The great fire of London devastated the old medieval city. Starting in Pudding Lane at the king’s bakers it spread quickly defeating all attempts to stamp it out. A combination of unfavourable winds and dry conditions created the environment in which London would turn into a tinder box.
You can’t mention the history of London without talking about 1666 and it’s now 350 years since this devastating event. Everything post that year is influenced by the great fire. It wiped out great swathes of the town and prompted a building spree which transported the old city of London into a new era. Out with the old and very much in with the new with the likes of Sir Christopher Wren stamping his mark.
Of course it’s tempting to think of what could have been. The city pre-1666 was medieval and it’s hard nowadays to imagine what that must have been like. Thankfully the new city was built along the lines of the old. There was no time to radically change the shape of the city and so new buildings sprung up alongside the same streets as the old.
THE CITY OF LONDON BEFORE THE GREAT FIRE
So for this post we thought we’d go in search of that old pre-1666 city. There were some buildings which survived although the vast majority were on the outskirts of the fire. They either survived because of unique environmental circumstances or just missed out on the flicker of the flame as they died out just in time. Others survived only to succumb to town planners and World War bombing in later years.
For those who want to see the buildings the following post has been laid out as a walk. Starting at Tower Hill and generally walking along the periphery of the old city it finishes at Temple or Blackfriars whichever you like best although only after taking in the areas of Bishopsgate, Barbican and Fleet Street. In all it will take between 2-3 hours to complete but in that time you’ll go on a journey to pre-1666 London and see for yourself the buildings which survived.
Start – Tower Hill station
Tower of London
Enclosed by it’s huge curtain wall the Tower of London was safe from the flames. However it was from here that a lot of the attempts to stem the fire were co-ordinated. The tower was a well known landmark even back then. It was also one of the only buildings in the city to be built solidly of stone given that it’s primary purpose was still defence. You can see the tower as soon as you walk out of the station.
Walk down towards the underpass and walk under the road to the moat of the tower. Turn right and head along until you come to All Hallows by the Tower church.
All Hallows by the Tower
A church has stood on the site since 675 although it’s history goes back much further than that. Once inside then,if you can, head down the stairs to the crypt. There is a museum which boasts one of the finest examples of an excavated Roman floor in London. Still in situ, the spot has been inhabited since those times. Samuel Pepys actually watched the fire from the tower of the church writing at the time “I up to the top of Barking (all hallows) steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw…”
Cross over the road and head up Seething Lane towards Hart Street and Crutched Friars. There at the junction is St. Olav’s church.
St Olav – Hart Street
The church of St. Olav was saved from the fire by none other than Sir William Penn. Not the Penn who gave his name to the state of Pennsylvania but his father. He asked people working in a nearby naval yard to demolish the houses surrounding the church to act as a firebreak and saved not only this church but All Hallows as well.
St. Olav’s takes its name from Óláfr Haraldsson who would later become King Olaf II of Norway The link with London comes in a turbulent time of Viking Raids across the country. Olafr joined forces with King Æthelred in an attempt to retake the city after it had been taken in February 1014 by Swein Forkbeard the Danish King who had invaded England in 1013.
The city was retaken later in 1014 following Swein’s death. Olafr’s forces sailed up the Thames and attached ropes and grappling irons in an attempt to pull down the old timber London Bridge. It badly damaged the structure and the cities defenders surrendered though the true extent of the damage is not known. The tale is told in the Norse saga ‘Heimskringla‘ one translation of the where it is mentioned is… “Yet you broke [destroyed] the bridge[s] of London, stout-hearted warrior, you succeeded in conquering land”.
Could the memory of this event be the origins of the famous nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down‘? Another interesting fact about the church is that Samuel Pepys is also buried here.
Turn right and walk along Crutched Friars continuing along until it becomes Jewry Street and keep going. At the junction with Aldgate turn right towards Whitechapel, on the right hand side just before the junction with St. Botolph Street is the Hoop and Grapes pub.
