Early in the morning of Tuesday 4 September 1666 the great diarist and raconteur Samuel Pepys was rudely woken by a servant telling him to get up and get out of his house because a fire, which had started two days prior on Pudding Lane* in the City of London, was fast approaching his home on Tower Hill. The Great Fire of London was well underway. What would you do in this situation? Well Pepys told his servant to go away (or words to that effect), turned over, farted (probably) and went straight back to sleep.1
Things obviously took a while to sink in and he realised later a catastrophe was afoot. According to his diary entry for the day he was ‘[u]p by break of day [we can that with a pinch of salt] to get away the remainder of my things; which I did by a lighter at the Iron gate and my hands so few, that it was the afternoon before we could get them all away.’2
Pepys lived on Seething Lane and was a naval administrator and lived close to several other navy chums near to the Tower of London, so they really were in the thick of it. He tells us in detail what he saw and what he and his friends did:
Sir W. Pen [this is Admiral William Pen, Commissioner of the Navy Board] and I to Tower-streete, and there met the fire burning three or four doors beyond Mr. [Richard] Howell’s, whose goods, poor man, his trayes, and dishes, shovells, &c., were flung all along Tower-street in the kennels, and people working therewith from one end to the other…’2
He managed to get the majority of his belongings to Bethnal Green and safety, but not everything.1 Left with little time, and perhaps no horses and carts either, snap decisions had to be made:
the fire [was] coming on…both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten [Master of Trinity House which specialised in all things naval] not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.2
But – you may be thinking – if he was taking plenty of belongings, surely he could make room for some wine and cheese? One issue was size: the wine would have been in barrels, not bottles, and the Parmesan cheese – if a full round – could have weighed 40 kilos or more. But – you may also be thinking – these are just food items, why risk hanging about the inferno just to save them? Was he that greedy!? Well, in part, yes – he certainly liked his food, and he relished writing about the food he ate, and the booze, coffee, tea and chocolate he drank. His diaries are essential reading for the food historian for this very reason. Mainly it was because they were very expensive and a great status symbol, so it wasn’t all about not wasting good food. No doubt he shed a tear as he shovelled it over with clods of earth.
Parmesan cheese was a particularly sought after food and was commonly part of diplomatic gifts. For example, in 1511 Pope Julius II gave Henry VIII 100 rounds of Parmesan cheese for helping him fight the French3 (yes, there was a time the English Crown and the Catholic Church got on!). Parmesan, then, was perfect for the greedy aristocrat or great gourmand in your life.
He dined that evening with friends in Woolwich, and from their house he could see the blaze rampaging through the city:
Only now and then walking into the garden, and saw how horridly the sky looks, all on a fire in the night, was enough to put us out of our wits; and, indeed, it was extremely dreadful, for it looks just as if it was at us; and the whole heaven on fire. I after supper walked in the darke down to Tower-streete, and there saw it all on fire… the fire is got so far that way, and all the Old Bayly, and was running down to Fleete-streete; and [Saint] Paul’s is burned, and all Cheapside. I wrote to my father this night, but the post-house being burned, the letter could not go.2
The Great Fire would go on to decimate four-fifths of the city, destroying over 13 200 homes, 87 parish churches, as well as several important and iconic buildings such as the Royal Exchange. Pepys’ home was destroyed.1
The Parmesan cheese was never recovered and who knows, it could still be there, waiting to be found…
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*There is currently some debate as to whether this actually was the source of the fire.
1. Martin, K. ‘London’s Burning’: Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London. Royal Museums Greenwich https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/blog/curatorial/londons-burning-samuel-pepys-great-fire-london (2015).
2. Pepys, S. Tuesday 4 September 1666. The Diary of Samuel Pepys https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1666/09/04/ (1666).
3. Wooding, L. Henry VIII. (Taylor & Francis Group, 2015).