top of page

Desolation and Design - John Evelyn's Response to London's Great Fire

Angelina Andreeva | Lancaster University

Standing on the south bank of the River Thames and watching the Great Fire devouring the City of London, John Evelyn might have thought of anything but the fact that he was witnessing the substantial loss of his sense of place. For those familiar with Evelyn and his complicated relationship with London, the thought that the Great Fire of 1666 could have been an almost lucky coincidence that ended his years-long mental battle with the city might be tempting to entertain. However, it was hardly close to the truth.

Painting of burning London
The Great Fire of London, with Ludgate and Old St. Paul’s; Wikimedia Commons

All accounts of that dreadful catastrophe have been carefully studied to provide an insight into Londoners' experience of the Fire, the after-fire policy, and years of struggles associated with the rebuilding. Ego documents such as diaries, letters, memoirs, and personal accounts play a crucial role in such analyses as they open up a window into a personal dimension of experiencing this calamity. It is hard to imagine that anything new and particularly interesting might be added to the existing studies of the Great Fire. Yet, it is not entirely impossible. While previous research mainly focused on the entries made in the time of the Fire and about the Fire in ego documents, I believe that delving beyond these opens a fresh and more profound perspective on the longer-term effects of the catastrophe on individuals as well as on any of their perceptions that might have shifted because of this. In an interesting case of John Evelyn, the Fire was a trigger that illuminated his complicated connections with the places around him that might be very familiar to some of us, too.

John Evelyn was the son of a wealthy gentleman, excellently educated at Oxford and Middle Temple. The outbreak of the English Civil War placed him in a difficult position, torn between his allegiance to the King and Royalists and the need to safeguard his family estate, situated on lands belonging to Parliament. To avoid the war, he opted for self-imposed exile for nearly a decade, and his intricate relationship with London started upon his return to England in 1652. During his time abroad, Evelyn travelled through Holland, Italy, and France, and having seen such renowned European cities as Florence, Paris, Venice, Rome, etc., he arrived in London only to meet it with a profound sense of disappointment and shock at its state. As evident from his diary and other written works, Evelyn made a clear distinction between the City of London and its noble neighbour, Westminster. The latter offered Evelyn a sense of order and architecture that he could admire, such as the Banqueting House. Pre-Fire City of London, in contrast, was a chaotic, grim, and messy place. Although Evelyn did not explicitly express his opinion in his diary, his sentiments were revealed through other works, one of which is A Character of England, a satire in the form of a letter written by a foreigner visiting London. Evelyn, indeed, was this foreigner in some sense, considering he lived in London only for a short period of time while attending Middle Temple, and spent almost a decade abroad. He was experiencing the city from scratch and voicing his opinions and concerns in this letter, where he complained about the congestion of the houses on narrow and unpleasant-looking streets, uneven paving, and the general asymmetry of the built environment. There's a sense of rejection towards London throughout his letter, and, in some cases, even towards the noises, the general atmosphere around it, and the citizens as he comes to associate the mess in the city space with its inhabitants. For Evelyn, London was 'a ugly Town', 'suburbs of Hell', 'Hell upon Earth' with 'deformed buildings' and rude crowds.

The Restoration encouraged Evelyn to leave his estate on the south bank of the Thames almost on a daily basis as he became a prominent member of the court. Moreover, his holding of various minor governmental posts necessitated frequent interactions with the heart of the capital. As time passed, Evelyn's initial reluctance to associate himself with the City of London underwent a notable evolution, culminating in a genuine concern and interest in its urban environment. It is evident even in his career choices, for instance, in his recurring role as a commissioner for the city's infrastructure improvement.

Hand-drawn street map of the City of London before the Great Fire of 1666
Street map of the City of London before the Great Fire of 1666 by Wenceslaus Hollar; Public domain

In addition to everything that concerned Evelyn about his surroundings, the city was a dark and hard-to-navigate place. Evelyn's friend and another notable diarist, Samuel Pepys, mentions on multiple occasions in his diary how easy it was to get lost even in the most familiar neighbourhoods once the sun had set. Not that Evelyn would have had any evident problem with it as he wasn't fond of walking around, especially in the city, preferring coaches and other means of transport, and being able to afford to stay at Whitehall overnight if it was too late to return to his estate in Deptford. However, the darkness of London still concerned him, yet for another, more dangerous reason. Five years before the Fire, Evelyn was already concerned for the safety of London and its anti-fire precautions. In his pamphlet Fumifugium, dedicated to the King, Evelyn addresses the acute problem of air pollution in London that caused never-ending thick haze in the city and Westminster. Evelyn proposed to relocate certain businesses that used sea coal outside the city's confinements and suggested that such measures would not only alleviate pollution but also reduce fire risks. However, the King didn't pay enough attention to Evelyn's concerns, and when the Fire broke out Evelyn would deem his Fumifugium a prophecy.

