What does Samuel Pepys recommend to the King and Duke of York during the Great Fire of London in 1666, as recounted in The Diary of Samuel Pepys?
Coming on the heels of the Great Plague of 1665, a traumatic event for England and especially Londoners, the Great Fire of London, September, 1666, seemed to the people of England as a judgment of God, and not a good one. Samuel Pepys, the great diarist and, at the time, the civilian head of the Royal Navy, had access to a variety of small naval craft that allowed him to go out into the Thames River to evaluate the fire and its progress.
Pepys's diary entry for September 2, a Sunday, recounts the panic he saw in the London streets as citizens fled with their belongings. He noted, among other things, that there did not seem to be anyone engaged in trying to stop the fire. King Charles II and the Duke of York, hearing that Pepys had been out on the river to survey the fire's progress, called for him to report his observations. Pepys told King Charles and the Duke that
. . . unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor . . . and command him to spare no houses. . . .
In an era in which fire fighting was primitive at best, the most effective way to stop a fire in an urban setting was to create a wide space in which there was nothing for fire to consume, and that began by pulling houses down.
Unfortunately, there was no way to stop the fire, and it eventually burned itself out but not before destroying much of the city. A positive consequence was, however, that the fire helped destroy tens of thousands of rodents, a primary cause of the plaque in 1665.