Fire Brand

The word curfew derives from the Norman French Couvre le Feu. It literally means put out your fire, and not as is commonly thought to tell citizens that they must not leave their homes after nightfall, but since it is bedtime (the poor would have little means to light their houses at night) a bell would ring to remind them to extinguish all their fires.

It is something a baker from Pudding Lane on 2nd September 1666 clearly ignored.

[F]irst ordered by William the Conqueror this long lasting tradition is still maintained at Gray’s Inn with a curfew bell rung each evening in South Square, itself the centre of the legal profession since 1370.

Fire, that fear of any mediaeval city, with its timber framed buildings by the end of the 12th century London’s houses were required to be made of stone on the lower parts and roofs had to be tiled. Each ward was required to provide poles, hooks, chains and ropes for the demolition of a burning house. Later as homeowners could insure their houses, the insurance companies employed their own firemen to protect those insured properties.

fire mark Fire-marks denoting which building was insured with which company were affixed to the front of a building.

These fire-marks can still be found in Goodwins Court, and probably accounts for this little gem of an alley remaining intact, it made its first appearance in the rate books in 1690, being described then as a row of tailors, but probably predates this by a number of years.

Approached from St. Martin’s Lane (opposite the Salisbury public house) through a doorway up a couple of steps this intimate little alley seems positive Dickensian with a row of eight narrow late 18th century shop fronts, working gas lamps and an attractive clock face over an archway giving on to Bedfordbury.

Take Samuel Johnson’s advice to his companion Boswell who had just arrived in London:

Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.

2 thoughts on “Fire Brand”

  1. “The Great Fire of London” was no accident. The area around London Bridge was like a cess pit. It was not possible then to buy up the properties so the government arranged for the fire to burn out a few blocks. The whole thing got out of hand and those responsible quietly shrank away. I know because I was there!

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