Mastodon The Writing Desk: Guest Post: Entertaining Mr Pepys, by Deborah Swift

15 September 2019

Guest Post: Entertaining Mr Pepys, by Deborah Swift

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Based on events depicted in the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys, Entertaining Mr Pepys brings London in the 17th Century to life. It includes the vibrant characters of the day such as the diarist himself and actress Nell Gwynne, and features a dazzling and gripping finale during the Great Fire of London.

Refugees from the Great Fire of London

‘The saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw. Everywhere great fires. Oyle-cellars and brimstone and other things burning’ Samuel Pepys’ Diary 1666

Herded beasts

In The Great Fire of London 70,000 homes were destroyed, leaving the people of London shocked to the core and suddenly with nowhere to go. Their businesses, their familiar landscape; all destroyed. Not only that, but most of their possessions had gone up in smoke too.

Many fled to Moorfields, just north of Moorgate, one of London’s most notorious centres of vice and violence, and the open space which was safest from the fire, though not from thieves and petty criminals. There they camped out ‘under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag, or any necessary utensills, bed or board, who from delicateness, riches, and easy accommodations in stately and well-furnished houses, were now reduced to extreme misery and poverty’. (John Evelyn)

Fearing a near riot, the King despatched the trained bands of militia to Moorfields to try to keep order. Churches, chapels and any other public building still standing was used to house the people and the goods they had rescued from their homes, and as centres for the distribution of food, which was in short supply since the grain-stores, bakeries and brewers had all been burned down.

Many refugees relied on their relatives in other towns or the villages nearby. In Restoration London the countryside was never far away. ‘The most in fields like herded beasts lie down to dews obnoxious on the grassy floor,’ observed Dryden.

The king issued an edict which ordered the surrounding towns to receive any displaced persons and to permit them to trade, and sent word to local justices to make sure refugees were not robbed of the little they had left. For the poor, there was some relish in the way the rich had been brought down to the same level as everyone else; ‘those that delighted themselves in downe beds and silken curteynes are now glad of the shelter of a hedge,’ said Anthony Wood.

Rumour spreads faster than the flames

The rumour that the fire had been a terrorist act by the Dutch was quick to take hold, because England had been waging war against the Dutch over trade routes for years. A savage army of Dutch and French were on their way, the rumour said, now that London was in disorder and ruin. Panic ensued – in fact just the kind of disorder the militia were trying to prevent.

Before long a mob was on the street armed with cudgels, sticks and anything else they could find. Fuelled by rage at the loss of their city they went on the rampage, looking for traitors in their midst. They were wrong of course, there was no Dutch plot, but that didn’t prevent xenophobic attacks on anyone with a foreign accent, and it took more armed troops to subdue the riot.

The following day more militia were drafted in, just in case of further disorder, and the King announced at Moorfields that a temporary Exchange was to be set up in Gresham College in an unaffected north-east part of the city. As he was soothing his subjects, the true scale of devastation was becoming apparent. In fact fires continued to burn in cellars and under debris until March, and there was a constant fear it would spread again. John Evelyn took a walk the Friday after, passing, ‘voragos of subterranean cellars, wells, and dungeons, formerly warehouses, still burning in stench and dark clouds of smoke.’

Hollar’s engraving of the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire gives us a sense of the terrible loss of this formerly thriving city. Eighty-six churches gone, 373 acres of buildings destroyed, and it would take half a century before Londoners could walk in their rebuilt streets without tasting the acrid smell of smoke.

Deborah Swift

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About the Author

Deborah Swift lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District and worked as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV. After gaining an MA in Creative Writing in 2007 Deborah now teach classes and courses in writing and provides editorial advice to writers and authors. Find out more at Deborah's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @swiftstory.

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