All the skie was of a fiery aspect

The Great Fire of London
Oil painting by Josepha Jane Battlehooke, 1675

In the early hours of 2nd September 1666, a spark transformed into a raging inferno in the heart of London, flames leaping from house to house, street to street, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake. London’s narrow lanes and tightly packed wooden buildings provided kindling for a disaster that would rage on for days, the city’s inhabitants gripped by fear as the smoke filled the sky, painting a haunting picture of chaos and destruction. Heroes emerged, battling the flames, saving lives, but the fire was relentless, and when the embers finally cooled, the once thriving city was left in ruins. One of the most vivid accounts of this devastating fire came from John Evelyn, whose famous diary contains the following entry, written the day after the disaster began.

The Diary Entry

3—The fire continuing, after dinner I took coach with my wife and sonn; went to the Bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole citty in dreadful flames near ye water side; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames Street, and upwards towards Cheapeside, downe to the Three Cranes, were now consum’d.

The fire having continu’d all this night,—if I may call that night which was light as day for ten miles round about, after a dreadful manner,—when conspiring with a fierce eastern wind in a very drie season, I went on foote to the same place, and saw the whole south part of ye citty burning from Cheapeside to ye Thames, and all along Cornehill—for it kindl’d back against ye wind as well as forward—Tower Streete, Fenchurch Streete, Gracious Streete, and so along to Bainard’s Castle, and was now taking hold of St. Paule’s Church, to which the scaffolds contributed exceedingly. The conflagration was so universal and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirr’d to quench it; so that there was nothing heard or seene but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods, such a strange consternation there was upon them; so as it burned both in breadth and length, the churches, publiq halls, exchange, hospitals, monuments, and ornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner from house to house and streete to streete, at greate distances one from ye other; for ye heate with a long set of faire and warme weather had even ignited the air, and prepar’d the materials to conceive the fire, which devour’d, after an incredible manner, houses, furniture, and everything. Here we saw the Thames cover’d with goods floating, all the barges and boates laden with what some had time and courage to save; as, on ye other, ye carts, &c., carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strew’d with moveables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away. Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seene the like since the foundation of it, nor be outdone till the universal conflagration thereof. All the skie was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seene above 40 miles round about for many nights. God grant my eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame: the noise, and cracking, and thunder of the impetuous flames, ye shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storme, and the aire all about so hot and inflam’d, that at last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forc’d to stand still and let ye flames burn on, wch they did for neere two miles in length and one in bredth. The clouds of smoke were dismall, and reach’d upon computation neer 50 miles in length. Thus I left it this afternoone burning, a resemblance of Sodom or the last day. It forcibly called to my mind that passage—“non enim hic habemus stabilem civitatem”: the ruins resembling the picture of Troy. London was, but is no more! Thus, I returned.

Further Reading

John Evelyn’s original diary lives at the British Library. Numerous editions have been published, and you can find links to some online versions at the foot of this Wikipedia page.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *