This Saturday, the four local London guiding associations, the City of London, Clerkenwell and Islington, Greenwich and Westminster are each putting on what promise to be some fascinating free walks on the subject of “heroes and villains” (details on their respective websites).
In the spirit of the occasion, I thought I would nominate my own greatest hero and villain in the City of London’s history (no doubt you will hear more on each should you join one of the City of London walks on Saturday):
No contest. Sir Christopher Wren.
What is less well known is that he had a few other small matters to attend to at the same time, such as (to name but a few): the rebuilding of 50-odd other churches in The City on the wake of the 1666 Great Fire; building (with more than a little help from our friend, Robert Hooke) The Monument commemorating the Great Fire; and the Royal Naval College and Royal Observatory at Greenwich; and a new south front for Hampton Court Palace; and knocking up his “vista” plan for the post-fire rebuilding of the City (which foundered on the rocks of the numerous land claim disputes and the necessity to get the City up and running again quickly).
Prodigious doesn’t even start to cover it, and he wasn’t even an architect…
In Wren’s era, the profession of “architect” as we know it today did not exist. Educated at Oxford in Latin and Aristotelian Physics, he was, “by trade”, an astronomer, geometer and mathematician-physicist (Wren cognoscenti will point you towards his stunning interior of St Stephen Walbrook as the perfect illustration of those skills) and was a founder member (and president from 1680-82) of the Royal Society.
But Wren was the epitome of the Renaissance Man. It was not unusual in those days for the well-educated gentleman to take up architecture as a “gentlemanly pursuit” (it was seen as a branch of applied mathematics). Thank heaven for us that Wren chose to do so.
The epitaph on his tombstone in the Crypt of St Paul’s reads: Lector, si monumentum requires circumspice – reader, if you seek his monument, look around you. Could have been put pretty much anywhere in the City to be honest…
Despite a number of recent candidates, I’m going back to Wren’s era for mine…
Sir Thomas Bloodworth was the Lord Mayor of London unfortunate enough to have the Great Fire of London happen on his watch. But he could have stopped it in its tracks…
At 2:00 am on the 2nd Sep 1666, a workman in Farriners bakery in Pudding Lane smelt smoke. The owner and his wife and child escaped over roof, but their maid, too scared to do the same, perished.
The City at that time comprised densely-packed wooden buildings only yards apart. It had been a dry summer so it was a tinder box waiting to be lit. Add in the high wind that night and you had the makings of a perfect storm.
Fires were not uncommon in the City, but fire fighting techniques were rudimentary at best and consisted mainly of a long hooked pole used to pull down and demolish buildings in the path of a fire to create fire breaks.
The fire was spreading quickly when the parish constable and watchmen arrived on the scene. Given the ramifications of making a decision to start demolishing peoples’ homes and businesses, they called out Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth from his bed for his view. His reaction? “Pish, a woman might piss it out!”, he said before returning to his slumbers.
Thus began the single most destructive event in the City’s history…
According to Samuel Pepys, by later that same morning some 300 houses, half of London Bridge and several churches had been destroyed. Pepys went to Whitehall to report what was happening to Charles II. This was the first the King had heard of it and he commanded Pepys to return to the City and tell Bloodworth to pull down anything in the fire’s path.
But it was too late; by the time Pepys found him, Bloodworth, clearly now realising the consequences of his misjudgement, had frankly lost it. Pepys, later described that meeting: ‘At last met my Lord Mayor in Canning Street, like a man spent, with a handkerchief around his neck. To the King’s message, he cried like a fainting woman, “Lord, what can I do? I am spent. People will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses. But the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’
By the morning of the 3rd September, The Duke of York was put in direct control of the fire fighting efforts, but, despite some heroic efforts on his part, the fire had taken hold to the extent that it simply leapt over the fire breaks as quickly as they could create them and continued on its destructive path. By then, St Paul’s and the Royal Exchange had already gone and the Tower was only saved by the deployment of the Navy to gunpowder all the houses in Tower Street.
By the end of the third day, the worst of it was over, but 80% of the City had been destroyed including 13,200 houses and 87 churches.
I suppose if Bloodworth had been bold enough to make the decision that needed making he would have settled quietly and anonymously into history. Instead, he will always be remembered as the man who failed to stop the Great Fire of London.
Enjoy the walks!