The reconstruction of a metropolis: London’s economic topography before and after the Great Fire of 1666




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The reconstruction of a metropolis: London’s economic topography before and after the Great Fire of 1666
Jacob Field, Newcastle University

(J.F.Field@ncl.ac.uk)


The Great Fire destroyed the workplaces of thousands. It forced a major re-distribution of London’s economic topography, as the city’s tradesmen and merchants attempted to reconstruct their economic lives. The changes in the spatial distribution of metropolitan businesses will show what effect the Fire had on London’s economic topography, and whether this effect was lasting. The effect on movement of occupation, gender, and age will be examined. Place of business was a vital consideration, as Power (1986) points out - ‘choice of residence was probably dictated by considerations of commercial advantage and rent, the two inextricably intertwined’.1

Two sources of data will be used to examine the changes in the economic topography of London as a result of the Fire. The first source is the apprenticeship records of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, which included information on the place of business of the master. The Merchant Taylors were one of the largest guilds in London. They were also an economically diverse company in terms of the occupations of its members. As such, an examination of the Merchant Taylors’ will illuminate a broad cross section of the economy. Most of the apprenticeship bindings also record the occupation of the master. The sample was selected from the fourteen years before and after the Fire. As such, the sample should include the majority of Merchant Taylors economically active in London at the time of the Fire. The second occupational group examined are the booksellers. London was the centre of book distribution in England. Also, booksellers were perhaps the single trade group most damaged by the Fire. The trade was synonymous with Paul’s Churchyard, an area devastated by the Fire.2 The method used to chart the topography of the booksellers was a search of the Early English Books Online database for all books published in London in the years 1663-5, 1667-9 and 1676-8. From this, the place of business of the bookseller was extracted.


Table 1: Place of business, Merchant Taylors, 1652-66, 1666-80 (%)

Area

1652-66

1666-80

City

51.5

33.8

East of the Walls

7.4

13.3

West of the Walls

18.6

22.0

North of the Walls

13.8

19.6

Southwark

6.0

8.0

Other

2.7

3.3

Total

100 (3532)

100 (2119)

There is clearly a shift in the distribution of the Merchant Taylors after the Fire. The area which experienced the greatest decline in numbers was the City, which experienced a relative decline of nearly twenty per cent. In relative terms, the eastern and northern suburbs experienced the greatest growth. Numbers of Merchant Taylors based in other areas remained more stable. However, the numbers relocating to the East End and Southwark might be underestimated by these figures. These areas were comparatively cheaper to live in than other areas of London, and thus would have been more attractive to poorer masters, who were less likely to take on apprentices, and so would not have been counted in the sampling method.


Table 2: Place of business, Booksellers, 1663-5, 1667-9 and 1676-8 (%)

Area

1663-5

1667-9

1676-8

City

53.1

18.9

49.4

East of the Walls

0

1.3

2.9

West of the Walls

32.5

36.0

31.2

North of the Walls

13.1

43.8

15.9

Southwark

1.3

0

0.6

Total

100 (160)

100 (153)

100 (170)

In the short term, the Fire radically effected the distribution of booksellers. The City experienced a relative decline of over one-third after the Fire, whilst the areas north of the Walls experienced relative growth in numbers of booksellers by around thirty per cent. Numbers in other areas remained relatively stable. However, there seems to have been a return to the pre-Fire distribution after these initial changes immediately after the Fire.

After charting geographical distributions of the Merchant Taylors and the booksellers, the samples before and after the Fire were compared to determine individual movements. This pioneering analysis of individual mobility was done through a process of nominal linkage.

Of the 549 masters who could be linked both before and after the Fire, just over half were based in areas of London directly affected by the Fire. Over 80 per cent of the Merchant Taylors burnt out by the Fire moved their place of work permanently after the disaster, and 3.5 per cent moved but returned to their original address by 1680. In comparison, if a subject was based in an area of London unaffected by Fire, just under one third moved. Mobility, thus, seems to have still been a fairly common occurrence for even for traders not based in Fire-affected areas, although it does appear that being fired greatly increased the likelihood of moving.


Table 3: Type of movement, Merchant Taylors, 1652-66, 1666-80 (%)




Region

Fired

Non-fired

Moved within same area

City

27.0

10.4




North

0

0




South

0

1.3




East

0.4

14.3




West

1.2

16.9

Moved into different area

Into City

1.2

12.9




Northward

4.7

0




Southward

6.2

6.5




Eastward

24.5

14.3




Westward

34.4

22.1




Out of London

0.4

1.3




Total

100 (241)

100 (77)

Movement west was overall the most popular destination, followed by movement east. There are differences in the type of movement depending on if the master was based in a fired area of London. It appears that movement outside of the Walls was more common for Merchant Taylors affected by the Fire, with movement west being the most popular destination, in particular to areas such as Holborn, Temple and Fleet Street. It appears that movement west occurred at high levels whether or not a master was fired, whilst movement to other areas was more likely to be a reaction to being burnt out. The Fire probably accelerated movement to west - a trend that had been ongoing for decades.


