Today is the 350th anniversary of the start of the Great Fire of London in Pudding Lane, one of the Saxon streets of medieval London. Although Gresham College, the Royal Society’s meeting place since its foundation in 1660, was just outside the area consumed by the fire, the Society was nonetheless affected. The first and most obvious sign was that the regular weekly meeting planned for 5 September had to be abandoned, the minutes recording that ‘the Society could not meet by reason of the late dreadfull fire in London.’
On September 12, our Council Minutes record a decision that the Society should meet the next day in the lodgings of Dr Pope, ‘by reason that the former place of meeting for the Society, and other rooms also, convenient for the same, were taken up for the use of the Lord Mayor of London and the City, it was ordered, that [there] should be a Committee to consider of another place for the future meetings of the said Society.’ Normal experimental business was still on hold: ‘The Society being taken up for the most part of this meeting with the consideration of the place for their future meetings in that time of public disorder and unsettlement by reason of the late fire, was thereby hindered from making experiments, and discoursing of philosophical subjects, as they used to do.’
A week later, ‘Mr Hooke showed his model for rebuilding the city to the Society who were well pleased with it; and Sir John Lawrence, late Lord Mayor of London … expressed the present Lord Mayor’s and aldermen’s approbation of the said model … they preferring it very much to that, which was drawn up by the surveyor of the city.’ Hooke’s model was described by his friend Richard Waller as ‘having all the chief streets as from Leadenhall corner to Newgate, and the like, to lie in an exact strait line; and all the other cross streets turning out of them at right angles; all the churches, public buildings, market places and the like in proper and convenient places; which no doubt would have added much to the beauty and symmetry of the whole.’
This was in addition to a scheme for rebuilding London drawn up by Christopher Wren, which the Society’s secretary Henry Oldenburg described in a letter to Robert Boyle. One can sense Oldenburg’s disapproval that Wren’s plan had not first been reviewed and approved by the Royal Society before it was shown to King Charles II, as it ‘would have given the Society a name, and made it popular, and availed not a little to silence those, who ask continually, What have they done?’ He hopes that it will be noted that Wren is a Fellow, and that ‘other models will not equal it … and when it is presented to the parliament, so [Wren’s] relation to the Society will not be omitted.’
While Wren, Hooke and John Evelyn provided plans for the new city, the urgent need to act quickly to restore accommodation and trade led to its being reconstructed on old property lines, and their designs were never adopted. However, both Wren and Hooke were appointed to the rebuilding commission, at a salary of £150 per year. The re-emergence of the City of London as a fine brick city within five years showed that men of science could make practical contributions to the real world, boosting the Society’s reputation accordingly.
At the same meeting on 19 September, the offer was received of ‘convenient rooms in Arundel House for the Council and the Society to meet in’. Various attempts were made to find another location for the Fellows to gather, but early the following year the decision was taken to remain at Arundel House. At this meeting on 9 January, ‘the President took notice again of the great favour, which Mr Henry Howard of Norfolk had shewn the Society; not only in accommodating them with convenient rooms for their meetings, but also in presenting them with the library of the said house.’ Indeed, this was the other great unexpected benefit of the fire to the Society: Henry Howard gave us his extensive family library, with a deed of gift confirming the donation in February 1667.
The Society remained at Arundel House until, in November 1673, ‘The Council discussed … removing their weekly assemblies to Gresham College and of meeting there again on the next anniversary Election Day, as they wished to have the convenience of making their experiments in the place where their Curator [Hooke] dwells and the apparatus is at hand … The Council asked the Lord Bishop of Salisbury to give thanks on their behalf for [Howard’s] extraordinary good favour and generosity towards the Society, including receiving them into his house after the Fire of London, and the magnificent gift of the Arundelian Library.’ Seven years after the ‘dreadfull fire’, which will be commemorated by an exciting series of London events this weekend (you can see our Wren portrait on display at the Museum of London exhibition), the Royal Society prepared to return to its first home.