The Great Fire of London and the Fire Court

Anne Wightman, Guildhall Art Gallery Volunteer
A landscape painting of the Guildhall Great Hall filled with men in fine clothing including many in bright red robes. Some are sat whilst some are stood and they seem to be debating something intensely.
The Ceremony of Administering the Mayoralty Oath to Nathaniel Newnham, 8 November 1782, William Miller (c.1740–c.1810)

The scene in the painting above has been a familiar one in the Guildhall for centuries. Lord Mayors are inaugurated in the Great Hall every year and the great and good of the City of London are always present. But it is not the event that attracted my attention here but the presence, albeit hazy, on the walls of the hall of the red-robed individuals who made a massive contribution to the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

On the 27th February 1667 the first Fire Court following the Great Fire that ravaged three quarters of the City the previous September met to resolve disputes relating to property destroyed or damaged in the fire. Its goal was to rebuild the City as quickly as possible, and twenty-two of the best legal minds in the country were appointed to this task.  They were known as the Fire Court judges, one of whom is pictured below.

During the Great Fire, 13,200 houses were destroyed, as were 87 City churches, over 40 livery halls and, of course, St Pauls Cathedral among many famous public buildings.  Guildhall was badly damaged but not destroyed.  Thousands of people were left homeless, but, officially, only six people lost their lives.  The cost of the fire in terms of destroyed real and personal property, lost rents and the like was in the order of £10 million (roughly £1.5 billion today).

London was only just recovering from the Great Plague of 1665, when a quarter of the City’s population had died, and trade and business were weak.  The City was in fact teetering on the edge of financial ruin.  Roughly one quarter of the City’s revenue came from rents.  With investment in mercantile enterprises, such as the East India Company, a risky business and restricted to the wealthy few, a much safer investment for most people was in property for leasing and sub-leasing.  The Fire saw that source of income literally go up in smoke. There was no insurance.  London’s first fire insurance company would appear only fourteen years later.

It’s worth remembering the reaction of the Lord Mayor at the time of the Great Fire, Thomas Bludworth, when he refused to order the demolition of properties to create a fire break.  ‘When the houses have been brought down, who shall pay the charge of rebuilding them?’ – a pertinent remark and one he would have regretted less than his response at the onset of the Fire ‘A woman might piss it out’. Bludworth knew that he wouldn’t be able to ask permission of the property owners to demolish their houses as most of the properties were leased and he knew there would be argument over who would bear responsibility for rebuilding.

Leases at this time contained a covenant stating that it was the leaseholder who was to repair and rebuild property after fire and he/she was to continue paying rent while the property was being rebuilt.  So was it clear-cut and the leaseholders just paid for the rebuild of their property?  Well, there was a loophole in the law that stated that if the Fire was due to an act of war, then the property owner would be liable.  Towards the end of 1666, a rather simple Frenchman called Robert Hubert, confessed to starting the fire.  As the French were in alliance with the Dutch in the on-going war with England, it was convenient to blame a Frenchman and Hubert was duly convicted and executed. ‘An excellent salvo for the tenants’, was how it was described by Samuel Pepys.  However, a parliamentary report in January 1667 concluded that the fire was not a malicious act and so responsibility once again fell on the leaseholder.

The wheels of law in the 17th century turned very slowly, but what London needed was the quick resolution of any property disputes and then a speedy rebuild of the City.  The Fire of London Disputes Act of 1666 saw the setting up of the Fire Courts to settle disputes between landlords and leaseholders and they were to provide for a system of shared responsibility.  Clearly, with some lease holders only having a few years left on their lease, there was no incentive for them to rebuild.  So leases were to be extended by up to 40 years and rents adjusted accordingly.  The cost of rebuilding would then be met upfront by the leaseholder.

A portrait in an elaborate wood carved frame depicting a man in a long red robe with white trim. He has long dark brown hair and a moustache.
Sir Hugh Wyndham (1602–1684), Judge of the Common Pleas, John Michael Wright (1617–1694)

Sir Hugh Wyndham, pictured above, was one of the twenty-two Fire Court judges, but only three judges sat on a case at any one time. Most cases were resolved on the same day and there were, on average, four cases heard each day.  The Courts were not so much adjudicating as mediating in a large number of cases.  Very often landlords and tenants would come to an agreement before going to Court and the Court would just rubber stamp the agreement or sort out any quibbling over sums. 1600 cases were decided by the Fire Court from 27th February 1667 to 31st December 1668.

The judges, who huddled round a table in the hall of the now demolished Inn of Chancery, Clifford’s Inn, were not paid for their work. This may have been public-spiritedness on their part and one can only surmise that the portraits may have acted as some form of compensation.  Painted by John Michael Wright, the portraits of the judges hung in Guildhall for 250 years until World War 2 when they suffered water damage after the firebombing of Guildhall in December 1940.  Only fourteen could be restored and those are distributed today among the Royal Courts of Justice, Inner Temple and Lincoln’s Inn.  The portrait of Sir Hugh Wyndham is joined by that of Sir Matthew Hale in the Guildhall Art Gallery collection.