On the 2nd September 1666, the Great Fire of London officially got to grips with the city. Thomas Farriner had retired to bed thinking that his bakehouse fire had been damped down. At 1.00am his servant discovered that the bakehouse was on fire. The inhabitants of Pudding Lane were the first to have to flee as the flames consumed their homes. Farriner’s family were forced to escape over the roofs but a maid was too scared to go with them so became the first known victim of the fire. At 3.00am Samuel Pepys was awoken by his maid with news that a fire could be seen but he was unalarmed and went back to sleep again. Famously he would bury his valuables including a large cheese in order to save them from the fire.
Unfortunately in a wooden framed town with thatched roofs and much else made from wood, fire was commonplace so initially the fire was just treated as any other old fire. Unfortunately the summer had been hot and long and the wind was in the right direction. By the afternoon the fire had spread as well as the rumour that the Dutch or French had set fire to the city and large numbers of people were fleeing for their lives. Incredibly only ten or so people were recorded as being killed in the fire which destroyed four hundred (ish) streets. John Evelyn said that he saw 10,000 houses on fire.
Extract from Pepys’ diary:
Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .
Initially it was up to the Londoners themselves to put themselves out. By the third day houses were being demolished in a bid to create a fire wall. It was only when the wind dropped however that the fire was contained. Ultimately the fire was contained on the third day but some 13,000 houses were destroyed along with 87 churches and key landmarks. The Stationers Company were particularly devastated by the loss of Old St Paul’s as they had moved their books there for safety thinking it was too substantial to be destroyed by fire.
Just exactly what, you might be asking, is a pantomime character doing in a history blog? Except of course, that Sir Richard Whittington really was the Mayor of London – not once, twice or even thrice but four times…okay three and a half if you’re being picky about it. He first became mayor in 1397 having been asked by Richard II to fill in for a defunct mayor (hence the half prior to the election), 1406 and 1419. He even went on to become one of London’s members of Parliament. So far so good.
However, he was not a penniless orphan. He was the son of a Gloucestershire knight born in 1350. When Richard’s father died, young Dick – who was by way of the spare in the phrase an heir and a spare- was apprenticed to Ivo Fitzwarren, a wealthy mercer.
In reality Richard did marry Alice Fitzwarren and he did become a wealthy and influential man though that’s about as far historically as anyone can go. There is no historical record of worldly goods being tied up in a red handkerchief, no historical record of informative city bells and no account of the cat which helped secure his fortune. Though one does feature in the window of St Michael Paternoster church on College Hill which Whittington helped to fund. Oh yes – and when excavation work was carried out in the church in 1949 a mummified cat was discovered during a search for Dick’s missing tomb- not really surprising given the amount of demolition work and rebuilding that the church has experienced over the centuries. The idea of a real cat is rather more intriguing and definitely more appealing than the suggestion that the cat originated like a game of chinese whispers from the more merchantish preoccupation with ‘achats’ or purchases.
Cat owner or not, in reality Richard Whittington was a canny and influential mercer who sold his cloth to the royal court and lent Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V money. In 1399 for example, Richard II owed Dick Whittington £1000. It was Richard II who chose Whittington to be mayor when the mayor at the time died, very inconveniently, mid way through his term of office. He also appears to have been able to export cloth without paying taxes – a perk of lending money to kings.
Dick died, childless, in 1423. Alice was already dead. He was buried by her side. He left most of his money to charity including for St Bartholomew’s Hospital. It should be added at this point that the original St Michael Paternoster Church burned down during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren (the last of his London churches). The new church didn’t fare too well during World War Two. Trouble arrived in the form of a flying bomb which left the church a derelict shell. It was rebuilt in the 1960s.