They who are curious in such matters may not be aware that Cripplegate Church was uninjured, and that in the churchyard are still some remains of the old city wall; the church is a strange medley of architecture, and the pews and pulpit in the stiff taste of the last two centuries-great square boxes, whilst above them are Gothic windows.
    "The damage done by the fire is thus computed. Burned and consumed 12,000 houses within the walls [-273-] of the city, and above 1,000 more without the walls, but all of them within the freedom and liberty of London, that is in all 13,000; or, as others say, 13,200 houses; there were also destroyed the Cathedral Church of St. Paul's, which was then being rebuilt, and, as to the stone work, almost finished. Also eighty-seven parish churches, and six consecrated chapels, most of the principal and public edifices, as the great Guildhall, wherein were nine several courts belonging to the city: the Royal Exchange, the King's Custom House, Justice Hall, where the sessions were kept eight or nine times in the year for the trial of murderers, felons, and other malefactors, the four prisons, four of the principal gates of the city, and fifty halls of companies, most of which were most magnificent structures and palaces. The whole damage sustained by this fire is almost incredible.
    "The damage done is thus estimated :-
        In houses burnt ?3,900,000
        In churches and public edifices as follows :-
            The eighty-seven parish churches at ?.8,000 each - ?696,000
            Six chappels at ?.2,000 each  ?12,000
            The Royal Exchange at - ?50,000
            The King's Custom House at ?10,000
            The fifty-two halls of companies, at ?.15,000 each ?780,000
            Three of the city gates at ?.3,000 each ?9,000
    [-274-] The Jail of Newgate ?15,000
            Four stone bridges ?6,000
            The Sessions House ?7,000
            The Guildhall and courts and offices belonging to it ?40,000
            Blackwell Hall ?3,000
            Bridewell ?5,000
            Poultry Compter ?5,000
            Wood Street Compter  ?2,000
            "To which add
            Towards building of St. Paul's Cathedral ?2,000,000
            The wares, household stuffs, monies, and other moveable goods, &c. ?2,000,000
            The hire of porters, carts, waggons, barges, boats for removing wares and household stuff . . ?200,000
            In printed books ?150,000
            In wine, tobacco, sugar, and of which the city was then very full ?1,500,000
            For public works enjoined by Act of Parliament ?41,500
            [Total] ?11,432,500"
    The following causes were supposed to have contributed to the great destruction of property:-
    "The fire began between one and two o'clock, after midnight when all were in a dead sleep.
    [-275-] "It broke out on Saturday night when many of the most eminent merchants and others were retired into the country, and none but servants left to look to their city houses.
    "It was in the long vacation, being that particular time of the year when many wealthy citizens and tradesmen, were wont to be in the country at fairs, and getting in of debts, and making up accompts with their chapmen.
    "The closeness of the building and narrowness of the streets where it began did much facilitate the progress of the fire, by hindering of the engines to be brought to play upon the houses on fire.
    "The matter of which the houses were-timber, and those very old.
    "The dryness of the preceding season, there having been a great drought even to that very day, and all the time that the fire continued, which had so dried the timber, that it was never more apt to take fire.
    "The nature of the wares and commodities stowed and vended in those parts were most combustible of any sold in the whole city-as oil, pitch, tar, cordage, hemp, flax, rosin, wax, butter, cheese, wine, brandy, sugar. An easterly wind, which is the driest of all others, had blown for several days together before, and at that time very strongly.
    "The unexpected failing of the water thereabouts, at that time, - for the engine at the north end of London Bridge, called the Thames Water Tower [-276-] which supplied all that part of the city with Thames water, was out of order, and in a few hours was itself burnt down,-so that the water pipes which conveyed the water from thence through the streets were soon empty.
    "Lastly, an unusual negligence at first, and confidence of easily quenching it, and of its stopping at several places afterwards, turned at length into confusion, consternation, and despair,-people choosing rather by flight to save their goods, than by a vigorous opposition to save their own houses and the whole city.
    "To all which reasons, must not be past over the general suspicion that most then had of incendiaries laying combustible stuff in many places, having observed divers distant houses to be on fire together, and many were then taken up on suspicion*. [*SEYMOUR'S Survey of London and Westminster.]"
