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Cobblers! No it’s a true story

This year saw the 356th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. The whole event is shrouded in misinformation, untruths and supposition. What the fire did is pretty well documented, but how it affected the lives of those that lived through it is more difficult to come by. I recently came across a story of someone who lived through the conflagration that is backed up with pretty firm evidence.

Sibbell Theame was a shoemaker, more than that she seems to have been a force to be recognised with. She employed and worked alongside two others, a journeyman cordwainer and an apprentice, based at her premises located in Christ’s Hospital near Newgate. She was also a single mother of three young girls.

Christ’s Hospital

She was a rare commodity back in the 1600s, a woman who ran their own business and employed others and also a shoemaker, a profession that was male dominated. It was recorded that her husband was in charge before his death and upon this Sibbyll took over the running of the business. Her role within the hospital was to make shoes for the orphans who resided there as well as any private business that she could pick up. It is recorded that there were in the region of four hundred children in residence, so there would seem to have been a plentiful supply of business.

It appears that Sibbyll was not a trained shoemaker and had to learn very quickly after the death of her husband. The hospital records show that in fact she wasn’t very good at it and there are many entries denegrating the quality of her work.

There was also a question as far as the governors were concerned about her morals. It appears that Sibbill would frequently entertain men within her rooms attached to her workshop. Possibly as a christian organisation this didn’t sit well with the authorities, but there are hints that her lifestyle was brought to the attention of the hospital by fellow shoemakers. Either this was moral outrage, or as is inferred in the accompanying text that several rivals were covetous of the business supplying shoes to the hospital and were looking for a way to remove Sibbill and take over for themselves.

This appears to all have come to a head over a substandard pair of shoes that she made and she was invited to attend a meeting with the hospital governors with a view to terminating her employment with them. I mentioned earlier that Sibbill was a force to be reckoned with and didn’t back down on matters that would affect the livelihood of her and her three children. The records show that not only did she fight off the threat of being sacked, she actually managed to get an increase in the price that the hospital paid her for each pair of shoes!

So Sibbill was doing quite well for herself, that is until the early hours of Sunday 3rd September when the inhabitants of Christ’s Hospital were awoken by what sounded like cannon shots in the near distance. This was in fact the stones of St Paul’s Cathedral exploding due to the extreme heat of the fire. The bells of the local churches had started to ring their warning of the approaching fire late the previous night, and word had already spread about the direction and sheer destruction of the conflagration. However, the locals seemed in no rush to vacate their homes and it seems that only the approaching wave of black, choking smoke that was blown towards them heralding the firestorm decided them on making a getaway. There are no fatalities listed amongst the orphans and staff of Christ’s hospital and it appears Sibbill collected what possessions she could and with her three daughters left the city by Newgate and travelled to the area of Holborn, where they waited for several days until it was safe to return.

On her return she found that her livelihood had disappeared, along with most of the hospital her workshop was no more than smouldering rubble. This constituted a real risk to the lives of her and her family. With very little money and no food or shelter their expectations looked rather bleak, however Sibbill’s indomitable spirit came to the fore.

Constructing some kind of makeshift shelter in the ruined workshop, she spent what little money she had in purchasing the ingredients for making Gingerbread, which she sold to passers by, also sending her eldest daughter onto the streets to sell their wares. This seemed to bring in enough to keep the family above the bread line and proved rather lucrative. Within a couple of months she had branched out and was now brewing beer on the site which she sold to local students. The last glimpse of Sibbill is a record of her entering into discussion with the authorities to restart her shoe making business in or around the reconstruction of the hospital.

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