14 September 2016

Afterwards, Thomas Farriner was always quite clear about one thing. The events of that Saturday night were not his fault.

Farriner was an ordinary tradesman. His main source of income was a contract to produce ship’s biscuit, an unleavened bread which was baked, sliced and then oven-dried. His client was the Navy’s Victualling Office, which is why he was occasionally referred to in contemporary accounts of the Fire as ‘the King’s baker’; and his premises were on Pudding Lane, a narrow thoroughfare less than 100 yards long which ran north-to-south from the meat markets and butchers’ stalls of Little Eastcheap down to Thames Street with its riverside wharves and warehouses.

The parish church, St Margaret Fish Street, had been the site of a large fish market in the Middle Ages – a 1311 ordinance required French lampreys to be set out for sale under its walls immediately on their arrival in England – and according to John Stow, whose famous Survey of London first appeared in 1598, Pudding Lane had acquired its name because the Eastcheap butchers had a scalding-house for hogs there, ‘and their puddings, with other filth of beasts, are voided down that way to their dung boats on the Thames’. ‘Pudding’ is a medieval word for entrails or bowels.

The area also had a more appetising reputation. Over the years, numbers of cooks and bakers had set up shop in and around Eastcheap, drawn there by the easy supply of fresh meat and the proximity of the Victualling Office near Little Tower Hill. Breads, pies and hot meats were all offered for sale to the public, and traders ‘cried hot ribs of beef roasted, pies well baked, and other victuals’.

As well as baking hard tack for the navy, Farriner ran just such a business, making and selling bread (few households baked their own), and cooking both his own pies and pasties and those which had been prepared by his neighbours. His bakery was less than halfway up Pudding Lane; it lay behind the Star Inn on Fish Street, the main northern approach to London Bridge, which ran more or less parallel to the lane. He lived over the shop with his daughter Hanna, a maid and a manservant.

map of london from day of fire

Thomas Farriner closed for business at the usual time on Saturday evening, around eight or nine at night. His oven was probably of the beehive type, a brick structure which was brought up to temperature by laying bundles of faggots directly on its floor and kindling them with a light from the bakehouse hearth. The faggots were raked out when the baker judged the oven to be hot enough; loaves were baked when it was at its hottest, and then as it cooled down their place was taken by pies and pasties.

So the oven should have been virtually cold by now. Thomas checked it and filled it with faggots ready for the morning. He prepared several pots of baked meat for Sunday dinner, raked up the coals in the hearth and went to bed. A couple of flitches of bacon were left beside the oven.

Hanna checked on the bakehouse around midnight, when she also took a last look round the house to make sure all was well. Then she too went to bed.

About an hour later the Farriners’ manservant woke up. Smoke filled the ground floor of the bakery, and he could hardly breathe with the fumes. But he managed to climb the stairs and rouse Thomas, Hanna and the maid. Only now there was no way down, and the four found themselves trapped on the upper floor.

Someone, either Thomas or his manservant, hit on the idea of clambering out of one of the upstairs windows, crawling along the guttering and climbing back in through their neighbour’s window. They were shouting as loud as they could to raise the alarm:

And now the doleful, dreadful, hideous Note
Of FIRE, is screem’d out with a deep-strain’d throat;
Horror, and fear, and sad distracted Cryes,
Chide Sloth away, and bids the Sluggard rise;
Most direful Exclamations are let fly
From every Tongue, Tears stand in every Eye.

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