The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Great Fire of London 1666
Neil Hanson
London: Doubleday, 2001.
£16.99, 378 pages, ISBNs 0385601344 (cased) 0385603274 (tpb)

Alain Lauzanne
Université de Rouen

The Dreadful Judgement by Neil Hanson vividly relates the story, the 'true story,' as the subtitle specifies, of one of the most tragic events that have ever struck London – the Great Fire, which ravaged the City in 1666. In fact, the book is a curious mix as it is at once a historical essay and a scientific study of fire and pyromania, the reading of which is facilitated by novelistic story-telling. It goes without saying that such a hybrid form may not satisfy historian purists or readers who want a linear narrative. Cautiously the author advises such readers to skip chapter six devoted to the science of fire, as if he were aware of what might be regarded as a flaw. Still they would be wrong to leave the book on the shelf, for it is a meticulously researched work that reads like a novel.

The two scourges that hit London in 1665 and 1666, the bubonic plague and the Great Fire, are seen partly through the eyes of Thomas Farriner, the baker in whose shop the Great Fire broke out. Some passages, such as the moment when he parted from his son are consequently fictional or romanticized: "Through eyes misted with tears, Thomas cast a final look towards the receding figure and saw the pale disc of the boy's face still staring back at him. He raised a hand in a last farewell, then turned and stepped back under the arch" (5). Through this technique the author no doubt aimed to give a human touch to his book, which otherwise might have been rather bleak, but this can also be regarded as one of its defects, occasionally leading to mawkishness.

However, the reader should not forget that The Dreadful Judgement is not a novel as such, but an account of life in London in 1665 and 1666. Hanson devotes the first two chapters to the Great Plague of 1665 also known as the Poor's Plague. The author gives a gripping description of medieval London, in particular its slums where the epidemic claimed so many lives, as well as a convincing presentation of the Londoners' attitudes, of their distress and fear, but also of the meanness and violence such a situation could not but engender. It is in such passages that Hanson is at his best. His rendering of the panic that seized the inhabitants of London during the Plague or the Fire is particularly convincing:

In the face of a disease that seemed to spread by invisible, inexplicable means, the weight of informed opinion, such as it was, came down in favour of a theory that the plague was carried through the air as 'pestilential miasma'. The Lord Mayor was sufficiently convinced to give audience only when enclosed inside a glass case, and the climate of fear was stoked by stories, such as that told by a music teacher in Westminster, of plague sufferers leaning out of their windows 'to breathe in the faces of the well people going by'. (26-27)

The plague had hardly abated when another catastrophe upset the lives of thousands. One night, Thomas Farriner was woken up by a fire that had started in his house, from which he managed to escape with his daughter, both badly burnt. The reader then follows the homeless baker through the streets of London devoured by a terrifying conflagration.

Hanson does not content himself with a description of the fire as it destroys house after house, monument after monument or the techniques employed to slow down the spread of the firestorm. Human attitudes and reactions are finely analysed, from the flippancy of the Lord Mayor to the unexpected omnipresence of Charles II and the anger of the distraught populace eager to find culprits. Even if, for instance, there is a particularly impressive description of the flames consuming Saint-Paul's, leaving only a blackened carcass, Hanson's analysis of the causes of the conflagration and of the consequences on the population is far more interesting. Although he examines several possibilities, it seems well-nigh impossible to tell what or who actually caused the fire. Some Londoners remarked that no better place could have been chosen to start a fire aimed at destroying a large part of the City, and Hanson's quotation from A Short Narrative, written by Edward Waterhouse in 1667 highlights some of the questions people asked themselves about those causes :

If all the engineers of mischief would have compacted in the irredeemable burning of London, they could not have laid the scene of their fatal contrivance more desperately to a probable success than where it was, where narrow streets, old buildings all of timber, all contiguous each to other, all stuffed aliment for the fire, all in the very heart of the trade and wealth of the city. (255)

People, for the most part, were convinced that the bakery had been deliberately set on fire, possibly by Papists, Nonconformists or foreigners such as the Dutch or the French. Even the King was suspected, as he might have started the fire to punish the inhabitants of London for the execution of his father. Some thought it was divine punishment. In such tragic circumstances people need culprits and when they cannot find them they make do with scapegoats. In seventeenth-century London, foreigners, especially French people, were the ideal targets, and several were attacked and killed, such as that Frenchman whose tennis balls were mistaken for 'balls of fire' (142). The arrest of a lame, backward, young Frenchman who confessed to starting the conflagration came as a relief. He was rapidly tried, sentenced and executed as many hoped that "when he was hanged, the talk of plots and conspiracies might die with him" (285). The manner in which the Londoners who watched the execution of Hubert tore his body to pieces as it was about to be handed to the beadle of the Worshipful Company of Barber Surgeons for dissection bears witness to the hatred that the fire had aroused. This execution may have served to placate the populace, but Robert Hubert might well have been innocent, as a few years later the master of the Maid of Stockholm testified that the young man, who was bound for Rouen, was on board his ship when the fire broke out.

Hanson also deals with an aspect somewhat neglected by historians. The rapid spread of that inextinguishable fire and the number of victims. As the author points out in chapter six, he tried to 'apply twenty-first century scientific knowledge and chemistry of fire to the events of 1666.' This scientific approach, combined with a study of the structure and materials of London houses at the time, enables him to explain not only why the fire spread so fast but also why the number of fatalities has been underestimated for centuries. A conversation with a crematorium technician has convinced him that many victims, especially the aged and the sick who were unable to run away were reduced to ashes and never included in the final death toll, which, he believes, ran at least to hundreds.

The most remarkable feature of the book, however, is the impressive use of primary sources and an extensive bibliography. Even the novelistic parts of The Dreadful Judgement are strewn with contemporary sources that are both moving and illuminating. A comprehensive index enables the reader to find references to places, people or institutions mentioned in the book. The Dreadful Judgement is not only a captivating account of the conflagration that obliterated a large part of medieval London within four days, it is also a good introduction to London life in the second half of the seventeenth century.