| March 14, 2023

Of Fires, Great and Small

By Jessica Otis in analysis tagged otis, disasters

At about 3am on Sunday, September 2, 1666, the diarist Samuel Pepys’ maid Jane awakened him to let him know about a fire that had started within the ancient city walls of London. He looked out the window, thought it was too far away to worry about, and went back to sleep. When he got up the next morning, Jane relayed the news that over 300 houses had already burned, so he went to the Tower of London and climbed to a high spot where he could see the extent of the threat: “an infinite great fire”1 which would rage for four days before being reduced to embers that ominously smoldered in cellars for several more weeks. Along the way it would take out over 13,200 houses, 44 of the 51 livery company halls, and 84 parish churches, along with the city’s spiritual heart of St. Paul’s Cathedral.2 Only valiant fire-fighting efforts kept the flames from reaching the gunpowder stores at the Tower of London, which would have been a disaster of unprecedented scope.

Fires were common in early modern cities, from small fires quickly extinguished without doing harm to the 1632 fire that burned a third of the houses on London Bridge. Open flames were a part of daily life, utilized in cooking and heating buildings, while the buildings themselves were made of flammable wood and crammed so closely together that when one went up its neighbors were likely to follow. While not all fires would have been fatal, enough were that a handful of deaths by fire appeared every year in the London Bills of Mortality. Many individual burning deaths were merely noted as individual accidents, though other entries gave additional details: people were burnt “in his Bed by a Candle” (September 1665), “a Child,” (December 1675), “in an Apoplectic Fit” (November 1714), and other tragic accidents. The May 1676 Southwark fire that killed 3 people required some explaining: “Blown up with Gun powder (at the late Fire in southwark) 2, one at S. Margaret Lothbury, and one at S. Michael Queenhithe” while another was “Kill’d… at the late Fire in Southwark” by unknown means. By contrast, no additional details were deemed necessary for a July 1704 fire that “Burnt at St James in Westminster 7.” But none of these early modern fires caused anywhere near the sheer physical devastation of the fire in 1666.

When the Great Fire of London destroyed the medieval city center, one of the many things it burned was the heart of England’s printing industry–including the printing press used by the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks to issue the Bills of Mortality every week. The last of the pre-Fire bills printed data up to August 28th; the parish clerks only began printing the bills again over two weeks after the fire, with a “catch-up” bill numbered 37, 38, 39 and running from August 28th to September 18th “being Three Weeks”. According to this bill, only 4 people were “Burnt at several places” in the late fire. In the subsequent week, 2 more people are listed as also having been burnt, making the official death toll 6 people. Skeptical scholars have argued about the legitimacy of that number ever since.

On one hand, it’s easy to see how the destruction of the Fire would have disrupted lines of communication and the information gathering apparatus of the city: the first post-Fire bill lays it out plainly with a sad parenthetical noting that it contained information on the “16 Parishes (now standing) within the Walls”, and the “14 Parishes (now standing) without the Walls” with later bills also noting deaths in the “83 Demolished Parishes.” Surely with such destruction, some unknowable number of deaths would have fallen through the cracks and remained unreported.

On the other hand, it’s also easy to see how much effort early modern data collectors put into tracking deaths within the city. In January 1649/50, a gunpowder store exploded outside the Tower of London. While it was a much smaller explosion than would have occurred if the Fire had reached the Tower, it was still one of the largest mass casualty events we have found in the Bills of Mortality to date:

Kild 28. one by the fall of a peece of timber in Tower-street, and 27 by the blast of gunpowder, whereof 8 found at Alhallowes Barking, and 18 more inhabiting within Preists Alley in Towerstreete (besides strangers) lost in the fire taken up in peeces, and one at Dustons East.

The bill is quite explicit about what it does and does not contain. 27 people are known to have been killed, 18 of whom lived near the center of the blast in Priest’s Alley off Tower-Street. There are an unknown number of “strangers” who were likely physically present in Priest’s Alley at the time and also died, but as their identities are unknown, their names and number also can’t be known. This is because they died “lost in the fire” and their bodies afterwards were “taken up in peeces.” Perhaps a modern coroner with all the tools of 21st-century forensic analysis could have jigsawed them back together enough to identify the number of the dead, but it was beyond the scope of 17th-century Londoners. Instead, they flagged the issue in their report for the Bills of Mortality and moved on.