The Hoop and Grapes – Aldgate
The oldest licensed pub in the City the Hoop and Grapes, built in 1593, is joined by two other buildings which survived the great fire. It was fortunate in its positioning in the north eastern corner of the City coming as it did within 50yds of the properties. Needless to say the place has a long history and is a rare surviving Tudor era building it also has a quaint sloping entrance, very enticing. The pub itself is generally closed at the weekends as it closes along with a lot of other city pubs. If you fancy a pint therefore choose your visiting times with care.
Head back the way you came down Aldgate back towards the city and follow the road as it forks and turns into Leadenhall Street. A short way down is St. Katherine Cree church
St Katherine Cree
Despite being damaged by the fire, the church of St. Katherine Cree was still very new having been built in 1633 and enough of the structure remained to house a ‘soup kitchen‘ for workers who would be charged with re-building the city. Sadly a giant rose window modelled on that of the old St. Pauls Cathedral was destroyed in the fire. The site dates back to 1108 and takes it’s name as an abbreviation of ‘Christ Church’. It’s also mentioned in the Oranges and Lemons Nursery rhyme with the line ‘Maids in White Aprons say the bells of St. Katherines’. It is believed the maids in white aprons were the women who would have worked opposite in the old Leadenhall Market.
Continue along Leadenhall Street until you come to the junction with St. Mary Axe. Once there turn right and you have reached St. Andrew Undershaft
St Andrew Undershaft
A survivor of both the Great Fire and the Blitz. Nowadays the church is hidden under the shadow of the Gherkin and the Lloyds Buildings in the heart of the city. The name ‘Undershaft’ is taken from the giant maypole which used to stand adjacent to the church. It’s likely that it was quite big hence the name under-shaft. The current building dates from between 1520-1535 and it is from this time that the majority of the building still survives. London Unveiled have written a great article on the church and it’s history here.
Carry on along St. Mary Axe and look for ‘Undershaft’ on the left hand side. Head down the alley to reach St Helens Bishopsgate.
St Helens Bishopsgate
The largest surviving church in the City of London, St Helen’s was also the local parish church of William Shakespeare. Nestled at the other side of the Gherkin from St Andrews it once formed part of the priory of St. Helen’s which was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. It survived the fire and the blitz but was damaged by two IRA bombs which rocked the area in the early 90’s.
Carry on walking in the direction you had been heading until you reach the busy road of Bishopsgate. Once there turn left and walk down, passing the junction with Leadenhall Street and continuing as it turns into Gracechurch Street. Keep going across Eastcheap and down Fish Hill Street until you reach Monument.
Now we reach the area where the great fire started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane. It was the result of ovens left on overnight which ovenheated and caused sparks to fly into the building starting the fire. It soon spread as London was going through a heatwave and the surrounding buildings were generally made of timber, strong winds then fanned the flames and helped the fire spread. The Farriner’s escaped but their maid was one of the few victims of the fire. Afterwards a man called Robert Hubert, a French watchmaker, was accused of starting the fire and was hanged at Tyburn. He gave a false confession that he had thrown a fireball through the window of the bakery probably under duress.
The exact location of the bakery isn’t really known as the area was totally destroyed. Recent research however has shown that although Pudding Lane still exists today, the location of Thomas Farriner’s bakery might not have been there. Rather it would have been just around the corner. The research comes from a planning document dating from 1679 which shows a plot of land saying ‘Mr Fariners grounde there the Fyer began‘. On later maps this can be cross referenced as the location of 23 Pudding Lane however nowadays that location is at the southern end of the modern day Monument Street.
The final clue as to the real location of the fire is the Monument itself, erected to commemorate the fire it was completed in 1677 and is 202ft high and was positioned 202ft from where the fire started.
When looking at the Monument from Fish Hill Street, turn right up Monument Street and walk a short way until you reach busy King William Street. Directly opposite across the road is a small walkway leading to Arthur Street. Cross in a safe place and walk down the path on the other side. Soon you’ll come to Arthur Street and then on the right hand side take the turning up towards Martin Lane. There in front of you will be the Olde Wine Shades.