Table 4: Movement of booksellers from fired areas of London, 1663-5, 1667-9 (%)

Direction

Proportion

Northward

51.0

Southward

0

Eastward

19.6

Westward

21.6

Did not move

7.8

Total

100 (51)

It appears that booksellers not burnt out were unlikely to move - none of the 28 booksellers linked between the 1663-5 and 1667-9 samples changed location. However, those booksellers affected by Fire almost all moved - only four remained in the same place before and after the Fire. The majority of the movement was northward. Most of these moves were from Paul’s Churchyard to around Little Britain. Those who moved westward tended to go towards Fleet Street and the Strand. Eastward movers tended to stay within the Walls, five clustering around the temporary shops in Gresham College. However, there was not a long-term change in the distribution of the London booksellers - by the 1670s the pre-Fire pattern had been virtually re-established.


Table 5: Long-term movements of booksellers, 1663-5, 1667-9, 1676-8 (%)

Type of move

Proportion

Fired, did not move

0

Fired, moved, returned to pre-Fire residence

34.9

Fired, moved, returned to pre-Fire neighbourhood

16.3

Fired, moved, stayed in same residence

4.7

Fired, moved, stayed in same neighbourhood

2.3

Unaffected by Fire, did not move at all

39.5

Unaffected by Fire, moved

2.3

Total

100 (43)

.

There seems to have been a general movement back to pre-Fire topographical patterns; of the 25 booksellers affected by the Fire, 22 returned to, or near to, their pre-Fire shops. Only three booksellers remained in the same area they had moved to after being burnt out in 1666. It appears, therefore, that even if a bookseller was burnt out as a result of the Great Fire, it was fairly likely he would have returned to his original shop by the 1670s, for the most part after a spell operating in a different area of London.


Table 6: Trade groups of masters in the Merchant Taylors’ company, 1652-66, 1666-80 (%)

Group

Sub-group

1652-66

1666-80

Selling

Dealer

13.6

12.7




Textile dealer

8.3

7.0




Victualler

6.6

6.6




Professional

3.5

3.0

Craft

Wood

3.2

3.8




Metal

4.9

7.8




Textile

49.6

42.5




Leather

2.6

3.9




Miscellaneous

3.7

5.9

Semi-skilled

Builder

2.4

5.1




Carrier

1.6

1.7




Total

100 (1805)

100 (2138)

Note: Occupational groups taken from Power (1986), table 27, pp. 214-15.

The Merchant Taylors were not a homogenous company. The apprenticeship bindings (mostly) record the exact occupation of the master. From this, a rough hierarchy of trade groups for the Merchant Taylors was constructed. There appear to be differences in the occupational distributions before and after the Fire. After 1666, it appears that craftsmen within the company became more diversified in their occupations after the Fire, with proportionally fewer being involved in textiles. This may be due to the long term tendency for manufacturing to move out of London after the mid seventeenth century, as well as the long-term decline in textile prices in England at the time.3 The main change was the increased proportion of Merchant Taylors involved in the building trade. Clearly this was a response to the building boom after the Fire. Occupation varied with region. Before the Fire, the City had a far higher proportion of dealers than other areas of London. However, after the Fire, the proportion of dealers east and west of the Walls grew, in response to the growing population density of these areas. The proportions of craftsmen appear to be fairly similar before and after the Fire.

When changes in individual occupations were examined, it was clear that occupational mobility was certainly not uncommon for Merchant Taylors. Over 10 per cent of the sample changed their trade. Builders and craftsmen working with wood appear to have experienced the highest levels of occupational turnover. This is unsurprising given that these trade groups were comparatively low status, and had the cheapest manufacturing and trading stock. For the most part it appears that occupational changes were in related industries. Changing occupation was not always accompanied by movement in workplace. Just under half of the masters who changed their occupation did not move their place of work.
Table 8: Ages of Merchant Taylors linked before and after the Fire, by geographical movement, 1652-66, 1666-80 (%)


Age

Fired, moved

Fired, did not move

Not fired, moved

Not fired, did not move

Total

29 or below

17.5

12.9

28.6

25.3

21.0

30-9

38.1

38.7

31.4

40.0

37.8

40-9

25.8

32.3

31.4

24.0

26.9

50-9

14.4

12.9

5.7

4.0

9.7

60 plus

4.1

3.2

2.9

6.7

4.6

Total

100 (97)

100 (31)

100 (35)

100 (75)

100 (238)

The ages of some of the sample of linked Merchant Taylors could be calculated by use of the company’s freedom records, which give a rough approximation of age. Age may have had a slight bearing on movement after 1666, although there is no significant statistical difference between the ages of the masters who moved and did not move.4 For those masters burnt out by the Fire, slightly higher proportions of Merchant Taylors under the age of 29 moved workplace after the Fire, rather than returning to their original address. In comparison, masters between the ages of 30 and 49 seem to have been more likely to return to their original workplace. When age is linked to geographical movement, it appears that masters in middle age were slightly more likely to remain in the City, whilst younger and older masters showed a slightly greater proclivity to move outside of the Walls. When age is linked to occupation, it appears that the younger Merchant Taylors had a fairly different distribution of occupations compared to the older age groups in two main ways. They were less likely to be engaged in textiles, and far more likely to be engaged in building. This reflects the flexibility of the younger masters not yet fully established in one trade, and able to react to changing economic conditions.


