Tuesday, October 09, 2007

From 1666 to 1888

The Great Fire of London. If you've not heard of this particular bit of London's history, it's a riveting story. A fire breaks out in the ovens of the King's baker in the year 1666. Not everyone was worried: the Lord Mayor of Lord deemed it so insignificant that a "woman could piss it out." Not the first time a public official got it wrong in one.

Over 80% of London was destroyed. 13,000+ homes, 87 churches including the great St. Paul's. Supposedly only a handful people died. The truth is closer to hundreds, if not thousands perished as no accurate records were kept of the deaths. I came across the book The Dreadful Judgement while touring through the Docklands Museum. It's an incredible read. Utilizing factual details with a twist of fiction, the story comes alive. I finished it in only a few nights, it was that good.

Efforts were made to improve the firefighting response as there was no metropolitan fire authority at this time. It wasn't until after the Tooley Street Fire of 1861 that things really moved forward. The fire started in a bale of jute and consumed 20+ warehouses. It burned for two weeks (!) and created a slick of burning oil and tallow on the Thames that claimed some of the ships.

Soon after, the London Fire Brigade was created. Today we visited their museum even though it was pouring rain. It was worth it. We toured through different centuries of fire fighting technique, viewed old hand pumps, engines and the latest firefighting equipment. Outside the newest batch of would-be firefighters were busily training with a hook and ladder.

One display (see left) let us see how the firefighters' uniforms had changed over the centuries. The goldish helmet is the uniform from the Victorian Era and the coat was made of wool. A step up from the leather helmet of previous centuries. Other exhibits demonstrated leaps forward in the science of firefighting, usually after a disaster such as the King Cross/St. Pancras Station fire in 1987 where in 31 people died.

After a nice lunch at the Market Porter (yes, I did make it back) we headed toward Whitechapel. By now it is raining steadily, my shoes (of the tennis variety) are soaked as are portions of my legs and arms. I was carrying an umbrella (I detest the things) but it wasn't helping much. Still, the prospect of hiking through Whitechapel spurred me on.

Whitechapel. Once home to immigrants from Czarist Russia, now it's known as Banglatown because of the large number of Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants. It's also home to the Whitechapel Society, Jack the Ripper's hunting grounds and a few remaining examples of lovely Victorian architecture.
We spent the afternoon wandering around back alleys, ducking dripping waterspouts and trying not to get drowned by taxis or buses. We splashed around Mitre Square where Kate Eddowes was killed on 30 Sept 1888. Most of the landmarks are gone. So is Miller's Court (Mary Kelly 9th Nov 1888). The Victorian Era is slowly giving way to whatever we deem important at the moment. Still, some of the old buildings are rare gems and should be preserved. The locals are trying their best, but it seems more and more of those gems vanish every week.

Whilst craning my eyes upward (a lot of the really good Victorian bits are now on the second or third floors) I found what appears to be a Sanskrit sign underneath the English one. It's rusty and looks old. It's a bit of a puzzle so I intend to do some research into how that sign got there. It's not the only one, it appears. I love a mystery....

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