The backdrop of my second novel, From the Charred Remains, begins where The Murder at Rosamund's Gate left off...at one of the most traumatic moments in London's history: The Great Fire of 1666.
Yet as I researched the extent of the devastation, looking at a wide range of sources, I became increasingly perplexed by how few people were alleged to have perished during the conflagration. Over and over, I'd see repeated the same impossibly low numbers--nine, ten, a dozen people.
How could that be?
You see, the Fire--which started in early September 1666 when a baker failed to bank his coals properly--raged out of control for several days before the winds mercifully shifted. In that time, the Fire destroyed thousands and thousands of homes and businesses, and a hundred thousand people were left homeless.
Just imagine--as I've tried to do--the mayhem, the panic, the crush of humanity. Could the elderly, the infirm, the drunk have fled so easily? And what about the inmates of Newgate prison? It's unlikely the wardens of that dreadful place would have thought through a systematic evacuation plan.
And yet, historians have long pointed out (very reasonably, I might add) that the death toll could not have been very high. Someone would have noticed. Surely, someone would have written about death on a massive scale.
But, such written accounts don't exist.
Contemporaries (such as Pepys or other chroniclers from this time period) only noted a handful of deaths. Two elderly women found huddled by St. Paul's. A young serving girl afraid to jump from the third story of a building in flames. Such tales are scattered about, but they are notable in their rarity. More significantly, the Bills of Mortality, which carefully documented all deaths from the plague and other misfortunes in the 1660s, did not describe any great numbers after the Fire.
Cover up? hmmmm....
As it turns out, I'm not the only one who has pondered this very question. Neil Hanson, author of The Dreadful Judgment, has made a compelling argument that thousands may have perished in this blaze--in direct opposition to the commonly accepted view.
Hanson raised two important questions: Why were these deaths not recorded, and what happened to their bodies? (You can read his fascinating address to the Museum of London here).
Sadly, Hanson's conclusion is deeply troubling but may well be accurate--the bodies of the missing had simply disappeared into the flame. Everyone had missing neighbors who never returned....numbering in the thousands.
So, this is one of those odd cases where the silence of evidence could be evidence in itself.
But what do you think?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.