Women played an important role in the metropolitan economy. However, this role was certainly limited. It was usually as the widow of a master that women had the right to trade independently.5 There are low proportions of female masters in the Merchant Taylors’ sample. Women accounted for only 1.6 per cent of the 1652-66 sample, and 3.5 per cent for 1666-80. There appear to have been slightly more women involved in bookselling. However, the proportion of women in bookselling declines over time. For the 1663-5 sample, five per cent of the booksellers were women, falling to 3.3 per cent in 1667-9, and 0.6 per cent in 1676-8.

Female Merchant Taylor topographic structure was similar to the overall pattern. It does not appear that gender had a statistically significant effect on economic topography for the 1652-66 or 1666-80 samples.6 As the numbers of booksellers are lower than the Merchant Taylors, it was not possible to examine the effect of gender on their topography in the same way. However, superficially, gender does not seem to make a great deal of difference for the topography of female booksellers either.

The occupational structure of female Merchant Taylors was similar to the overall pattern. There was no statistical difference in the occupational structure of females, both before and after the Fire.7 The similarity between female and male occupational structure in the Merchant Taylors is probably due to the fact that most females operating in the company were widows. As such, it would have been likely that they would have continued the trade of their husband, as a great deal of their economic experience and connections would have been gained in the trade of their late husband.

In summation, the Fire had a significant effect on the topographical distribution of London’s economy, although there were significant differences between the two trade groups examined. The booksellers, the smaller and more homogenous group, appear to have returned to pre-Fire topographical patterns after short-term changes immediately after the Fire.

The Fire forced four out of five of the fired Merchant Taylors to move permanently. These movements were far more likely to be long-term than for the booksellers. Overall, the Fire appears to have led to an increase in the numbers of Merchant Taylors based in the northern and eastern suburbs. Movement to the west did occur in response to the Fire, but it also appears to have occurred from non-fired areas. Clearly this was a long-term trend that would have occurred regardless of the Fire.

Gauging the effect of the Fire on occupational changes in the Merchant Taylors Company was problematic, as the numbers recovered with sufficient information were low. However, it appears that there was around a 10 per cent occupational turnover, usually between related trades. It was also problematic to measure the impact of age. However, it is probable that younger masters were more likely to be mobile. Superficially, gender does not seem to have had a great effect on change after the Fire in terms of topography and occupation.



Economic considerations were central in the planning of London’s recovery after the Fire. As Keene (2001) points out, ‘trade was the prime force which conditioned the reordering and rebuilding of the city’.8 Elaborate rebuilding schemes were eschewed in favour of practical reconstruction, which in addition to London’s wholly essential place in the English economy, meant the metropolitan economy was able to recover quickly. Therefore, London’s Merchant Taylors and booksellers operated in a paradigm that was designed to make sure that they could rebuild their businesses and economic lives as quickly as was feasibly possible to do so. Thanks to the continuation of London’s economic function, they did not face a reduction in market size, and so, to an extent, could often recover their pre-catastrophe equilibrium.



1 Power (1986), p. 212.

2 Raven (2004), p. 430.

3 Styles (2000), 129; Shammas (1994), 483-507.

4 Masters fired: Testing using Kolmogorov-Smirnov test at 95%: D=0.092 and the critical value is 0.281. Therefore, the null hypothesis of no significant difference is accepted. Masters not fired: Testing using Kolmogorov-Smirnov test at 95%: D=0.112 and the critical value is 0.278. Therefore, the null hypothesis of no significant difference is accepted.

5 Brodsky (1986), p. 141.

6 1652-66: Testing using chi-squared at 95%, calculated value of chi-squared is 7.024, tabulated value is 9.49, and therefore the null hypothesis of no difference is accepted. 1666-80: Testing using chi-squared at 95%, calculated value of chi-squared is 5.473, tabulated value is 9.49, and therefore the null hypothesis of no difference is accepted.

7 1652-66: Testing using chi-squared at 95%, calculated value of chi-squared is 1.260, tabulated value is 5.99, and therefore null hypothesis of no difference is accepted. 1666-80: Testing using chi-squared at 95%, calculated value of chi-squared is 9.209, tabulated value is 11.07, and therefore null hypothesis of no difference is accepted.

8 Keene (2001), p. 30.


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