The Olde Wine Shades
A remarkable survivor of the great fire given its proximity to where it started in Pudding Lane. The Olde Wine Shades was built as a pub in 1663 and was once a haunt of Charles Dickens who would drink there, it even used to have a smugglers tunnel that would lead into the cellar given it’s proximity to the river.
Carry on up Martin Lane until you reach Cannon Street a short walk away. Once there cross over and head back towards Monument and then take the turning left up King William Street. Keep walking up until you reach the Bank Junction and cross over up Princes Street keeping the walls of the Bank of England on your right hand side. At the junction with Lothbury turn left and keep walking. It will soon turn into Gresham Street and soon on the right hand side you’ll see the entrance to the grounds of the Guildhall. Once there walk into the courtyard of the great Medieval building.
The great Guildhall didn’t manage to escape unscathed and roof was destroyed however much of the structure of the building did survive presumably because it was well built with stone given it’s importance. The Guildhall has been at the centre of London life since Roman times and was also the location of the Roman Ampitheatre the remains of which sit underneath the courtyard and can be seen by heading into the reconstructed Art Gallery and having a look at the excavations.
Head back towards Gresham Street and keep walking until you reach Wood Street. Turn right and keep walking up, crossing the road known as London Wall, carrying on up Wood Street. Then at the top turn left into the paved area of the Barbican and there will be St. Giles Cripplegate.
St Giles without Cripplegate
The church survived the great fire as it was protected by the great city walls, it was seriously damaged during World War II but has been renovated and still retains a lot of pre-fire features. The church has a number of famous names associated with it. Oliver Cromwell was married here and Ben Johnson and Daniel Defoe were baptised here. It is also mentioned in the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme, ‘Brickbats and tiles say the bells of St. Giles’. A possible reference to the building trade which may well have been conducted nearby.
Head back towards London Wall which we crossed earlier and turn right towards the roundabout of the Museum of London. Turn right and walk up Aldersgate Street towards the Barbican underground station. Once there turn left down Long Lane and then left again down Cloth Street followed by taking the second right down Middle Street. Walk down until it turns into ‘Cloth Fair’ and look for numbers 41-42 and your at the next building which survived the fire.
41 and 42 Cloth Fair
The oldest house in the City it was built sometime between 1597 – 1614 and protected from the fire by the walls of the nearby St. Bartholomew’s priory. It’s actually the only ‘house’ to have survived. In 1929 it was earmarked for demolition by the City of London Corporation but luckily survived to be renovated much later in the century winning a city heritage award in 2000.
Continue along cloth fair until you come to the circular hub of West Smithfield, turn left and look for the old timber framed gatehouse on the left hand side a short walk away. This is St. Bartholemew’s Gatehouse.
St Bartholemews Gatehouse and the Priory Church of Bartholemew the Great
The timber framed gatehouse dates back to 1595 but the stonework below it is part of the original nave of St Bartholowmew’s Priory from the 1200s. It was protected from the Great Fire by the priory walls which in the same way protected the houses on Cloth Fair. The facade was at one point covered over but then rediscovered after bomb damage in World War I revealed the original facade.
Through the gatehouse leads to the Priory Church of Bartholemew the Great, another survivor. Building started on the church in 1123 and it is one of the oldest churches in London. The interior of the church is spectacular so if you can go in and have a look.
Carry on round West Smithfield back up towards Smithfield Market, then turn left continuing on West Smithfield until you reach Farringdon Street. Once there turn right and then left at Charterhouse Street. Keep walking down a short distance until you reach Ely Place. Turn right up Ely Place and look out for St. Etheldredas nestled amongst the buildings.
