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The Dreadful Judgement [Paperback]

Neil Hanson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Sep 2002

If the story that struck the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in October 1991 was The Perfect Storm, the fire that destroyed London in September 1666 was The Perfect Fire.

A fire needs only three things: a spark to ignite it, and the fuel and oxygen to feed it. In 1666, a ten-month drought had turned London into a tinderbox. The older parts of the city were almost entirely composed of wood-frame buildings and shanties. The riverside wharves were stack with wood, coal, oil, tallow, hemp, pitch, brandy, and almost very other combustible material known to seventeenth century man. On 2 September 1666, London ignited. Over the next five days the gale blew without interruption and the resulting firestorm destroyed the whole city.

THE DREADFUL JUDGEMENT tells the true, human story of the Great Fire of London through the eyes of the individuals caught up in it. It is a historical story combining modern knowledge of the physics of fire, forensics and arson investigation with the moving eye-witness accounts to produce a searing depiction of the terrible reality of the Great Fire of London and its impact on those who lived through it.

Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Corgi; New edition edition (1 Sep 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0552147893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0552147897
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.2 x 3.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 902,660 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

The path that led me to become an author was a pretty rambling one. Along the highways, byways and frequent cul de sacs of a very chequered career, I've been a plasterer's mate, an ice-cream salesman, a holiday camp redcoat, an art gallery director, and simultaneously an art critic and a rugby commentator - now there's a combination you don't see every day. I've also been the editor of the drinker's bible, The Good Beer Guide, and the owner of the highest pub in Britain, and I've travelled round the world twice, edited an assortment of obscure magazines, made a couple of television films, been a radio broadcaster in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and written for newspapers around the world.

However, the world's longest adolescence finally had to come to an end one day and since then I've been pretty much a full-time author with around 50 published books to my name so far. Under my own name I write narrative non-fiction - popular history, though the sales figures suggest it's not quite as popular as I'd like it to be. I'm not a member of what you might call "the David Starkey School" of history, I'm less interested in kings, queens, prime ministers and generals than I am in what happens to ordinary people caught up in great events. I don't like "winner's history" either; I want to know the view from all sides of a conflict or issue and I'm as interested - and sometimes more interested - in the aftermath of great events than I am in the events themselves. Some of the best stuff I've written (in my opinion at least) really catches fire at the point where most other historians leave off, and that's as true, I think, of my book about the Spanish Armada "The Confident Hope of a Miracle", "The Dreadful Judgement" about the Great Fire of London, and The Custom of the Sea, as it is of "The Unknown Soldier", my book about the Unknowns buried in Westminster Abbey and at national shrines in Paris, Washington and all over the world.

My day-job is as a ghostwriter: a writer of other people's books for them. Clients have included a treasure diver, a kidnap negotiator, an explorer, a spy, a long-distance walker, a submariner, an England football coach, a cricketing legend, a controversial historian, an undercover investigator, an IRA informer, several travellers and adventurers, two fast-jet pilots and half a dozen SAS men. At various times I've also written screenplays, thrillers, short stories, a serious novel, a playscript for a musical, travel journalism, and book reviews. The one thing missing from my portfolio is poetry and believe me, there's a very good reason for that...

If you can still cope with yet more of me boasting about myself, my website is:

and my facebook page is

and if you're still not sated, you can find the talk I gave about my book The Unknown Soldier at the Pritzker Military Library, Chicago at

Product Description

Amazon Review

Neil Hanson's The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Fire of London is an absorbing history of the fire that destroyed London in four terrible days in September 1666. Hanson argues that the "Great Fire of London is one of those cataclysmic events that has burned its way into the consciousness of mankind", but that as an event it "remains misunderstood and many of the most intriguing questions remain unanswered". As the book unfolds, it turns into an interesting but largely fruitless piece of historical detection, as Hanson fingers various suspects responsible for starting the fire, including "foreign agents, religious fanatics, political factions, the Duke of York and even King Charles II himself". However, Hanson ultimately concedes that the cause is probably much more prosaic. The best part of the book is its meticulous recreation of the dramatic spread of the fire, with its flames "reaching into each street, lane, narrow alley or suffocating passageway, seeking always another hold, another way of advancement, fastening on to the least scrap of timber, dust or rags". However, Hanson is too often distracted into unconvincing historical "faction", pen portraits of kings and courtiers, and pseudo-scientific forensic analysis, creating a feeling that he is not sure what kind of book he really wants to write. Hanson is right to see the event as symbolic of "urban man's most terrifying nightmare: the city in flames", but in the end The Dreadful Judgement promises more than it delivers. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


" Popular narrative history at its best, well researched, imaginatively and dramatically written." -- "Times Literary Supplement"
" Hanson's prose is animated by the ferocious energy of the fire and seems to be guided by its inexorable movement. He creates the literary equivalent of the special effects in a disaster movie." -- "Daily Telegraph"

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fire Burning Brightly 13 July 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Like all of Neil Hanson's books, this is diligently researched, detailed and well written. It reveals numerous details of the events of the 1666 inferno which I did not previously know, despite having read fairly widely on the subject. The book suffers slightly from the inevitable problem that there are only a limited number of sources from which to obtain details, and also that the subject has already been covered in detail by W.G.Bell in his first-class work, "The Great Fire of London". But nonetheless this is a splendid book, and for anyone interested in but not familiar with the events leading up to the Great Fire and its aftermath, an excellent place to start.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The apocalyptic opening of Neil Hanson's book "the Dreadful Judgement" focuses on the millennial tension that preceded the dawning of the year 1666. How those god-fearing folk of England feared a year so marked by the number of the beast. Dreadful prophecies of famine, plague and fire were churned from the presses, and it seemed that the modern Babylon of London would pay for its indulgence of vice.

