Our podcast Outliers: Stories from the Edge of History is back for season two! In the first episode of the new series, A Crack of Thunder, we travel back to London in 1698, and to the fire that all but destroyed the once-great Palace of Whitehall.
The story is told by Leech, a man who knows what it is like to come face to face with fire. By the time Leech narrates this story, nearly ten years after the 1698 fire, he is retired from working as a fireman. Although Leech is a fictional character, he represents a typical fireman of the 17th century, having originally been a ferryman and waterman, professions in which firefighting was a key skill.
The documented history of this story has been beautifully woven into the fiction by the author Gabriel Urbina. We start with the more famous Fire of London in 1666 that devastated a large part of the City of London. The more central Palace of Whitehall, where Charles II was in residence, was spared from the fire and used as a place of safe keeping for the merchants and goldsmiths of the City of London.
Fire was a very common and deadly threat in the crowded, wooden-built cities of the 17th century. Whitehall had already suffered huge damage in previous fires, mostly started through human error. All the firefighting methods talked about by Leech in this episode are historically accurate, but they were not particularly efficient at doing their job. Even the recently-invented water engines were of little use in fighting large blazes, and the use of gunpowder to destroy buildings and create firebreaks often helped rather than hindered the progress of a fire, as happened in this episode at the Palace of Whitehall.
In 1698, Whitehall was the most important royal residence. It was the largest palace in Europe, densely built and made up of a sprawling hodge podge of buildings. It was not particularly aesthetically pleasing, especially to the new King and Queen, William III and Mary II, to whom it appeared out of date and out of fashion. However, Whitehall represented the centre of power for the government and the monarchy, both physically and symbolically. When the palace was razed to the ground it was a significant blow to the country.
The maid who started the fire in A Crack of Thunder is documented as a Dutch maid working in the household of a Colonel Stanley. As in our story, she left linen to dry over some burning coals. These caught fire and the flames spread, first killing the unfortunate maid who was probably the first casualty in the fire of the 4 January 1689. The gardener who Leech witnessed being consumed by the fire was also based on documented history. According to accounts, a gardener was one of several people to die in an explosion.
As Leech describes in this story, stopping the flames spreading became increasingly harder due to looters hindering the progress of firefighters. Often guards had to fight off rampaging looters before they could tackle the fire. A substantial amount of property was stolen from the Palace, including possessions of the King himself. After two days of the fire raging there was nothing left for it to burn. Over 150 houses had been burnt down, 20 houses had been blown up in an attempt to stop the fire. It’s surprising that there were only an estimated 20-30 casualties, although this number may have been higher. The palace had been reduced to a pile of smouldering ashes, but at the special request of the King, the Banqueting House, with its magnificent ceiling painting by Rubens, was saved. To this day it remains standing in Whitehall, with the glorious Rubens canvases in situ, a poignant reminder that it was once part of the largest palace in Europe.
The transcript to A Crack of Thunder is available here.
Assistant Digital Producer