    Within four or five years the city was nearly rebuilt, in a more uniform and substantial manner than before; but if the designs of Sir Christopher Wren had been carried out, London would indeed have been a fine city. He intended to have laid out one large street from Aldgate to Temple Bar, in the middle of which was to have been a large square, capable of containing the new church of St. Paul, with a proper distance for the view all round it. He further intended to have rebuilt all the parish churches in such a manner as to be seen at the end of every vista of houses, and dispersed at such a [-277-] distance from one another, as neither to be too thick nor too thin. All the houses to be uniform, and supported on a piazza like that of Covent Garden; and by the water-side, from the bridge (London Bridge) to the Temple, he had planned a long and broad wharf or quay, wherein he designed to have ranged all the halls that belong to the several companies of the city, with proper warehouses for merchants between, to vary the edifices, and to make it at once one of the most beautiful and most useful ranges of buildings in the world. But, says his encomiast, the hurry of rebuilding, and the disputes about property, prevented this glorious scheme from taking place. It would seem that the great fire was not without its use,-that houses were built on the old foundations, but in a much better and more substantial manner than before, though not so well as if Sir Christopher's plan had been followed. We are apt to think that the crowding of several families into one house is an innovation of later times; it would rather seem to have been the revival of an obsolete practice. The fire rooted out and destroyed Rookeries, and the stringent laws laid down for the rebuilding of the city prevented such abuses for some years; but we find Queen Elizabeth issuing a proclamation at the time of her progress in 1572, from which the following is an extract:-
    "Yet where there are a great multitude of people brought to inhabit in very small rooms, whereof the greater part seem very poor, - yea, such as live of begging or worse means, - and they heaped up together [-278-] and in a sort smothered with many families of children and servants in one house or small tenement, it must needs follow (if any plague or popular sickness should by God's permission enter among the multitude), that the same would not only spread itself and invade the whole city and confines, as great mortality should ensue to the same where Her Majesty's personal presence is many times required, besides the great confluence of people from all parts of the realm, by reason of the ordinary Terms for Justice there holden, but would also be dispersed through all other parts of the realm to the manifest danger of the whole body thereof. For the remedy whereof, Her Majesty, by good and deliberate advice of her Council, doth straightly command all manner of persons of what quality soever they be, to desist and forbear from any new building of any house or tenement within three miles of the gates of the said City of London, to serve for habitation or lodging for any person, where no former house hath been known to have been in the memory of such as are now living; and also to forbear from letting, or setting or suffering any more families than one only to be placed or to inhabit from henceforth in any house that heretofore has been inhabited." And the authorities are moreover enjoined to prevent " the heaping up of multitudes of families in the same house, or the converting of any one house into multitudes of tenements for dwelling or victualling places." They are charged to prevent "the increase of [-279-] many indwellers, or, as they are commonly called, inmates or undersitters, contrary to the good ancient laws."
    Before the Fire, we are told, that when old houses were repaired that were of good amplitude, they would make two or three tenements of them, to increase the rent, and these were turned some into ale-houses and let out to the poorer sort. Great houses also were turned sometimes into alleys, consisting of divers houses. Care was taken for the preventing of drinking houses, more commonly cellars. Many sheds were also set up to serve for small houses, which did but harbour poor people; there were also made holes under the shops for the poorer sort of artisans.
    Such dwellings were not the fruit of municipal arrangements for the housing of the poor, they are the abuses of them. When men devise deliberate plans for such ends, they are in general liberal, it may be said; that as the carrying out of such plans does not affect the lawmakers, but rather those whom laws control, that there is not the usual selfish inducement of profit to guide them. It would be more true to say, that men shrink from putting on paper that at which they are brought by custom to connive. The authorities, before the Fire took place, wished to confine London within a given space, so that, like continental cities, its suburbs should be rural districts, not that it should stretch forth its arms in the form of Brixton, Camberwell, Greenwich, Hackney, Hampstead, Hammersmith, Wandsworth, and others; [-280-] yet the natural effect of such provision was to crowd as many persons as could be packed within a given area. The Fire came and cleared a vast space - cleared, in fact, almost the whole surface of what was then the City of London. The Parishes of St. George's, Bloomsbury, St. James's, St. Martin's, were like what our suburban districts now are, places where the nobility lived, their residences having a background of garden, or rather park.
    Oxford Street being Oxford Road, fields intervening between Gray's Inn and Hampstead, houses scattered here and there, Rookeries could scarcely have been as yet established beyond the precincts of the City, so that when the fire came, it made a wholesale clearance in these time honoured colonies. How many perished Strype and others do not tell, and we only gather from certain enactments curtailing their excess and checking their extent, that such purlieus were.