On 3 September 1666, Evelyn rode from Deptford to Southwark to look at the Fire devouring the city. It would become his ritual for the next few days, his attempt to control the uncontrollable, at least with his eyes. Notably, the Fire entries that Evelyn made in his diary break his normally dry and matter-of-fact writing routine. In the face of calamity, he expressed raw emotion in his writing and provided remarkably detailed descriptions. The Great Fire of London was a collective experience that also put each affected through individual trauma. Evelyn's famous quote, 'London was but is no more!', is a lamentable cry for something irretrievably gone from him. Despite his complex sentiments toward the city, Evelyn couldn't and probably even wouldn't avoid it. My analysis of the frequency of visits to particular places for leisure purposes that Evelyn mentions in his diary shows that 29% of them were made to the City of London. Moreover, the city was home to a number of his friends' lodgings that he visited regularly and to some of his favourite churches, such as St Gregory's by St Paul's. All this shows that the city played a considerable role in his life. Over the years, he structured his routine around it, imbuing these locales with personal meaning, which contributed to the inevitable emergence of place attachment.

Although the trauma of lost placeness is partly evident in Evelyn's entries made during these five days of the Fire, it can be better traced later on when he tried to resume his old way of life, travelling to the city where he would ultimately observe the ruins. As he did that, he mentioned an unfamiliar emptiness in the place of the city that he knew quite well, and the meaninglessness of places that he spent many years building his life around. Just a month before the Fire, Evelyn took responsibility for surveying the damages and safety risks of St Paul's Cathedral. As September 1666 witnessed preparations for the cathedral's reconstruction, its rapid destruction by the Fire, facilitated by wooden scaffolding, left Evelyn with a sense of partial responsibility for its demise. Interestingly, St Paul's serves as a compelling illustration of Evelyn's shifting perceptions of his surroundings. Previously repulsed by the cathedral's architecture and state, referring to it as a 'lothsome Golgotha,' Evelyn had anticipated an opportunity to alter its appearance and conditions. Yet, when faced with the ruins after the Fire, he experienced an unexpectedly profound sense of sadness. It's unclear whether he acknowledged his emerged attachment to that building, but when he called it the 'most venerable church with ancient history' it certainly contrasted with his earlier view of it as Golgotha. The same happened with a number of other buildings around the city, eventually described by Evelyn as 'sumptuous' and 'splendid' which contradicts his earlier perception of them as 'deformed' and 'defaced'.

The Great Fire not only took away the physicality of the places from John Evelyn but also the experiences that he lived through in them and his established order of everyday life. In response, Evelyn's coping mechanism manifested as active engagement in resolving the consequences of the Fire, offering him a semblance of control amid the chaos. Thus, on the third day of the Fire, he rode to Whitehall, motivated by the desire to contribute and express concerns about the preservation of hospitals in the city. There, the King ordered him to oversee the saving of the eastern part of Holborn - a task Evelyn proudly embraced. When the Fire was still raging, Evelyn went through the city and surveyed the damage, and less than a week after, he presented it to the King along with the rebuilding plan. This plan, as well as the other two that he would prepare, finally reveal that Evelyn saw the capital as a more spatial, geometrical place that would have been easier to navigate due to the widening of streets and buildings placed in an orderly manner. Evelyn's plans also addressed his long-term problem with the aesthetic side of the city, as he intended to decorate new London with piazzas, fountains, and uniformity of buildings' facades. It demonstrates that along with the emptiness, shock, and sadness that this Fire brought to Evelyn, he might have also felt excited and hopeful about the change and saw the bright prospects for the capital. It might be one of the historical examples of the Phoenix Effect, the transformation of emotional trauma and despair into hope and belief in a better future.

Blueprint of Sir John Evelyn's plan for rebuilding London
Sir John Evelyn's plan for rebuilding London after the fire, Wellcome Collection Gallery; Public domain.

Both immediately and long after the Fire, Evelyn continued to work on the improvement of the city, also contributing significantly to the initiatives that extended to the suburbs of what we now know as modern-day London. Along with Christopher Wren, he once again was involved in the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral and, being a co-founder of the Royal Society, he subscribed bricks for their new building. Moreover, Evelyn's influence extended to the initiation of numerous other architectural endeavours in the capital. Among his notable contributions, Evelyn designed the Chelsea College in 1682, participated in developing plans for a public library in St. Martin's parish in 1684, and ceremoniously laid the first stone of the magnificent Greenwich Hospital in 1696. His profound love for green spaces and dedication to horticulture found expression in his influential written work, advocating for afforestation, as well as in the creation of numerous parks and gardens. Although all of his rebuilding plans were eventually rejected due to land ownership complexities, Evelyn never abandoned the hope that his view and designs might bring new life into the capital and serve the greater good. The Great Fire, a terrifying ending, paradoxically marked a glorious beginning for the City of London. And John Evelyn, I believe, was one of the first to recognise the transformative prospect of this duality.


Further Reading:

  • Bowle, John, John Evelyn and His World: A Biography, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981)

  • Cooper, Michael, A More Beautiful City: Robert Hooke and the Rebuilding of London After the Great Fire, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2003)

  • Lang, Jane, Rebuilding St. Paul's After the Great Fire of London, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956)

  • Stevenson, Christine, The City and the King: Architecture and Politics in Restoration London, (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2013) 

Angelina Andreeva is a current History PhD researcher based at Lancaster University. She researches spatial history of early modern London, mapping Londoners' diaries using GIS, and hopes to uncover contemporaries' understandings and experiences of the city space. Her other research interests include the life of the Elizabethans, early modern espionage, theatre and literary history.



bottom of page