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Fire and Plague

Two events decimated London shortly after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. An especially ravaging plague struck in 1665, and then a “Great Fire” raged for several days in September 1666. Accidently set off in Pudding Lane, the fire was not contained until it had destroyed the greater part of London within the walls. As teenage eyewitness Samuel Wiseman wrote: “The dreadful Blaze appearing unto some, / T’assimilate th’ approaching Day of Doome, / When all the World consum’d with Fire shall be, / And Time gives place unto Eternity.” In other words, it felt like the end of the world.

City of London. London’s dreadful visitation. London, 1665

Each December, the city of London published a singlesheet summary of all the christenings and burials that had taken place during the past year. These bills were arranged by parish, and with them, one can track the spread of diseases, such as plague, throughout the city and the suburbs. During the devastating plague year of 1665, there were 97,306 burials recorded, of which 68,596 were attributed to plague.


The year after the devastating plague of 1665, the Great Fire raged through the city. Samuel Wiseman was just seventeen when he lived through it -- what he called the “dreadfull fire” of 1666. His eyewitness description of the fire’s progress in verse was published the following year. This manuscript copy was made by his mother, Barbara, in 1681. The poem concludes with the statistics that London’s Surveyors reported: “273 Acres waste; Houses Burnt 130,200; Of Parishes and churches 89; 11 Parishes Remaining.”


Less than one month after the Great Fire, the dean of St. Paul’s preached a sermon before Charles II. Sancroft references the Old Testament prophet Isaiah in urging Londoners to take to heart the bitter lessons of God’s Righteousness. A printed note in a margin specifies that the king had declared “that God hath laid this heavy Judgment upon us all, as an Evidence of his Displeasure for our Sins in general.” But Sancroft does not dwell on human sinfulness as much as he seeks to understand God’s inscrutable ways.


A home insurance industry developed in London only after the Great Fire. While the City debated its role in fire insurance and one citizen proposed a joint stock company, Nicholas Barbon set up a business on his own. When he took partners, he reorganized as the Fire Office. The rates were calculated per £1 of rent. Seven years was the minimum period of coverage, and fixed payments were made for fixed annual premiums. Note that the rates for insuring timber buildings are twice those of brick structures.

City of London. London’s dreadful visitation. London, 1665

Samuel Wiseman. On the dreadfull fire of London. Manuscript, 1681

Fire Office. A table of the insurance office. London, 1682


Plague and Fire

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