    The citizens had no sooner looked their losses in the face than they began to repair them. Heavy were the burdens entailed upon the funds of that ancient corporation during many years-deep the groans of the worthy Seymour as he pondered on or recapitulated the expense; but men must live, so that very soon a new city stood in the place of the old one, not certainly a very picturesque or convenient monument of good taste, not a very creditable monument to the liberality of the nation ; but a fairer representative than its predecessor of the liberality of the Londoners - and, considering [-281-] the infamous excesses of the court, and the disgusting character of Charles II., as decent a substitute as could be hoped for in old London. In this good work Rookeries had no place, the poor were provided for, as hewers of wood and drawers of water ever must be; still there were no special injunctions that eight or ten families should live in a single house, nor did alleys seem to enjoy a blissful immunity from the comforts accessible to dwellers in larger thoroughfares.
    Among the directions given for rebuilding the city, are provisions for removing abuses; the streets to be rebuilt were to be free from certain annoyances which their predecessors could not shake off-they were to be raised in the neighbourhood of the Thames to a certain level, because, previous to the fire, these streets were periodically inundated,-sewers were to be formed, and drainage carried out after the best model and on the most scientific plans then known - that in future the city might be spared the wasting plague, so frequent in former times.
    That part of the city which was situated near the Thames not only suffered much from inundation previous to the Great Fire, but the ascent was also difficult. It was therefore ordered, after the fire, that all the ground between Thames Street and the river should be raised and made higher by three feet, at the least, above the surface of the ground. Such old streets and passages within the City of London and its liberty as were narrow and incommodious for carriages and passengers, and [-282-] prejudical to the trade and health of the inhabitants, were to be enlarged. New streets, wharves, and markets were quickly formed. Brick was henceforth to be used instead of wood.
    We can have little idea of what London was before the fire* [*Whilst these sheets were going through the press, the Writer was gratified by the appearance of a large print of London, before the Fire, by BOGUE AND SON, of Fleet Street.]. Doubtless a strange medley, - palaces and hovels, - glorious specimens of the Tudor style, flanked by timber huts, - Inigo Jones' masterpieces concealed by the penthouses of crumbling shops, - the Conduit in Cheapside, a splendid relic of the past, despoiled indeed in Edward the Sixth's time, and shorn of its glory, yet contrasting oddly with the mean buildings which surrounded it, - Gresham's Exchange, in the quaint style perhaps of that still remaining at Antwerp, - Old St. Paul's, multilated by the bad taste of the age, with the stone pulpit where Hooker preached, - Smithfield, still retaining the memory of bloody Mary and the Martyrs' fires, - the goodly hospitals, piety's tributes in the olden time, - the city halls, speaking of the guilds and brotherhoods, with the privileges which municipalities wrought out with their own good swords, - churches where convents lavished their wealth, - the noble's palace and the trader's mansion, - streets which tell better than the most laboured annals the history of different ages, - gates which had fortified the city's rebellion, - thoroughfares which had rung to the cry of " Clubs" and "Prentices," - hospitals [-283-] for diseases now forgotten,- courts of justice and cellars of merchandise, - bridges and conduits, inns and prisons, - squares which of old had witnessed brave feats of arms, where tournaments once kept up the spirit of a martial age,- the scenes where fountains ran with wine on festal days, and pageants arrayed their tasteful flattery for the new crowned Sovereign,- all alike have perished. The wasting fire bath invaded halls the architect might have sketched as models of his craft; stores of records which enriched a nation's history have perished. And yet we may not lament ;-the plague, whose periodical ravages were wont to be numbered by its tens of thousands victims, has fled the land,-the hovels which beckoned the advancing flames, and aided them in their course, have ceased to be; and, if the old city bath raised in their stead structures which taste condemns, they wait perhaps for the wand of some better age to bid them vanish; and, if streets still narrow check the traffic, and stop hurrying concourse, the citizens have still repaired not a few of their forefathers' errors.
    For many a year were city feasts despoiled by the expenses the fire entailed, and imposts still exist which owe their origin to this great calamity. Yet we, as sons, reap the benefit of our fathers' tears; the flames swept away pests which years of litigation might still have spared, which selfishness would have clung to and avarice groaned over. Smithfield, not as now, the last fortress of relaxing covetousness, would have been the type of kindred shambles; St. Giles, already yielding [-284-] to the pressure of awakened common sense, would have been kept in countenance by wood-built Rookeries, and cholera seizing on unnumbered outposts would have outdone the Plague!
    We cannot write now of the monument as Pope did -
        "Where London's column pointing to the skies,
        Like a tall bully lifts its head and lies."
    Returning charity has erased the scandal, but it is yet a record of our fathers's loss and our gratitude; they suffered that we might be spared. Old London is no more, but in its stead a vigorous offspring. The past has long blotted out the traces of the fire; the present enjoys the blessings it bequeathed.