In one of the rare coincidences of prophecy and fact, 1666 did see the city destroyed. The Great Fire of London, marked today by the towering Monument, and taught as a primary school catechism, is a prime target for a modern reappraisal. Hansom grasps this subject, and provides an astoundingly vivid and comprehensive history of a ghastly four days and beyond.

Hansom spends much of the first third of the book setting a rich and evocative scene. London, the teeming world city at the heart of world trade, is described in exotic detail. The city, little changed from its medieval roots, is brought alive, with narrow, faeces streamed lanes, creaking, crumbling and disturbingly leaning tenement slums, and the golden, wood-panelled glories of rich merchant houses, guild halls and public buildings. The people, the plague, the stench and the marvel are all given rich treatment.

Next is the fire itself, with the narration focusing on the fire's discovery by following the escape of the King's baker, Thomas Farriner, and then the full description of the conflagrations terrible march through the City. All the stock anecdotes are retold - of Lord Mayor Bloodsworth's remark that a "woman might pi ss it out" to the excited river voyages of King Charles II and his brother James marshalling the royal guard to act against the fire.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The London Fire: From Plague To Pyre 13 Jan 2003
This is a wonderful book. What makes it so good is that Mr. Hanson uses the actual fire as his anchor and then casts his nets in all directions. This is a wise decision, as if the entire book were devoted solely to the pyrotechnics the reader's interest would wane. Instead, Mr. Hanson starts off by telling us about a severe outbreak of the plague that struck London in 1665. We are then given some insight into the apocalyptic thinking of the time, since 1666 was uncomfortably close to the biblical 666. And, since many people suspected Charles II of Catholic sympathies, Papist plots were seen everywhere. So, though the fire probably started by accident, in the middle of the night in the bakery of Thomas Farriner, most people saw the hand of God or the hand of man as being responsible. Mr. Hanson then devotes a generous portion of the book to the mechanics of the fire- how it spread over the course of the next 3 days, helped by a steady and strong wind blowing out of the east. There is some interesting material in this section, as we see both the best and worst of human nature coming to the forefront: The Duke of York's heroic efforts in leading others in an attempt to contain the fire; and on the flip side, how people who had carts for hire charged usurious prices to move furniture and personal possessions out of the path of the fire (some even loaded up the goods and disappeared, stealing the belongings of the unfortunate victims). The book does bog down a bit in this section as Mr. Hanson goes into great detail, day by day, concerning the progress of the fire through various streets and neighborhoods- listing which buildings and churches were destroyed or survived. Only the reader with a really thorough knowledge of London would probably find this to be of much interest. However, Mr. Read more ›
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Fire Rekindled 17 Oct 2002
By A Customer
Great stuff. I was engrossed from the start. Hanson writes with personal immediacy, bringing this historical catastrophe right before the reader, giving us a real idea of the enormity of the Fire itself as experienced by the people who lived and died in Restoration London. I have read books on this and related topics before, but I'd never been so impressed by the horror of the situation, the fear, the panic, the heart-pounding awe the Great Fire demanded. Supported and embroidered by wide range of quotes from and references to contemporary documents, as well as fascinating anecdotes, Hanson's unobtrusive narrative brings the reader close to the warmth, as it were. His optional chapter on the physics of fire is excellent and doesn't miss a beat. I'll be reading this again.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A glimpse into the 1600s... 5 Jan 2003
By Jared M - Published on
The Great Fire of London was a catastrophic event, destroying much of London in 1666, and is the basis of Hanson's excellent book. He sets the scene superbly, beginning by describing the life and mood of London in 1666 in a vivid manner. By bringing to life some of the characters of the time, such as the baker Thomas Farriner, in whose premises the fire began, and King Charles II, the story is given a neat personal touch and makes for much more interesting reading.
Once Hanson has described the setting, and filled in background issues, such as the plague of the previous year and the (un)popularity of the King, he commences on the initiation and spread of the fire in a breath taking fashion. It literally is quite gripping reading, and I was glued to the pages, unable to put the book down. It only lets up once the fire is out, and the great loss of property and personal items is realised and the enornmous task of rebuilding greater London begins.

Hanson also describes the mob mentality of the Londoners in seeking out would be arsonists, assumed to be foreigners (England was waging a war against Holland at the time). The person hanged for the alleged arson, Hubert, was as Hanson tells us, most likely innocent. There are other suspects, even the King himself.
To sum up, this is an excellent read of an important event in London's history. People interested in London history would no doubt enjoy the book, but Hanson's literary style will appeal to many people just looking for interesting reading.
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful 16 Feb 2007
By James Singer - Published on
The Dreadful Judgement is a wonderful book to read. Once I began reading, I could not go a day with at least completing another chapter. Will be appreciated by not only anglophiles, but also persons who simply like natural disaster plots or with appreciation towards social commentary in a historical context. Overall, it is a great book, and would recommend to anyone who is remotely cultured.
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