Three hundred and forty three years ago, shortly after midnight on the 2nd September 1666, a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane in London. No one could have suspected the devastating effect that it would have on the entire city but over the next few days the conflagration spread through the ramshackle medieval wooden dwellings at the heart of the city until ultimately 87 churches, mansions, 13,200 houses and ultimately St Paul’s cathedral were consumed in the flames, rendering 70,000 of the 80,000 residents of the city of London homeless.
To the people of London, who had also been so recently visited by a terrible plague, it must have seemed like Hell on Earth. It is not known for sure how many people died in the Great Fire – there is an official figure of just six but the actual toll may never be known due to the devastating and crematory effects of fire. The only consolation is the fact that the purifying flames probably swept away the last lingering traces of the plague and that once the old medieval city had been swept away, it was possible to create instead a majestic modern city with Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral at its heart.
Two hundred and seventeen years ago, on the 2nd September 1792, the news reached Paris that the hostile Duke of Brunswick’s troops had invaded Revolutionary France and were advancing rapidly upon the capital, determined to end the ‘anarchy’ in France and reinstate the monarchy. The already volatile city erupted into panic and violence as the tocsin (the bells of Paris’ many churches) was rung and people flooded the streets.
The anger and fear of the people was rapidly turned upon the prisoners who crowded the Parisian prisons, most of whom were perfectly innocent but were nonetheless suspected to be traitors in the pay of hostile foreign governments. The first massacre took place on the afternoon of the 2nd September and after that there was no stopping the mob as they moved rapidly from one prison to the next, enacting grotesque ‘tribunals’ then sending the unfortunate prisoners to their demise, whereupon they would be hacked to pieces in the courtyards or streets.
Members of religious orders were the main targets but inflamed by violence the mob also attacked the women’s prison of Salpêtrière on the night of the 3rd September, where prostitutes, pickpockets and madwomen were held. Most of the prostitutes were released but other inmates were less fortunate and were hideous
ly tortured before being murdered. Siobhan may be interested to hear that the Salpêtrière later became a hospital and is where Princess Diana died.
The most famous victim of the September Massacres was of course the Princesse de Lamballe, who was called before a makeshift tribunal before being turned over to the mob.
On this day seventy years ago, the people of Britain heard this, the announcement that we were now at war with Germany. It is incredible how a voice recording made seventy years ago can still evoke such intense emotion even though it is impossible to imagine how the people at the time felt when they first heard the news.
Imagine how much worse they would have felt had they known what was to follow – six years of devastation and loss, leading to the deaths of 16,000,000 Allied troops and 45,000,000 civillians from Allied countries. Figures so huge, so appalling in every way that they scarcely seem real.