In the mid-afternoon of 23 July 1794, in the middle of the French Revolutionary Wars, a cauldron of pitch boiled over and caught fire at Cloves barge builder’s yard near Ratcliff Highway in London’s East End. It was low tide on the river, with little water available for the parish pumps, so the blaze spread with terrible speed, engulfing the East India Company’s saltpetre warehouses, which exploded ‘like a discharge of cannon’, and then invading in an unstoppable inferno the narrow, cluttered streets of Wapping. The flammable industries of the riverside – timber merchants, rope makers, boat builders, beer sellers and chandlers – provided inexhaustible tinder, but so did the small houses of Ratcliff, nearly seven hundred of them, or half the hamlet, being consumed or damaged in the blaze. Hundreds of families were made homeless. A thousand people were forced to sleep in the fields, while others were taken into the church and nearby buildings. Damage to property was immense, with one sugar warehouse alone valued at £40,000. And besides all this, as Margarette Lincoln points out, the great fire of Wapping ‘was a huge blow to the war effort’.
The contribution of maritime London to the British nation and empire at war is a neglected subject and Lincoln has done an admirable job in resurrecting it. Through her crowded pages we meet the East End provisioners of war – the ships’ biscuit makers, brewers and distillers – and,