The Great Fire of London of 1666 sets the foundation for Jack’s introduction to the Ministry of Trackers. Jack must retrace the history of the blaze to recover the artifact that caused it and get his father back. My selection of this historical event as a backdrop for a modern mystery is no coincidence. The story of the Great Fire has mysteries of its own
What caused the Great Fire of London?
Most histories on the subject agree that a fire started in the bakery of Thomas Farriner (also Farynor), thanks to a wayward ember from a stove that should have been put out. After that, high winds, tightly packed structures, and flammable waterfront commodities took over (not thatch—for a good thatch burning, see the Great Fire of 1212).
The bakery story, endorsed by King Charles II and his lord chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon, seems simple enough. We know, at least, that the first flames were sighted at the bakery. However, there are some complications.
The Missing Window
According to Farriner’s testimony there were no windows or external doors in the bakery by which the wind could have blown the ember. This testimony is often misused to imply there were no windows in the whole house, for the purpose of posthumously exonerating confessed arsonist Robert Hubert (more about Hubert shortly).
Either the wind did it, or Hubert did it. If Farriner was telling the truth, the wind could not have blown through the bakery section of the building, but Hubert could certainly have sent a fireball through an upper window (which is exactly what he claimed).
The Baker’s Denial
Farriner swore to his dying day that he raked the ash in the stoves and properly put them out. Farriner also remained the king’s baker after the fire. It seems odd that Charles II did not sack the man who burned London to the ground.
The Arsonist’s Confession
French watchmaker Robert Hubert confessed to starting the blaze along with twenty-three co-conspirators. Hubert was led blindfolded to several parts of the city and identified the spot where he tossed a fireball through the bakery’s upper window by means of a long pole. The whole street was burned beyond recognition so that even its own residents might not be able to identify it. Thus, how could this crazy foreigner (who we will later be told arrived two days into the fire) so readily identify the location of the former bakery. Hubert was executed for the crime, but the Earl of Clarendon claimed that he was too insane and cripple to have done it.
Hubert would seem to be exonerated by the testimony of the ship captain who brought him to London. The captain claimed that he did not arrive until two days into the fire. Of course, during the fire, London was in chaos. Countless records were burned, particularly down on the docks. A captain who suddenly discovered he brought in the twenty-four arsonists that burned the city might feel compelled to fudge the date of his arrival. This being the sole piece of evidence used to exonerate Hubert in the royal account, makes it suspect.
A number of “arsonists” were caught by members of the public, according to a parliamentary report issued in 1667. The report includes eyewitness accounts of fireballs similar to those described by Hubert. Many contemporary historians discount these claims and attribute them to mass hysteria and the anti-Catholicism of the period. They also discount the report because—and this is not an exaggeration—the king simply didn’t like it. The report took months of investigation to compile. Charles II had his own counter-report composed in the space of five days. That’s not suspicious at all.
However, foreigners were indeed maimed and killed without cause during the blaze, which may account for Clarendon’s assertion that Hubert was too cripple to have done what he claimed. It is likely that Hubert, having confessed out of sorrow for his actions, received quite a beat-down from the public long before Clarendon ever saw him. In that case, Hubert did not lose his physical or mental competence until well after his act of arson.
As to anti-Catholicism, an inscription on the Monument to the Great Fire blamed the conflagration on “popish frenzy,” and remained there until 1831.
The Duke of York
James, the king’s brother was a Catholic and thought to be a French sympathizer. This would be confirmed in 1688 when James, having been ousted, landed in Ireland with French Troops and attempted to invade England.
Within the original parliamentary report, multiple constables describe handing suspected arsonists over to the duke, who was acting as a magistrate. The report implies that James spirited these criminals away. To let blame fall on James, heir to the throne, would certainly have spelled disaster for Charles II, the first king of the restored monarchy following the Cromwellian period. The English Civil War was barely a decade past, anti-royalist sentiment still ran deep in London, and the French and the Dutch were circling like vultures.
Confusion over the history stems from two official reports. The first was published on 22 January 1667 by a seventy-man task force from the House of Commons, who spent four months on their investigation. This first report, found here in the Museum of London digital archive, is filled with eyewitness accounts and confiscated letters that imply a plot of arsonists and implicate the Duke of York himself. Certainly, some of it is hearsay. But all of it?
The king’s council took offense at the allegations. A second parliamentary report was issued a mere five days later, composed by a known royalist named Sir Robert Brooke, claiming that the previously presented evidence was invalid, and that the fire in the bakery was there and forever the official cause. The shame of it sent poor Thomas Farriner to his grave.
How many people died in the Great Fire?
The official number—the number of confirmed deaths—is six (four in some accounts), leading to the common but rather macabre joke that more people died by falling off of or throwing themselves from the Monument to the Great Fire than actually died in the fire itself. However, that number may be wishful thinking. The real number may be far greater.
The census taken in 1673 shows 3500 tenancies unoccupied in London. This indicates that approximately 100,000 people were missing—one fifth of the pre-fire population. Many of these might simply have moved away and started a new life elsewhere. However, to think that so many would not have returned when new and better tenancies were built for them seems a stretch.
The fire swept fastest through crowded, timber slums. Most of those lost would have been the nameless poor, difficult to verify and of no priority to the upper classes.
The claim that only a handful of people died suited King Charles’s attempts to sooth a public out for blood and looking for scapegoats—which included his brother.
The fire burned far hotter than the temperature necessary to cremate bodies. Combined with the high winds, it is likely that most bodies became indistinguishable from the ash remains of the city itself.
