"A most horrid malicious bloody flame"

On this day in 1666, the Great Fire of London began, enkindled by the King’s baker when he failed to damp his oven properly. The Diary of Samuel Pepys is by no means our only eye-witness record, but it describes the event in compelling human detail, from the first horrified sighting of “an infinite great fire” on the 2nd to a walkabout on the 5th “with our feet ready to burn.”

Pepys is first roused at 3 a.m. by one of his maids, the fire just an hour old. Judging the danger to be “far enough off,” and having come home “mighty merry” earlier in the night, he goes back to bed. The next day brings a first view of the damage and desperation:

Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

By that evening the fire is “a most horrid malicious bloody flame” and the streets are “full of nothing but people and horses and carts loaden with goods, ready to run over one another…and here and there sick people carried away in beds.” By the second day he is removing his own “bags of gold and plate…riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart”; by the third day he reports digging a pit in his garden for “my Parmagan cheese, as well as my wine.” In the end, the fire came to his street but not as far as his house.

A glance at other September 2 entries from Pepys’s eight-and-a-half-year Diary shows why it is such a prized historical and personal document. In 1661 he reports a courtier’s gossip: “He tells me plainly of the vices of the Court, and how the pox [syphilis] is as common there, and so I hear of all hands, that it is as common as eating and swearing.” In 1665 he makes a coded report of his own sexual activity, this in defiance of the pox, the Plague and his sworn pledges: “After dinner I to Deptford and there took occasion to andar a la casa de la gunaica de mi Minusier and did what I had a mind a hazer con ella….”