The Great Fire of London was finally extinguished 350 years ago today. It burned for three days in the crowded central City of London, which was full of wood buildings hemmed in by the old Roman city stone wall. In three days, the fire destroyed St. Paul’s Cathedral and over 13,000 residences and almost 90 churches. About 80,000 people had lived in central London and it is thought that some 70,000 lost their homes.
Samuel Pepys, a navy official, explored the city while the fire was burning and after, and he returned home each day to record what he encountered in a diary. On September 5, he wrote that the pavement itself on the streets he walked was hot enough to burn his feet through his shoes.
The painting above by an unknown artist and dates from around 1700. The artist may have been painting from memory … or not.
The fire broke apart into manageable smaller fires when the winds that had been driving it onward from house to house for days and nights finally died down and the firebreaks that had been established (in which homes were destroyed to cut the fire off from any more fuel) finally had an influence on the conflagration. Firefighting technology was not primitive in 1666 (London had “fire engines” that could carry water from the River Thames, but they could not be maneuvered in the narrow alleys of central London), but firefighting companies were not common and fighting fires in crowded cities with narrow lanes and wooden buildings with basements in which families stored coal was not something anyone had trained for.
The number killed in the fire remains a matter of conjecture. The official toll was a surpassing small number; depending on the source, six or eight individuals perished, but the fire struck a part of the city that was packed with tenements full of the city’s poor. Those who did not escape did not escape. The fire burned at an incredibly hot 2,500 °F, hot enough to melt the chains on the city gates. It was an inferno. The city had been cremated. The fire built quickly, from a bakery oven on Pudding Lane to the immediate neighborhood, and then neighborhood by neighborhood, so people who resided even a block away from the fire’s leading edges did not understand how large the fire was becoming and did not consider leaving the city completely until it was too late.
Some of those who did escape their homes with the clothes on their backs and whatever they could carry had to repeat that escape several more times as the fire took out the homes of their generous friends and relatives and those friends and relatives joined the ranks of the homeless.
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The first Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon concluded its 21-hour-long broadcast 50 years ago today. The producers failed to anticipate success and built a “tote board” that only had six digits. Towards the end of the show, when donations topped one million dollars, Lewis himself climbed a ladder to paint the seventh digit. The 49th and last MDA television fundraiser, a non-telethon, aired in 2014. Jerry Lewis himself was dropped from the television show in 2010.
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Cal Ripken Jr. tied Lou Gehrig’s Major League Baseball record of 2130 consecutive games played on this date 21 years ago.
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Arthur Koestler was born on this date in 1905. John Cage was born on this date in 1912. Jack Valenti was born on this date in 1921. Freddie Mercury was born 70 years ago today. He was honored with a “blue plaque” in London this week:
Queen’s “These Are The Days Of Our Lives,” which was Freddie Mercury’s farewell video:
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Paul Volcker is 89. Bob Newhart is 87 today. (He still performs live a few dozen times each year; if you have the opportunity to see him, do so.)
Carol Lawrence is 84. Senator John Danforth is 80. Jonathan Kozol is 80. William Devane is 79. George Lazenby is 77 today. Raquel Welch is 76 today. Werner Herzog is 74. (He has three new films out this year. I still fantasize that he will record my audio book. Which I have not yet written. And yes, I just wrote two birthdays and used the word “fantasize” concerning one of them … and it was not Raquel Welch. I would love for her to record my audio book, too.) Loudon Wainwright III is 70. Cathy Guisewite is 66. Michael Keaton is 65.
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