Deborah Swift came across an intriguing area of research when working on her latest novel based on the lives of the women who appear in Samuel Pepys’s Diary, Entertaining Mr Pepys, set in 1666. Among the records we have on the Great Fire of London, there’s one topic which was something of a beast to find out about.
I had a little problem. One of my main characters in Entertaining Mr Pepys is Christopher Knepp, husband of my main protagonist, who is a horse dealer and horse hirer. And I knew the book would be partly set during the Great Fire of London.
“At some point,” I thought, “he’ll need to evacuate the horses.”
The more I thought about this, the more curious I became. The fire is estimated to have destroyed 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 homes, so surely there would have been thousands of animals in the city during the Great Fire. What had happened to them all? Were cows and chickens running amok? I decided to find out.
My characters, the Knepps, lived and worked near Smithfield. The market had just been drained and paved in 1614. At that time, Smithfield sold cattle on Mondays and Fridays, horses on Friday afternoons, and had a hay market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Likewise, there were meat and poultry markets in Butcher Row, Temple Bar, Bishopsgate, Clare, Southwark, Eastcheap and Westminster.
Animals were routinely brought to the city alive – the journey for Welsh cattle might take twenty days, pigs from Ireland even longer. After their long journey, many animals were fattened on the Kent and Essex marshes before they were slaughtered and sold for meat.
But not just for meat. Apparently the demand for goose-feather quills was so intense that vast flocks of geese were kept exactly for that purpose. Cats and rabbits were kept in pens for their fur, and calves and deer for their skins. Hides, leather, tallow and wool were all taken from animals brought ‘on the hoof’.
In 1562 an Italian, Alessandro Magno, visited London and was amazed at the number of livestock: “Truly, for those who cannot see it for themselves, it is almost impossible to believe they could eat so much meat in one city alone.”
By 1698 more than 70,000 cattle were sold at Smithfield. Early maps of London show yards where slaughter occurred in the open air. These were known as the ‘shambles’. The detritus such as guts, offal, and blood were thrown into a gutter down the middle of the street and now we still call a mess ‘a shambles’. Several towns, such as York, have preserved the street name The Shambles. Pigs, marked with the owner’s cut on the ear, were routinely left to scavenge from such refuse and the city’s dung heaps until they were fat enough to eat, and were a constant hazard on the streets.
This impression of food on the move is without counting the working horses and pets, or the animals that were used for sport – though these days the ‘sport’ seems more like rank brutality than entertainment. Pepys refers to “the Beare garden, where I have not been I think of many years and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs – one into the very boxes. But it is a very rude and nasty pleasure.”
Bear- and bull-baiting was common and, according to Arthur MacGregor (Animal Encounters: Human and Animal Interaction in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War One), another pastime was to hang a goose by its legs from a tree, then take it in turns to try to seize it by its well-greased neck as you galloped underneath. Pigeon shooting, dog fights – the possible number of ways to abuse animals in the 17th century was immense.
In the Great Fire of Newmarket (1683), according to John Sutton, “three inns were destroyed and many horses stabled behind them were burned to death, although some were ridden onto the heath.” Yet during the Great Fire of London, with many more animals in the city, Pepys mentions hardly a one. To give him his due, he does mention birds burning as they fell from the rafters: “The poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.”
Pepys also mourns a “poor cat taken out of a hole in the chimney, joining to the wall of the Exchange, with the hair all burned off the body, yet alive.” But I found no accounts of animals being saved or rescued other than this.
Once the fire took hold, according to John Evelyn’s first-hand account, “the very pavements [were] glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them”. The city itself must have been full of sheds and coops stuffed with hay and straw to feed all these beasts, yet the beasts themselves are conspicuous in their absence.
Evelyn believed that the foul smell in the air at the time of the fire was caused by burning bodies, their beds and other combustible goods, so presumably there were animals too burning in the conflagration.
So why do we know so little about animals during this great disaster? One thought is to blame the Cartesian view, prevalent at the time, which maintains that animals have no soul, but it also seems likely that animals were accorded no status. That though alive, they were still, in some sense, meat, not creatures with feelings or any sort of rights. They were treated as if they were mere vessels for containing food, like we might use and dispose of carrier bags today.
But it is in these unknown areas where the novelist’s imagination must prevail. There are no Bills of Mortality for animals, and given that the human death toll is recorded as just six, perhaps many animals did indeed escape. And in the absence of any hard data about how a horse hirer in 1666 might behave when his stable-yard is about to be engulfed by fire, or whether farm animals were left to die or herded through the streets, I simply did what novelists do, and made it up. And Mr Knepp and his actress wife are by necessity equipped with a conflicting mix of my own squeamish sensibilities and those of their time.
Visit Deborah’s website.
Read our reviews of Entertaining Mr Pepys: “a rich and satisfying read”, “a gripping and convincing tale of the Restoration”.
Deborah’s written a number of articles on 17th-century life for us, including:
Animating Pepys’s women
Health and hellfire: Personalising the plague in 17th-century London
Luck or lottery? Choosing your valentine in the 17th century
And so to bed – a goodbye to Pepys’s diary
The Virtues of Animals in Seventeenth-Century Thought by Peter Harrison
Beastly London by Hannah Velten
By Permission of Heaven – The Story of the Great Fire of London by Adrian Tinniswood
The Great Fire of London in 1666 by Lieve Verschuier: via Wikimedia
A Bird’s Eye View of Smithfield Market, Taken from the Bear & Ragged Staff, after Thomas Rowlandson: via The Met
The Shambles, York, by David Orsborne: via Pexels
Cattle Driving in the Streets: via ResearchGate