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Sir Thomas Bloodworth and the Great Fire of London: Villain or Scapegoat?

Writing about royalty and their activities never loses its charm.

The Great Fire of London. Unknown artist 1675.

The Great Fire of London. Unknown artist 1675.

The Spark of the Great Fire of London

The summer of 1666 was so hot in England that the earth was scorched, and wood and straw were tinder dry. The disaster that became known forever as the Great Fire of London was triggered during the early hours of the 2nd of September at Thomas Farriner's (c.1615-1670) bakehouse on Pudding Lane. A flying spark from the bread oven may have appeared commonplace and dismissible, but the forgotten spark turned into a fire after Farriner went to bed. Smelling smoke, the family escaped, but an employee was lost to the flames.

The fire spread slowly at first until the wind grew stronger. Its acceleration through the city’s timber and tar structures in a warren of narrow streets with overhanging roofs left the city dwellers in great danger.

Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Mayor of London

In his house on Gracechurch Street the wealthy merchant, Mayor of London and member of parliament for Southwark, Sir Thomas Bloodworth or Bludworth (1620-1682,) born Thomas Bildward, was awoken by his servant and told of a fire. His approval was required to pull down some properties to halt the progress of the travelling flames. His response that night has damned him in history. He refused to allow any buildings to be pulled down and claimed that the blaze was insignificant enough that, "Pish, a woman might **ss it out."

Whilst Bloodworth wouldn’t permit the destruction of the buildings and the aldermen of the city were against him allowing it, he was also bound by protocol. He couldn’t approve demolition without Charles II’s (1630-1685) permission and presumably no one, Bloodworth included, decided that the fire was serious enough to wake the king of the realm. If Bloodworth had made the decision to destroy property before consulting the king, he would have been liable for the cost of rebuilding.

London's Burning

Bloodworth and the aldermen were not alone in underestimating the fire. Naval clerk and diarist Samuel Pepys went back to bed after being awoken at 3 a.m. by his servant to view the fire and, unmoved by the scene, he went back to bed and rose at 7 a.m. to realise his error.

Bloodworth was blamed for the fire’s extensive destruction. Approximately 75% of London burned throughout the four days and three nights of fire. It was acerbically commented when parliament met to discuss the damage that the mayor took quick action to fight the fire by adding the contents of his chamber pot to the effort.

In the 21st century, we have the benefit of hindsight but if only the Mayor of London had been bold and broken the rules perceiving the potential damage to the rest of the city history might have recorded that he was the hero and not the villain of the event.

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703.)

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703.)

Rescue Effort

As many Londoners formed into chains passing buckets of water from the River Thames to vanquish the flames and set to work on demolishing buildings in the fire’s path, others fled to the safety of the fields surrounding the city. They had a harrowing view. The fire could be seen over thirty miles away.

The merchants based around St. Paul's Cathedral threw their stock and valuable items into the vaults of the cathedral to safeguard them, but St. Paul’s was lost above ground and its vaults suffered fire damage which is still visible today to the few allowed to enter the vaults.

Warehouses and timber stored for the forthcoming winter were greedily consumed by the flames. Samuel Pepys famously and ingeniously buried his cheese in his garden to save the expensive delicacy. The mayor was faced with a personal crisis. His house was consumed by the fire. The rescue efforts across London could not match the fire’s intensity.

Mayor Meltdown

From Samuel Pepys' Diary: “The king command him [Bloodworth] to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way. The Duke of York bid me tell him that if he would have any more soldiers he shall...” Pepys found Bloodworth in Cannon Street and informed him of the king and duke’s instructions. “...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.’”

Pepys later referred to the mayor as “a silly man, I think” and “a very weak man.” As his diaries have been a primary source of information from the era, Bloodworth may never be free of ignominy.

Ludgate and St. Paul's Cathedral burning.

Ludgate and St. Paul's Cathedral burning.

Royal Firefighters

King Charles II and James, Duke of York (1631-1701) earned admiration when they didn't flee the city for a safe refuge but instead took control of the firefighting, gathered food for the people, and were seen working side by side with the population of London. The king laboured for over thirty hours without taking a break. On the 3rd of September Pepys wrote of the mile-long blaze, “It made me weep to see it…”

As the wind fell, the fire lost its fervour. By its conclusion, the Great Fire of London had destroyed over thirteen thousand houses and eighty-five churches, part of London Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral and approximately fifty city company halls. The official death toll was low, estimated as sixteen people, perhaps less. Charles II started a relief fund for the victims.

The extent of the Great Fire of London's  damage between 2nd-5th September 1666.

The extent of the Great Fire of London's damage between 2nd-5th September 1666.

The Aftermath of the Great Fire

Bloodworth asked his influential friends to spread the word that he was not in disgrace with the king and that he had acted well throughout the Great Fire of London. A Frenchman named Robert Hubert confessed to setting the fire which we know was a false confession. He wasn't in London when the fire began. However, he was hanged. The people needed someone to blame for their misfortune and he was cast as a convenient scapegoat.

An official enquiry concluded in January of 1667 that “...nothing hath yet been found to argue it to have been other than the hand of God upon us, a great wind, and the season so very dry.” The memorial monument took six years to build from 1671 and it remains at Monument Street and Fish Street Hill in the City of London. Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) wished to erect a statue with Charles at the top but the king dismissed this idea by saying, “I did not start the fire.”

The Great Fire of London's Memorial Monument (1753.)

The Great Fire of London's Memorial Monument (1753.)

The Inglorious End

Bloodworth continued his career as a politician, but he did not enjoy popularity. Charles II’s close advisor Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683) allegedly called him “thrice vile.” During the Popish Plot of 1678 in which fear of Catholic uprisings and Charles II’s assassination escalated, Titus Oates (1649-1705) spectacularly accused James, Duke of York of ordering the fire of 1666 for the good of Catholics and said that Bloodworth, as his agent, secured the destruction of most of London for him.

Sir Thomas Bloodworth died in Leatherhead, Surrey, in May 1682. He was 62 years old. His initial words about the fire have long survived him.

Primary Sources

© 2021 Joanne Hayle