From the Archives: The Great Fire of London

The beginning of September saw the anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which burned for five days from 2-6 September in 1666. The 350th anniversary was celebrated in 2016 and although we featured many of the accompanying events then, we didn’t tell our own story, so here it is.

The exact date of construction of the first Brewers’ Hall, which was on the same site as the current Hall, is unknown, but it appears in the records of the Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1403. Home to the Brewers’ for over 250 years, and described by Stow in his 1603 Survey of London as ‘a fayre house’, it was totally destroyed on days three to four of the Fire (4-5 September 1666). We weren’t alone – at least 44 livery halls and 87 churches lay in ashes by the time the last flames had died down.

There was a frantic effort to save as much as possible from the Hall as the Fire approached: the Company’s many silver cups, tankards, salt cellars and other valuable items were removed from the Hall and taken by cart to the estate at Islington for safekeeping; the Charters, Court Minutes and other archives were removed, as well as the Wardens’ Crowns and Funeral Pall – all of which survive today – presumably also taken by cart to Islington. The valuable lead from the Hall’s roof must have been stripped off hastily – the Warden’s accounts include a payment to someone named John Sharpe for ‘saving the lead at Brewers’ Hall’.

The Brewers’ Company’s Wardens’ Crowns, made 1628-9

Our archives refer to ‘The late great fire in London’ and have the word ‘great’ struck out and ‘dreadfull’ inserted. In some documents it is called ‘the late lamentable Fire’.

The Brewers’ Company was ‘much weakened’ by the Fire, not just by the loss of its Hall but also through losing so many houses which it owned elsewhere in London – no rents came in for several years, until rebuilding took place.

The Company was homeless for three years, during which time the Hall of the Cooks’ Company in Aldersgate was used – one of only a handful of Livery Halls to escape the Fire. Fortunately the Cooks waived the opportunity to make money out of the misfortune of fellow companies and capitalize on the high demand for lettable space in the months after the disaster. Their Court decided there was more “credit” to be had from allowing other companies the use of their premises for relatively small annual amounts, so we paid £8 a year to use it for Court Meetings and dinners. Ironically, the Cooks’ Company today has no Hall of its own because it was burnt down in another fire in the 18th century, and never rebuilt.

The Brewers decided to maintain their status and build a new Hall on the site of the old. This rebuilding was a great achievement, as the Company had great difficulty in raising the money for the new hall. A subscription of £5 was required from every member; those who declined to pay were fined. A few members promised materials for the work; one liveryman, a Mr Girl, offered 50,000 bricks! More money was got from pawning the Company’s plate and pictures which had been saved from the fire and which they could not later afford to redeem (the Brewers’ were not the only Company forced down this road). However, many members did give very substantial sums (four gave £150 each – equivalent to about £12,000 today).

Pepys records in his diary (8 September 1666) an anecdote about Sir Samuel Starling, an Alderman and wealthy brewer who was Master in 1661 and went on to be Lord Mayor in 1669. As the fire spread and threatened Starling’s own house, a group of 30 men worked hard to prevent it reaching his house. Starling rewarded them with just half a crown shared among them (i.e. one old penny each – just enough for a pint of ale). He also ‘did quarrel with some that would remove the rubbish out of the way of the fire, saying they had come to steal’. Though Pepys’s anecdote implies Starling was mean, Starling was in fact a generous benefactor to our own Company – including covering the costs of wainscoting the Court room – and bequeathed large sums to charities and hospitals when he died.

On 16 March 1670 a Mr Whiteing and Mr Aldridge appeared before the Company’s Court to put forward a suggested design for the new building, and in May two tenders for the work were received from Mr Ball for £3443, and from Captain Caine for £3523. The bargaining then began. To start with, both builders were asked if they would allow £3000 for the old materials: an audacious request, which both refused. They were then asked by how much they would be willing to cut their price, and after much wrangling Captain Caine was given the contract for £3300.

When it was finally completed in 1673 the total cost of the new hall amounted to £5827 16s 8d. Captain Caine was admitted as a member of the Company in recognition of ‘his care and diligence in building the Hall’.

That Hall was also home to the Company for over 250 years, until it in turn was destroyed, also by fire, during the Second World War. But the story of that destruction and the construction of the current, third, Hall is a tale for another day.

Photograph of the ‘new’ Livery Hall

Main Image: W Hollar: St Paul’s Cathedral burning in the Great Fire of London. 1666 Etching © The Trustees of the British Museum