One September Sunday morning, as long ago as the year 1666, a Westminster boy named Taswell was, with his schoolfellows, in the Abbey. In those days the Westminster boys, who have never had any school-chapel, came on Sunday mornings to the service in the Abbey, just as they do at this time. Suddenly, in the middle of the sermon, came the news that London was on fire. The clergyman does not seem to have shortened his sermon, but most likely many people were too much excited to stay and hear the end of it, for even Taswell, then only a schoolboy, wrote, many years afterwards, that "he took his leave of the preacher," and went out to see if the news were true. When he came to the river the first thing he saw was four boats crowded with people, who were escaping in that way from the fire. Many of them were wrapped only in blankets, all their clothes having been burnt. A cold east wind was blowing, and the flames were driven from one house to another so quickly that it really seemed likely to be true that all London would be burnt down.
The whole of that never-to-be-forgotten Sunday the fire went on growing and growing, and "the next day," so Taswell tells us, "the Dean of Westminster collected his scholars together in a company, marching with them on foot to put a stop if possible to the fire. We were employed many hours in fetching water;" and this, no doubt, the boys thought better fun than their ordinary Monday morning school-work. But what they and many others could do was very little, and on Tuesday the fire was still burning.
In the evening, after sunset, Taswell was out again, standing on one of the bridges over the river. Then it was, he says, that all at once the fire "broke out on the top of St. Paul's Church, and before nine the whole church was in a blaze." So great "a blaze" was it, that Taswell, far away on the bridge, was able to see by the light of the flames, and read quite easily a little Latin book with very small print which he had in his pocket.
It would seem that his school-work had now to be thought of, for it is not till Thursday that he says he "tried to go to St. Paul's, but the ground was so hot as almost to scorch my shoes." However, he managed to get there at last, and saw what was left of St. Paul's Cathedral, which for six hundred years, ever since the reign of William the Conqueror, had stood there, while London gradually grew up around it."
For just as when the Abbey Church of St. Peter, or Westminster Abbey, began to be built on Thorney Isle, there were forests and marshes where now there are houses and streets, so, too, when the church of St. Paul began to be built on the hill which we now know as Ludgate Hill, there was little to be seen around but "wild wide forests full of deer, wild boar, and wild bulls," and into which only hunters and soldiers ventured to go. But gradually, as the forests were cut down, houses began to grow up, for people liked to live near this great and beautiful church; and so the city went on growing and growing, until this part of it, far from being quiet and desolate, is to-day one of the busiest and noisiest in all London.
But on that Thursday afternoon when Taswell managed, in spite of the heat of the stones, to reach St. Paul's, the great church was almost in ruins. The roof had fallen in, the bells had melted, and even while Taswell stood there, "whole heaps of stone," so he tells us, "came tumbling down with a great noise just upon my feet, ready to crush me." So, filling his pockets with small bits of these stones to keep as a remembrance of the old church of St. Paul, he very wisely went away from so dangerous a place.
Through the "black darkness" which, he said, seemed to hang over the city where houses and churches were still smouldering and smoking, he walked back to Westminster.
On the way, he saw hundreds of men, women, and children, who were now homeless, camping out in the streets, and heard many stories of what they had suffered. And very sad these stories were. Many people had been robbed of all they had; for, when the fire came near to the streets in which they lived, men came asking if they should move their furniture and clothes and treasures to a place of safety; and then, in the bustle and confusion, instead of guarding the things, stole them. Others, who lived near St. Paul's, thinking that the cathedral, which stood on a large space of open ground away from all other buildings, could not possibly catch fire, carried their books and all that was most valuable to them there; and then the church, too, was burnt, and all was lost.
No wonder that the rest of this year (1666) was a very sad time in London. For although all that was possible to be done for these homeless people was done by others who had been more fortunate, yet it was months before things looked brighter and London began to recover from the Great Fire, as it has ever since been called. Gradually the houses and the shops and the warehouses were built up again—no longer of wood, as many of them had been before, but of stone and bricks: one thing, however, had gone for ever, one thing which all Londoners were fond of and proud of, and this was old St. Paul's Cathedral.
For although after the fire there were bits of the church left standing here and there, it was found to be impossible to build it up again. As soon as new pieces were added, "the old walls," so some one said who was there, "came tumbling about our ears." And so at last all hopes were given up, the old parts were pulled down, and Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect whose name you will often hear, was asked by King Charles II. to build a new St. Paul's in the very same place where the old cathedral had stood for so many hundred years.