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Climbing the greasy pole

History will have many instances of people who possibly from birth have been groomed to hold a lofty position within society. They go to the right schools meet the right people and in most cases do the right things to see them reach the pinnacle of their chosen sphere where they sit back and think “life is good“.

Sir Thomas Bludworth

However, occasionally at the very point of their success situations conspire to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and their tenure in the position is fraught with mishap and mistakes that even though they continue on blight their legacy. I can think of one such buffoon who is currently trying to keep his head above water in a rather choppy political sea.

The Vintners Company

Go back to just over four hundred years ago to 1620 when a son was born to Edward Bludworth. Bludworth was a wealthy merchant who had made his money in the wine trade. The new arrival was christened Thomas and was the second surviving son of Edward and his wife. Edward seems to have mapped out each sons career when they were very young. Their eldest son was groomed to enter the clergy, which for an eldest son was a strange choice. At the time most would have been trained to take over the family business, but in this case it was the younger Thomas that was to take up the reins. At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a London vintner and later became a member of the Worshipful Company of Vintners.

He became a member of the Levant Company, a body of merchants that conducted trade within Turkey and surrounding regions and furthered the extent of his father’s existing business. Over the coming years he sat on various committees within both organisations and steadily began to rise through the ranks until in 1658 he was elected an alderman of the City of London for Dowgate ward. Two years later he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Southwark. He became a member of the Honourable Artillery Company and was later knighted. With his trade contacts, wealth and political career he was beginning to aspire to a lofty position within the country and was amongst the party that sailed to Holland to invite the exiled Charles II to return to England after the end of the interregnum. What he needed to bolster the work he had already done was to then hold offices of responsibility to prove his leadership skills. In 1663 he became Master of the Vintners Company and two years later became Lord Mayor of London, and this is where the story takes a turn for the worst as far as Sir Thomas is concerned.

His first inherited problem from his predecessor was the great plague that was ravaging the population of London at the time, in fact all the pomp and ceremony that goes with the coronation of the Lord Mayor was postponed due to the conditions within the capital. It is possible that Bludworth rested on his laurels while in the position, as there are few records of him personally concerning himself with the management of situation and it is then that glimpses of his true character become known.

Charles II made a noted comment about the Lord Mayor in early 1666 “willing though may be not very able to do great things“, and the diarist Samuel Pepys noted on more than one occasion “a silly man, I think” and later a “mean man of understanding and despatch of any public busines…….a very weak man he seems to be“. These comments seem to have been portentous as in September 1666 Bludworth faced his biggest challenge.

In the early hours of 2 September 1666, a fire broke out in the bakery of Thomas Farriner. There were no organised firefighting methods as we would know them today and besides a few buckets of water to try and douse the flames the main method of preventing a fire from spreading was the demolition of adjacent buildings to produce a fire break in order to stop its spread. This was quite a contentious means of firefighting, with the owners of the buildings seeking compensation from the authorities. So when the fire reached a stage where the creation of a fire break was required, those tackling the blaze decided to get a dispensation from the Lord Mayor to demolish the surrounding buildings. Sir John was roused from his bed and not without complaint taken to the scene of the fire. He is said to have remarked on hearing the reports of those in charge on the seriousness of the situation, “Pish, a woman might piss it out” whereupon he alighted his carriage and returned home to his bed.

It wasn’t until later that day that he again involved himself with the catastrophe and it appears that he dithered and prevaricated not wishing to take responsibility for any coherent means of tackling the blaze. An account from a colleague describes him as being “frighted out of his wits”. It seems he could not even make a decision when the flames approached his own residence in Gracechurch Street and his building was consumed. It was at this point that the King issued his own orders about how the fire should be fought, but by the time these reached him Bludworth was described like, “a man spent“.

This signalled the end of any aspirations that he may of had to rise further in his political career, although he did remain as an MP but without much note in the remainder of his life. However, someone with perhaps with a keen sense of irony appointed him to a committee working on a bill to provide “utensils” for the “speedy quenching of fire”.

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