Friday 2 September, 2016

Plague, Fire and the Goldsmiths’ Company

This September marks 350 years since the Great Fire of London. That year, the Goldsmiths’ Company had already spent over three centuries on Foster Lane, enduring the ebbs and flows of fortune in the City, but 1666 marked the culmination of a particularly turbulent time in its history. 

The turmoil of the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration of the monarchy were matters of recent memory; and in the summer of 1665 the plague had returned to London, scattering those wealthy enough to take refuge elsewhere, and striking down many others.

Dr David Mitchell noted that the previous plagues of 1603 and 1625 had their effect on the Goldsmiths’ Company, halving the number of apprentice bindings in the years that they occurred, as concerned parents chose not to send their children into the pestilent City.

If the Company was no stranger to plague, it was also no stranger to fire, a constant hazard in the built-up streets of 17th century London and especially where assaying was concerned. Fire-engines are mentioned in the Court Minutes throughout the 1640s and 1650s, such as in December 1654 when the Court of Assistants agreed ‘that a very good fire engine for the quenching of fire shall be provided; it is to be bigger than the last…’ There is no mention whether it was deployed after the Great Fire broke out on Sunday 2nd September 1666. By Tuesday 4th the fire had reached Cheapside and the surrounding streets; and on Wednesday 5th Samuel Pepys noted in his diary ‘Lord! What sad sight it was by moone-light to see, the whole City almost on fire…’

The Great Fire of 1666

It was a rather shaken Court which gathered on 15th September, at the ‘first meeting of the Wardens and Assistants since the late lamentable fire’. From the ashes, however, one victory emerged: the former Prime Warden, Sir Charles Doe, had loaded the records of the Company and contents of the Treasury onto a cart and taken it to Edmonton, to the house of a Mr Broadbank. Compensation was paid to the Deputy Assayer and the Beadle, who had hired the cart to evacuate their own possessions and were ‘deprived’ of it in order to save the Company’s treasures. Doe was thanked for his ‘careful and prudent act’, and four years later, his son would be given a tangible token of the Company’s debt to his late father: a silver tankard worth 20 marks, with the Company’s arms engraved upon it.

Much of the City of London was destroyed by the fire – such as the church of St John Zachary, where many Company members had worshipped, its footprint today forming the outline of the Company’s garden. But the walls of the second Hall, built by Nicholas Stone with the advice of Inigo Jones, remained standing. Remarkably, the Court meeting after the Fire instructed a committee to prepare and equip an area of the Hall for assaying, so hallmarking could continue even amidst the ruins of the City. Later a house would be taken on Grub Street for the Company’s meetings. But despite this apparent resilience, the damage to the Company was deep and long-lasting: over the following years the minutes trace the continually precarious condition of the building.

The Fire of 1666 by an unknown Dutch Artist, in the Company's Collection

Finding the funds to repair the was problematic, as the Company’s income was severely reduced by the reduction in the rents caused by the Fire’s destruction. Although the plate had been saved, much of it had to be sold in 1667, a careful note of the coats of arms and engravings on it being made so that it might be replaced in better times. Later, property would be sold and the vaults under the Hall leased out to enable further repairs, whilst members of the Company, particularly Sir Robert Vyner, also gave money for building work.

Fire would remain a concern for the Goldsmiths’ Company. In 1681 an Assay Office fire destroyed the records of makers’ marks which had been so carefully preserved by Doe. The 1682 plate, made to begin the record-keeping process again, is now the focus of Dr David Mitchell’s research on the goldsmiths of that time, for which the Fire would have been a life-defining memory. Looking back at the events of that distant year helps us to recognise the resolution it must have taken to endure such difficult times.

The City of London is running a programme of events to commemorate the Great Fire. See the Visit London website for full details.


Written by Sophia Tobin for the 2016 Goldsmiths' Review.
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