Great explosions rang out in London’s Lower Thames Street: the sound of houses, shops, warehouses and taverns being blown up, a method intended to halt the spread of the seemingly unstoppable flames. It was September 2, 1666. The Great Fire was sweeping through London in the worst conflagration the city had seen.
Eventually, it would destroy more than 13,000 buildings and leave 80,000-100,000 people homeless – a sixth of London’s population. Officially, it was responsible for the deaths of six people, though many more likely went unrecorded. The disaster drastically altered the appearance of London, wiping out a large portion of the old town. But it also allowed new buildings to rise from the ashes, including St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Lower Thames Street blasts reduced timber-framed buildings to mounds of rubble which in the following months and years were used to raise and level the ground. New buildings rose up from the ruins, but relics of the fire were preserved.
Time passed and in 1974, during an excavation of Lower Thames Street, archaeologists uncovered a charred and blackened cellar and, within, a scorched leather fire bucket. The bucket stands as a vestige of a colossal and desperate few days in London, when men, women and children clambered over one another; when lifetimes’ worth of possessions were marched along choking roads, and when much of the old London was lost in a bedlam of smoke. As Pepys observed on September 5, 1666 in his famous diaries, the city was “all in dust”.
Museum of London
The leather bucket, which is one of many exhibits on show at the Museum of London’s current exhibition Fire! Fire!, is marked with the initials “SBB”. The museum believes this indicates that the bucket belonged to the parish church of Saint Botolph Billingsgate, which recorded 36 buckets kept to counter the “danger” of fire. It may well have been dropped or abandoned as the flames came ever closer on one of those windswept hot nights of September 1666, before being sealed away in the cellar for over 300 years.