There is a great deal of difference between the deadliness of a sudden, expected explosion and a slow-moving fire that people have had a day or two or four to see coming and can flee from (even if they must be carried away in their sickbeds, as some people were).3 But what the gunpowder explosion makes clear is the parish clerks were not opposed to printing uncertainty. It would have been quite easy for them to print a similar “besides strangers” disclaimer that would have absolved them of precisely quantifying the number of deaths from being burnt. Instead, they were quite clear about 4 deaths in the immediate aftermath of the fire and 2 in the following week–even going so far as to print the names of the parishes where the final 2 deaths occurred, following a normal pattern for “casualties” or accidental deaths, suicides, murders, and other non-disease causes of death.4

Another piece of evidence comes in the form of the monarchical Bill of Mortality for the week of September 18th-25th–that second week after the bills began to be printed again. While what primarily survive today are the printed Bills of Mortality, each printed bill was in fact merely a condensed summary of a weekly report made to the reigning monarch. Most surviving monarchical bills are partially printed, creating a fillable form that was completed by hand each week and detailed the number of deaths for each cause of death listed in the bills of mortality–not just plague–broken down geographically by parish. The monarchical bills right after the Fire also show the Fire’s impact in that they are no longer fillable forms but completely handwritten from start to finish. But despite the chaos, the parish clerks did indeed manage to make their report, in the same reduced form as the printed bills that listed deaths only from the surviving parishes. It reports the same two deaths from being “Burnt”–one from the parish of St Botolph Aldersgate and the other from St Leonard Shoreditch.5

The other 4 deaths from the previous printed bill would have been reported in a previous monarch’s bill, though whether that report came in the form of individual weekly handwritten bills or a single handwritten bill for all three weeks is currently unknown.

Suppose, then, that only 6 people really did die from being burnt (or overwhelmed by smoke inhalation and then their bodies burnt afterwards) in the Great Fire of London. However, that by no means indicates that the death toll of the Fire was limited to deaths from burning. Indeed, both the printed bills and monarchical bill indicate a spate of unusual deaths attributed to being “Frighted” or frightened. The 3-week printed bill lists 6 frightening deaths–along with a host of other accidents, drownings, etc. that may or may not have had anything to do with the Fire itself–and the bill after it lists 5 more. The monarchical bill indicates these latter five frightening deaths occurred in the parishes of St James Duke’s Place (1), St Botolph Aldgate (3); and St Giles Cripplegate (1). Both 5 and 6 are abnormally high numbers for frightening deaths in any single bill–usually these occur as isolated incidents of a single death, and that only rarely–which indicates their ultimate cause was probably the Fire.

While there are no other causes of death that spike so dramatically that we can definitively say they were caused by the Fire (e.g. being found dead in the streets is actually a surprisingly common cause of death), there are several other deaths that could plausibly have been caused by the Fire, such as people drowning in their haste to evacuate by water. If we take the most expansive view of possible Fire deaths, then, we come up with a list that looks like this:

Bill 37-38-39
Burnt at several places - 4
Drowned at several places - 5
Frighted - 6
Found dead in the street - 1
Kild by several accidents - 5
Shot by accident - 1
Suddenly - 1

Bill 40
Burnt two, one at St. Botolph Aldersgate, and one at St. Leonard Shoreditch - 2
Drowned at St. Mary Whitechappel - 1
Frighted - 5
Hang’d himself at St. Andrew Holborn - 1
Suddenly - 2

While there is no way–short of inventing time travel–to settle the potentially endless speculation about the true death rate of the Great Fire of London, the Bills of Mortality thus suggest that at least 17 people (burnt + frightened) and perhaps as many as 34 people (all causes listed) died because of the Fire, even if they didn’t die in the Fire. Despite the catastrophic discontinuity caused by the Fire, the parish clerks quickly re-established lines of communication for the flow of vital mortality information and did their best to accurately publish that data both in manuscript (to the monarch) and print (to everyone else). And when subsequent serious fires broke out such as in 1676 or 1704, the parish clerks were once again quick to tally up the number of deaths and record them in the London Bills of Mortality.

  1. https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/09/02/↩︎

  2. Jacob F. Field, London, Londoners and the Great Fire of 1666: Disaster and Recovery (New York: Routledge, 2018), 19. ↩︎

  3. https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/09/02/↩︎

  4. It is unclear if it took over 2 weeks for these deaths to be reported, indicating significant disruption even though these parishes were still standing, or if it took over 2 weeks for those poor people to die. ↩︎

  5. State Papers Online, GALE|MC4300003656. ↩︎