John Evelyn, a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, described the stench of burning corpses, despite observing from the other side of the river. It is unlikely that four to six burned bodies could account for such a stench.
FACT VS. FICTION
In the construction of a fantastical story that uses real history as a backdrop, facts and fiction get muddled. For classroom purposes, it is important to separate the two. Here are some alterations regarding the Great Fire in the order of their appearance in the book.
No artifact known as The Ember is ever mentioned in the histories of the Great Fire. The mysteries of the great fire point to accident or arson, not a mystical phenomenon.
Gwen’s account of the mysteries of the Great Fire notes that James invaded England with French troops. James never actually made it to the border, as William of Orange stopped him in Ireland. This would have taken too long to say within the narrative.
The crypt of St. Magnus, the church off the southern tip of Pudding Lane, holds the break room for the church staff rather than Farriner’s sarcophagus. However, there is a spectacular model of old London Bridge down there that the staff brings upstairs for public viewing on occasion. The actual location of Farriner’s grave is unknown.
There is, in fact, a secret room underneath the Monument, built for the reasons Gwen describes. Unfortunately, there is no secret tunnel leading to the sewers—that I know of.
The stained widow made of Great Fire glass is in the sanctuary of All Hallows by the Tower (All Hallows Barking), rather than in the bell tower. Placing the window in the bell tower allowed me to condense that section of the book.
There are, sadly, no panels detailing the eyewitness accounts of the fire at the top of Barking Tower. The tower is closed to visitors. If anyone who has the power to restore Barking Tower and put up a monument is reading this, please correct this oversight.
There is no Ministry of Guilds beneath central London. Guildhall (just Guildhall, not “the” Guildhall) is real enough, and it carries much the same feel. Guildhall is one of the oldest sites in London, and in the basement of the art museum next door you can see the remnants of ancient Londinium’s coliseum.
I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of the Archive, a secret well of knowledge at the center of London.
There are no records of Robert Hubert ever applying to the Worshipful Guild of the Clockmakers, but Lord Mayor Bloodworth was, in fact, a member of the Levant Company and the East India Company and a supporter of the guilds.
Bloodworth gets a bad rap in The Lost Property Office—but some of it is well-deserved. He did not start the fire. That is not to say that he didn’t try. As mentioned later, he had fires kept burning in the slums day and night for a time during the plague. Fire outbreaks were common, so the mayor would not have been ignorant of the tremendous danger of that action.
There is no such book as An Account of Curiosities of the Lord Mayors of London, but the actions attributed to Bloodworth therein are accurate. He really did have thousands of cats killed and fires set ablaze in the known-to-be-ridiculously-flammable slums.
Bloodworth’s house in Covent Garden wasn’t built until after the fire. His offices were not far from Pudding Lane, so he very easily could have gotten there within the timeline presented in the map room.
There is no such artifact as Nero’s Globe, and history remains unclear as to whether Nero was even present for the burning of Rome. But the guy was crazy. That much we know.
There was no slum known as Little Tyburn. This place represents several slums in Central London whose names are lost to history.
There is no secret door in the fireplace in the Beauchamp Tower of the Tower of London—that I know of.
There are no rolls of the dead detailing the thousands lost in the Great Fire of London. Today we have only reason and speculation to get us in the vicinity of the true number. Their names are forever lost.
Late in the book, Jack finds himself in the secure vault of the Ministry of Trackers among a number of dangerous artifacts. Did you guess their origins? Here is a quick list.
A Flat Robotic Vacuum
Robot vacuums have so much personality. Jack sees the very first one, which glitched out, became self-aware, and tried to destroy humanity (bet you never heard about that one).
A Bronzed Apple with Two Bites Taken out of It
Adam and Eve shared this apple a really, really long time ago.
A Giant Clock with its Hands Chained in Place
This is the Doomsday Clock, which once represented the threat of global nuclear war. The clock still hangs in the offices of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in Chicago.
A Set of Rusty Shackles
In keeping with the “S” theme of the aisle, these are the shackles of Spartacus, the gladiator-slave who led an army against the forces of Rome. He ended up chained to his work (his army wouldn’t let him go) and died in battle.
A Bronze Axe with a White Tag that Read Sargon II
One of the most successful Assyrian kings, Sargon II pursued a longtime enemy into the mountains, where previous Assyrian kings had feared to tread. In his own account, Sargon II claims he gave his engineers bronze axes to cut through the mountain stone and make a flat road for his troops.
A Jar Full of Sickly Grapes
Arthur Schopenhauer famously said, “It is bad today and every day it will get worse, until the worst of all happens.” Thus, he is known as the father of pessimism. Until late in life, he failed at writing and teaching, and he failed in love until his death. By his forties, he had become something of a dirty old curmudgeon. At forty-three he tried charming a seventeen-year-old girl named Flora Weiss by offering her a bunch of grapes. According to Flora’s diary, Schopenhauer repulsed her, and she slipped the grapes into the water. The jar that Jack saw contained Schopenhauer’s Sour Grapes.
A Black Staff with a Cobra-shaped Head
Jack accidentally activates a staff that can turn into a snake. This, of course, once belonged to a magician of Pharaoh, and appears in the biblical account of Moses.
The pair of mirrors by which Jack escapes the QEDs are a reference to Erwin Schrödinger’s rather sarcastic critique of Heisenberg’s interpretation of quantum superposition (namely that an object in a system can exist in multiple states simultaneously, until observed). Falling into Erwin’s mirror is relatively safe. The effects of falling into the cat’s mirror are as uncertain as Heisenberg’s Principle.