St Etheldredas Church
Although it doesn’t look like it, St Etheldredas is one of the oldest buildings in London. It was once the town chapel of the Bishops of Ely from around 1250 to 1570. It is the oldest catholic church in England and one of only two buildings to survive from the reign of Edward I. Formerly part of Ely Palace it would have found itself nestled inside the grounds of one of the key centres of power in the city of London. It survived the fire thanks to a fortuitous change in the wind. The website contains more about this buildings fascinating history.
Head back down the way you came and turn right down Charterhouse Street and continue along Holborn. Just before the entrance to Chancery Lane tube station on the other side of the road will be Staple Inn. Cross over and have a look around.
Built in 1585 the picturesque Staple Inn survived the fire, just, but suffered some serious damage in 1944 during a German bombing raid during World War II. The impressive Tudor facade you see these days has been extensively restored during many iterations to the point in which it’s more a recreation of it’s original facade. Still, it’s an impressive building and an architectural highlight on High Holborn.
It’s behind the facade you want to look though, wander through the archway or down the road on the right hand side and have a look inside the courtyard. There the old hall dates from around 1580 although was destroyed in the same bombing raid and rebuilt in the 1950’s. Other buildings survive though.
Carry on down High Holborn and turn left when you come to Chancery Lane keep walking down until you come to Carey Street on the right hand side. Walk down and look out for the Seven Stars pub.
The Seven Stars, Holborn
The Seven Stars just survived as it was just beyond the limit of the fire and is now a rare surviving example of a building from the pre-fire period. Built around 1602 it was formerly known as the ‘League of the Seven Stars‘ representing the seven provinces of the Netherlands. Situated just behind the Middle Temple it is a popular hangout for legal types and is thought to have been used by Charles Dickens as the model for the ‘Magpie & Stump’ in the Pickwick Papers.
Keep walking down Carey Street until you reach Portugal Street where you should turn left then turn right up Portsmouth Street. There after a short stroll is the quaint ‘Olde Curiosity Shop’
The Old Curiosity Shop
A little bit outside of the immediate danger area of the Great Fire lies the Old Curiosity Shop. Built in 1567 it takes its name from the Charles Dickens novel although this was perhaps mere opportunism, an attempt by the owners of the time to drum up some business. Now, whatever the truth of the matter it is indelibly linked with Dickens and is a remarkable survivor in an area which has experienced extensive development.
Now turn back towards the Seven Stars back down Portsmouth Street, along Portugal Street and along Carey Street. At the end of Carey Street turn right down Chancery Lane until you reach Fleet Street. There on the opposite side of the street will be a timber framed building, Prince Henry’s Room.
Prince Henry’s Room, Fleet Street
The impressive Jacobean facade is certainly eye catching when looking at the building from the other side of Fleet Street. The building, once an inn first known as the Hand Inn and then the Princes’s Arms in honour of James I’s son Henry who lived from 1594-1612 and from whom it now remembers in it’s current name. It was renamed the Fountain Tavern and visited by Samuel Pepy’s in 1661 writing “to the fountain tavern and there stayed till 12 at night, drinking and singing.”
The building has a fascinating history. Surviving the great fire of course, the building sits on top of the gateway leading down into Inner Temple Lane. After it’s time as a tavern it become a place to look at celebrity waxworks and then became a barbers. As for whether Prince Henry actually stayed there or not there is no proof either way for this. The room above the gateway contains an elaborate plaster containing the initials P.H. for Prince Henry the Prince of Wales.
When looking at Prince Henry’s Room directly, turn right and head a short way up the road until you come to 229 Strand which is our next stop
229 & 230 Fleet Street
Just where Fleet Street merges into the Strand sits number 229 which is a rare timber framed townhouse which was built in 1625. After the fire it’s likely that there may have been quite a few similar buildings but due to clearances over the years the rest of disappeared leaving only this one. As ever Medieval London has a good article going into more of the history of both buildings.
Keep heading down the Strand and head down Arundel Street towards the Thames. At the end of the street is Temple station where if you wanted you could finish the walk. Alternatively you could head back towards Prince Henry’s Room and if the gate is open walk down towards Middle Temple Inn, it’s a great place of town to wander around.