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London Rebuilt: 350 Years since the Great Fire

London Rebuilt: 350 Years since the Great Fire

One of the maps we’re looking forward to displaying at this year’s London Map Fair is an exceptionally rare survey of the city, made just after the Great Fire of London by John Oliver. Oliver’s entry in the Dictionary of British Map Engravers describes him as a builder, architect, glass-painter, mapmaker, surveyor, printseller, publisher and engraver, not to mention Master Mason to Charles II. Married to a granddaughter of John Speed, he was a man of parts who was also (if the brilliant but notoriously irascible Robert Hooke is to be believed), a rascal, a villain, a dog and a devil.

oliver_london Click on this image and use the icon at its top right corner to enlarge

Fewer than half a dozen examples are known to survive of the earliest editions of John Oliver’s A Mapp of the Cityes of London & Westminster & Burrough of Southwark with their Suburbs as it is now Rebuilt since the late dreadfull Fire. An example of the first edition, published by Oliver’s sometime business partner John Seller circa 1676, is in the Guildhall Library. A hand coloured example in the British Library adorns a publisher’s mock-up of the Atlas Anglicanus, an ambitious, unfinished project which Seller and Oliver embarked upon to create the first wholly original county survey of England and Wales since Elizabethan times. Our example of the map was printed from the second state of the copper printing plate, now bearing the imprint of Philip Lea and published circa 1680; another resides in the Society of Antiquaries but no other institutional copies are recorded.

Having established that this is a very rare piece of paper, perhaps we should now step back a little and examine the circumstances surrounding its creation. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. The fire spread so slowly, over several days, that hardly anyone was killed, but 70,000 of 80,000 inhabitants of the City lost their homes, and London's historic landmarks such as Old St Paul's were destroyed. No other event would change the face of the City of London so dramatically until the Blitz. Maps and views of the calamity were published across Europe, in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands - given additional significance by the ongoing war between the English and the Dutch (who regarded the Great Fire as nothing short of divine retribution).

Back in London, with tens of thousands made homeless and the City a charred ruin, the priority was what should happen next. Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and others submitted grand schemes for a London rebuilt on a grid, with fine piazzas and sweeping boulevards – all of which were doomed due to lack of funds and strong property laws: anyone who could afford it returned to the smouldering ruins of their homes and businesses, and rebuilt.

More or less. There was, of course, surveying and mapping to be done. London would broadly adhere to its pre Fire plan, but the streets would be wider, and the buildings better. Which is where John Oliver came in, as one of the City’s ‘sworn viewers’. Oliver had initially offered only to assist the ailing Peter Mills, gratis, but within months, on 28 January 1667, he was sworn in as the third City Surveyor, joining Mills and Hooke; after Mills’ death in 1670 Oliver and Hooke shared the duties. Hundreds of viewings were made. The City streets were (literally) staked out, and widened where it was thought necessary. Rubble was cleared, property boundaries needed to be re-established before rebuilding could begin, and the City Surveyors were also responsible for ensuring that there were no infringements of the new building regulations. The process has been described in detail by Michael Cooper (A More Beautiful City: Robert Hooke and the Rebuilding of London, 2003), including the post-viewing meetings in a suitable coffee house, where Hooke wrote the reports, both men signed them (Hooke first) and Hooke paid Oliver his share of the fee.

As the order of signatures suggests, Hooke was a stickler for hierarchy and the niceties of social distinctions. For example, on the pages of his diary Robert Boyle is always granted the prefix ‘Mr’; John Oliver is always ‘Oliver’. Laurence Worms explored their relationship in his study of John Seller, Samuel Pepys and the London map-trade: ‘Relations between them weren’t always cordial. Hooke speaks of Oliver’s treachery in 1673, and subsequent entries are terse: “Oliver a rascall”; “Oliver a villaine”; “Oliver a dog”; “Oliver a devill” – but this blew over in time and they seem to have reached an accord. They dine together. They agree on a joint approach to the City Corporation over their fees. They go to Bartholomew Fair together and see a tiger for 2d.’

It gets better. Few were more qualified to publish our map than Oliver, but he also had help from both Hooke and Wren, as we learn from Hooke’s diary: “To Sir Chr Wrens. Rectifyd errors with Oliver. Talked with Sir Christopher” – and again, “Early to Sir Ch. Wrens. Rectifyd mistakes with J. Oliver. All of the right hand”. And as Laurence says, ‘here, in one room, we have the three men who did most to rebuild London after the Fire – the men who knew the fabric of London better than anyone alive – conferring over and approving a map shortly to be published by Seller.’

Now pause and look at the map. At the upper left hand corner, the Swordbearer and Sergeant at Arms carry the sword and mace, the symbols of the Lord Mayor and the City of London Corporation’s authority. Mercury, protector of merchants, presides over the map, with the City coat of arms on his shield.


The arms of the City of London appear again, more prominently, on the right, and beneath is a panel for the numbered key. A much later edition (1728) claims to have added ‘the new buildings’ but the only distinction between the first two states is that Lea added an additional panel, perhaps intending to extend the key, though in the event it was left blank. Returning to the iconography, at the bottom right Father Thames presides over plentiful fishing, and the stern of a merchantman suggests thriving trade. This is a city resurgent. Many of the details of the engraving repay close examination. For example, Oliver has shown the flow of the river between the narrow arches of Old London Bridge. ‘Shooting the bridge’ was a dangerous pastime, and this was the age of Frost Fairs (notably during the Great Frost of 1683-84) assisted by the reduced flow of the river upstream, all but dammed by the bridge. On the subject of rivers, I’ve often been asked for maps of London’s ‘lost’ or subterranean rivers (quick plug here for the third, revised edition of The Lost Rivers of London by Nicholas Barton and Stephen Myers, hot off the press). The trick, of course, is to look for them on maps which were made before they went underground. The Fleet is especially prominent on Oliver’s map, showing the canalisation of its lower stretch, which was completed in 1680 under the supervision of - you guessed it - Wren and Hooke.

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