Great fire of London

Great fire of London

BY WENDY HUGHES
This year sees the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which began in Pudding Lane on the 2 September 1666, and raged for five long relentless days consuming its dirty narrow streets and demolishing the dangerously erected timber-framed houses.
Five years later, a resplendent modern city emerged, with wide streets and brick houses. Laws were passed stating minimum widths – 16ft for alleys and up to 60ft for main routes. For the first time since Roman London the city streets acquired a straight line, and instead of being twisting paths to individual houses, they became clear highways, and since the advent of coaches in 1600, these wider paved streets were able to accommodate them easily as the numbers multiplied.
But let’s reflect on a time before this transformation. After the austere years of Cromwell’s regime, news of Charles II’s return to England was greeted with delight. Excited ladies searched out their finery. The aristocracy studied forgotten etiquette, and once more children were allowed to play those games and sports prohibited by the Puritans. The Restoration period had arrived and the air was filled with renewed hope for the future after nearly twenty years of depression and suppression. With the flamboyant King and his courtiers came new fashions in housing, clothes and furnishings. It is said that, as he entered London on 29 May 1660 the roads were strewn with flowers, streets hung with tapestry and the fountains flowed with wine.
Craftsmen became creatively active once more and were able to take pride in their work without fear of repercussions.

Charles II furniture

Charles II furniture

Slowly things were changing; England was on course to be great again and ironically, this tragic accident helped to accelerate those changes, and make London a brighter and healthier place for its people to live in.
The pre-fire timber-framed houses were flimsy constructions, coated with pitch, and had been planned to correspond with the social life of the day. The most important room in a Medieval English home was the hall. Later generations added rooms as and when they were required by their ever increasing families, until eventually, the hall, which originally extended to the roof, was floored to make room for the extra bed chambers needed for a more comfortable life.
Now, thanks to the Great Fire, those rambling unstable houses were replaced by brick built houses to fit the life of the times. These new homes had two or more storeys according to the size of the house, a cellar and a garret – or attic. On the ground floor was a passage hall with a ‘dog-leg’ staircase at the end. One room faced the street and the other, the closet, which was a small room for dressing or writing, faced the back overlooking the garden. The maidservants slept in the garret and the male staff in the basement. Town houses had a paved court or
garden at the back, and it was here that the ‘necessary house’ was connected to a
cesspit. Each room had a chimney-piece, with a grate to accommodate the coal
fire and lighting provided by means of a candle.

Japanning

Japanning

These `modern’ homes of the day included several servants, for there was plenty
of work to do. Tasks included carrying coals or water upstairs, lighting and
trimming the candles, cleaning the grates, polishing the brass and silverware, not
to mention the more mundane tasks like making beds, cooking and serving the
meals. Domestic help was cheap and plentiful, so no thought given to inventing
labour saving gadgets.
New furniture came into use at this time too. The old style oak furniture was large,
decorated with elaborate carvings, and clumsy. The new style had a carcass of a
softer wood, and relied on the natural markings of the wood for its beauty. The
logs of figured wood were sawn and then thinly sliced into pieces. These pieces,
called veneer, were then glued onto the main body of the furniture. Veneering was
an extremely difficult process that required the skill of a craftsman, but it resulted in
lighter, neater furniture, more suitable for the new smaller family homes.
With the advent of veneering came the chest of drawers, which became the most
popular and sought after item of the period. These chests were often mounted on
stands and used to store clothes, taking the place of the heavy oak chest with lid.
Drawers became very popular for storing all sorts of things too, like paper, and as
letter writing was becoming a widespread custom, the writing cabinet became a
fashionable object. Another new piece of furniture belonging to the Restoration
period was the dressing table of veneered olive-wood or walnut with a stand for
holding candlesticks. Soon ladies demanded a looking-glass, but owing to the
difficulties of making a looking glass plate which gave a true reflection of one’s
face, it was only the wealthy people who could afford to import plate glass. The
French were the only people to have managed to perfect the art, but soon the
English glass makers became successful in producing a looking-glass plate, and
carvers and gilders started to make mirror frames. The cabinet-makers completed
the frame with veneered walnut – often lavishly decorated with birds and flowers.
Fierce competition reduced the price, and it wasn’t long before even the poorest
of peasant homes possessed a dressing table with a mirror. Thanks to trade with
the East, and the setting up of the East India Company, cane chairs and the craft
of ‘japanner’ or’ la Japanning’ this art of lacquering became fashionable. London
chair-makers set up large workshops and made cane furniture on similar lines of
mass production today. In fact, so great became the sale of cane chairs, that
English wool manufacturers alarmed by the drop in the demand for material for
upholstered chairs, petitioned Parliament, begging them to stop the manufacturer
of cane furniture.

Janpanning

Janpanning

The cabinet-makers soon discovered that the public preferred a lacquered
cabinet to a walnut one, and set about making a copy of the former in paint and
varnish. It became so popular that it was taught in schools and many illustrated
books were published on the subject. This was a time when furniture was
made by craftsmen working in their own shops with plenty of healthy
competition. Therefore the citizens benefited greatly from the choice of good
quality furniture.
In many respects the Great Fire of London was a blessing in disguise as London
received the face-lift she badly needed, and even the poorest of homes were not
without a small garden and furniture and decorative wares were of the highest
quality.
Sadly, society was destined to take a few steps back with ugly concrete buildings
replacing those exquisite homes, and shoddy machine manufactured goods were
to become things of the future.
Perhaps we need another Restoration period to rectify matters?