Though John Evelyn’s plan for a Baroque London was quashed soon after the Great Fire, he wrote a stonking book on trees

1665 and 1666 were turbulent years for John Evelyn, who besides being a country gentleman, commissioner at the court of the king and urban planner, was also a Londoner and London diarist to boot.

In 1665 Evelyn would have witnessed the denizens of London being ravaged by the Plague. Many died and others left the city, the population plummeted.

A year later in 1666 people began to return. There was an influx of immigrants who purchased the houses left vacant by those who perished.

Now the summer of 1666 was extraordinarily hot.

In the early hours of Sunday 2nd September, a fire broke out at the house of baker named Farryner, in Pudding Lane near Fish Street.

The fire spread quickly.

Houses in the City of London were made of wood, and the timber being especially dry that hot summer, burned readily. The proximity of the houses meant the fire easily jumped from one to the next. A strong wind helped the fire’s cause.

For the whole of Sunday, Monday and Tuesday the fire spread in all directions like several lines of falling dominoes.

On Tuesday evening the wind slackened and the fire slowly subsided, but it wasn’t until Thursday that the fire was put out.

I’m not sure as to the detail of how Evelyn was personally affected by the fire, but the general event would no doubt have left him shell-shocked. Nevertheless, its quite likely that he felt every cloud has a silver lining when he was asked to work with Sir Christopher Wren, by King Charles I to redesign London. Wren and Evelyn came up with a new London, a magnificently Baroque London, full of church towers, squares and plazzas. The plans ironed out the irregularities in London’s street plan, replacing them with wider streets and lanes, which ran parallel.

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The ideas never came to fruition. Public opposition to the transformation, largely based on landowners’ reluctance to give up their particular parcel of land, no matter the assurances they would be compensated with an equivalent parcel in the new city, won out.

Given that the opportunity to recreate one of the world’s greatest cities had slipped through Evelyn’s hands like sand, one could imagine that he might have felt a little crestfallen. There was some consolation however, for in 1664 Evelyn had wrote a stonking book on the trees of Britain entitled Sylva Britannica. It was a bestseller and Evelyn lived to see the book reprinted four times. The book is still read today and highly acclaimed by literary critics.

Key References

Thomas Packenham (2016) What the Trees Say, New York Review of Books.

Adam Forest (2016) How London Might Have Looked, The Guardian.

John Noorthouck (1773) A New History of London

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