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VINE VOICEon 31 January 2008
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.

Hanson's strength is in taking the fire as the heart of the book, but using this to allow wide-ranging accounts of the city, populace, court and aristocracy, the workings of the mercantile city and the day to day struggle of its people. His concentration on the trial and hanging of the mentally disturbed Frenchman Robert Hubert allows a vivid picture of the crude workings of trials in the 17th century, whilst the treatment meted out to Hubert and other foreigners clearly demonstrates the vicious xenophobia the English were known for.

Hanson comments that the "Great Fire of London is one of those cataclysmic events that has burned its way into the consciousness of mankind". He also demonstrates that in this burning the truth has been somewhat warped. Popular accounts of casualties estimate four, six or eight dead. Hanson's studies of other city-wide conflagrations and his appraisal of the evidence in the Great Fire convince him the total must have been much higher. He is similarly unsure as to the causes, giving little credence to the idea that the fire was lit by French or papist rebels. But he doesn't seem entirely convinced of the domestic accident in the bakers on Pudding Lane.

Furthermore Hanson strays into the world of historical `faction' - descriptions which are just too vivid to be believable, and into a cod pseudo-scientific forensic analysis of fire, psychology and criminality. These elements of the book lend little to the historical narrative, and ultimately create a confused ending that does a disservice to the preceding work.

It is not only this failure that demotes the book from a full five stars. Hanson, so meticulous in detail and peripheral information, fails to give a bigger picture, to contextualise the great fire in the period of the tumultuous Stuart monarchy and give more detail on the changes wrought by the fire, both physical and political, and the eventual dethroning of King James II. It is a solid eight out of ten, for a remarkably lucid and vivid description of an atrocious disaster that has indeed burnt itself, however erroneously, on the nation's historical memory.
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on 18 June 2017
This book reads like a novel!! We have page after page of the baker Farriner first sending his son away during the plague a year before the fire, then we have pages of Farriner walking around the city describing the tastes and smells of the foods available and then at the end of the day we even a description of him "noisily filling his piss pot" before bed. Over half way through the book we finally get to the Great Fire with more descriptions of how people felt and the inevitable fantasy of how Farriner was dealing with his mental anxieties for his family and what would happen to him in the future
If you want history don't bother with this book, on the other hand if you want an historical novel go for it.
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on 15 July 2016
This is a detailed and in parts graphic, telling of the backdrop and story of the Great Fire of London, a must for anyone interested in a more in-depth insight into this piece of history. It is helpfully written in the style of a novel to make it easier to follow
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on 13 July 2009
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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on 13 January 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. Hanson regains his footing in the closing section as he goes into detail concerning the trial of Robert Hubert- a mentally unbalanced Frenchman who, it appears, lied about starting the fire (for motives which remain unknown). Writing about Hubert allows Mr. Hanson to explore the workings of the criminal justice system- including a particularly interesting, if gruesome, section on the perks of being the public executioner, which included (besides a fairly hefty salary): being able to auction off the nooses used to "despatch" the condemned; the sale of their shoes and clothing; fees from local taverns for making "personal appearances"; the sale of cadavers to local hospitals; and, especially ghoulish, receiving a special fee from the condemned (or from the family) for agreeing to pull on the legs of the hanging victim, so as to hasten death. Well-written, generally nicely paced, full of fascinating peripheral material, this is an excellent book- though not, as you can see, for the faint of heart!
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on 13 March 2016
I must dissent from the eulogies of this book. It is easy to read without being well-written (cf Jeffrey Archer), and it is less than rigorous. For instance while describing the condition of Newgate Prison he refers to an entry in Pepys' diary about the kKeeper of Newgate having turned it into a nursery of crime, yet this was not the keeper at the time of the fire. Pepys entry is in December 1667 fifteen months after the Great Fire, but the end note does not tell you this. The end notes throughout are thoroughly inadequate. Similarly the White Lion prison in Southwark was not the Clink which was a larger and distinct edifice beside the river. He further confuses torture (prohibited) with peine fort et dure (allowed). The latter was to induce a plea not get information about co-conspirators, the purpose of prerogative torture. I find this sort of work shoddy and irritating.

Although you would not know it, much of what he writes is based on the painstaking research of, and classic account by, Walter Bell, whose triptych of books on Unknown London, the Great Plague and the Great Fire, old as they are, are still standards for scholarship and readability. Hanson utilises them extensively. Don't' bother with Hanson (and his imaginative reconstructions) go to Bell for a far better and more elucidating read. Incidentally Bell was not a professional historian but a journalist, whose work in history was ground-breaking and achingly well phrased.
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on 24 October 2014
I would endorse the positive comments on this site. Hanson brings a new perspective in what could now be said to be the definitive work on the subject.
He questions the accepted view that very few people actually died & other myths. Most disasters cause death through secondary causes - earthquakes kill less people than the aftermath; sewers breaking & contaminating the water supply etc. He suggests that more people died in the aftermath than we complacently assume. He also details the attempts by mobs to murder foreigners suggesting that some of these attempts may have been successful but covered up. He also analyses the event as a "Fire Storm"; a phenomenon not really understood until the second World War.
Also one of the effects of the fire was that in the confusion Charles II seems to have "lost" £1m voted for the Dutch War. He also disproves the idea that the Fire & the Plague were connected since the areas affected were different. We still do not know definitively why Plague died out because it was not the fire (also the change in the endemic rat population did not take place until 50 years after)
Given the practice of storing gunpowder, hovels made out of boards covered in pitch, thatch etc. it is only surprising that catastrophic fires were not even more common than they were.
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on 17 October 2002
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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on 5 June 2014
This is the most eminently readable account of a damaging and dramatic part of London's history. I treasure my copy.
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on 7 February 2015
An excellent book, well written and carefully researched.nrecommended
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