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September 2, 2011

London's Burning

It was in the early morning hours of September 2, 1666, when fire broke out at the Pudding Lane home of the king's baker, Thomas Farrinor. If the narrow streets tightly packed with timber framed houses, the preponderance of thatched roofs, the nearly year-long drought, or the evening's steadily blowing wind gave ample cause for alarm, at least one key figure was underwhelmed by the possibility of disaster. Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bludworth[1] was said to have suggested that "a woman might piss it out" upon being awoken with news of the fire.

The Great Fire of London (1666)

Such bold leadership in a time of crisis undoubtedly fanned the flames as effectively as any flying sparks or gusts of wind. The Great Fire of London, which might easily have been contained had Bludworth more readily heeded the advice of his firefighters and authorized the demolition of nearby houses, instead raged on until September 6. It was "an infinite great fire," observed diarist Samuel Pepys on only the fire's first day.

Says Neal Hanson, author of The Great Fire of London: In That Apocalyptic Year, 1666 and, more recently, The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Great Fire of London:

"The rising sun that fifth morning, when the fire had been put out, was casting light on ground that had been shaded since before the Norman Conquest. Medieval London had virtually ceased to exist and in its place was a wasteland of rubble and ashes, so devoid of buildings, so empty and featureless, that to one stupefied onlooker it seemed like the Cumbrian fells. 'But there's nothing to be seen' he said, 'but heaps of stones.'"

The fire, according to the Museum of London's account, destroyed some 436 acres (a mere 373 acres, says the BBC), encompassing more than 13,000 houses. The rather dubious official death toll from the fire is listed at just six; the numbers left homeless, by some estimates, were in excess of 100,000. Rebuilding started almost immediately — many houses were rebuilt within the first five years — but it was nearly 45 years before the completion of the new St. Paul's Cathedral brought the rebuilding process to a close.

Conspiracy theories swirled in the wake of the fire, with much of the blame resting on London's Catholic population. So prevalent was the perception of a Catholic hand in the fire that for years the monument at Pudding Lane included an inscription blaming the "barbarous Papists." In the fire's immediate aftermath, meanwhile, Samuel Pepys wrote, "It was pretty to see how hard the women did work in the cannells, sweeping of water; but then they would scold for drink, and be as drunk as devils. I saw good butts of sugar broke open in the street, and people go and take handsfull out, and put into beer, and drink it."

As fine a day at it may be for a beer, we can hardly advise in favor of such crude practices. Instead, as we recall those who suffered and those who died at the hands of this vast inferno, today would be an ideal day to enjoy a Fuller's London Porter. While Fuller's as we know it did not come into existence until nearly two centuries after the Great Fire, the origins of their famed Griffin Brewery in Chiswick are rather more hazy. While company lore dates the location's brewing history back to the time of Oliver Cromwell — a reign ending nearly a decade before the fire — British National Archives point to 1699 as the brewery's infancy (while yet others suggest 1701).

Fuller's London Porter

The precise provenance of the brewery may be debatable; what can hardly be disputed is the magnificence of the London Porter, a coffee colored concoction with a tantalizing tan head, rich roasted malt flavor, and a subtle, sultry smokiness in its finish. Alliteration abuse alone does it little justice, though, so pour yourself a pint and savor its every drop.

Savor it, perhaps, while playing the Great Fire of London game. A difficult challenge? Hardly. You'll find challenge enough, though, in trying to resist pouring just one more pint of Fuller's London Porter on this fine day for a beer.


  1. Alternately, and perhaps fittingly, spelled "Bloodworth" according to several sources.
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