Friday, November 6, 2015

Review of When London Burned by G. A. Henty

I have often featured work by the author G. A. Henty on my blog ( but this is the first time I have reviewed one of his books.  This is in spite of the fact that I have read about 40 Henty novels over 5 years.  Today’s review will cover When London Burned: A Story of Restoration Times and the Great Fire.

 The historical setting is during the reign of King Charles II of England from 1661-1668.  The English Civil Wars have concluded and the King enjoys his own, but feeling still runs strongly in the country.  The Cavaliers (supporters of the King) and the Roundheads (supporters of Parliament) are not fighting with swords, but continue to regard each other with suspicion.  In foreign affairs, France and England are friends, but Holland is ready to make with England over trade and colonies.

The story begins by introducing us to Sir Aubrey Shenstone, a nobleman turned out of his estate after supporting King Charles I during the English Civil War (1642-1651).  He is forced to flee to France with his only son named Cyril, for his wife had died.  When Charles II returned to the throne, Sir Aubrey sailed to England to recover his estate—vainly, as it turned out.  In London father and son reunited, but not for long for Sir Aubrey died.  He had neither a penny to his name, nor any friends to help Cyril through the world

But Cyril had learned the trade of a clerk in France and had supported himself and his father while in London.  Now after much reflection, he decides to keep working as a clerk with the hope to buy back his rightful estate.  He worked for many men in London and one of them recommends him to a merchant named Captain Dave.  Captain Dave used to be a sailor but now sells merchandise for ships: rope, copper bolts, compasses, anchors.  Cyril is hired to help him keep the accounts and quickly discovers that someone has been stealing Captain Dave’s goods.  After some careful investigation, Captain Dave’s two apprentices are discovered to have been the thieves.  They and their accomplices are arrested and brought to trial.

This success in defending Captain Dave’s property has earned Cyril the hatred of the criminals, who go by the name of the “Black Gang.”  Cyril is kidnapped and sent to Holland, where he books passage on a ship back to England.  There the members of the “Black Gang” are tried and found guilty.  But two escape from the prison: Robert Ashford the apprentice and “Black” Dick.  But Cyril has other matters to worry him more than the escape of two prisoners.  Captain Dave’s daughter Nellie has been swept off her feet by a young gallant of Charles II’s Court, and is prepared to elope with him.  But he is not a nobleman but instead a fortune hunter named John Harvey.  To thwart him, Cyril enlists the help of John Wilkes, an old and trusty employee of Captain Dave’s.  Together, they fight and defeat Harvey and two of his cohorts as they attempt to carry Nellie off.  This narrow escape has its effect on Nellie, and she becomes more kindly and less vain. 

Shortly after this, Cyril and Wilkes fight a fire.  Together they rescue four women from a burning house and meet the Cavalier, Prince Rupert.  The Prince appoints Cyril as a volunteer aboard his own ship, the Henrietta, which is preparing to fight the Dutch fleet.  The English ships sail and engage the Dutch in what would become known as the Battle of Lowestoft.  During the battle, a Dutch fire ship (a ship lit on fire and then sent into an enemy ship) is bearing down on the Henrietta.  Cyril manages to steer it away from impacting his ship.  This action saved his life, for “Black” Dick was aboard the Henrietta and had determined to kill Cyril until he saw his sacrifice to save their ship.

Returning to England, Cyril helps battle the Plague of London in company with Dr. Hodges.  During this time, Cyril meets several Independents, so called because they were independent of the Church of England.  Among these are a Mr. and Mrs. Harvey.  They are nearly robbed by their son John, but Cyril manages to thwart him.  Mr. Harvey quickly writes out his will to prevent his son from inheriting any money.  But John Harvey is determined to strike back and since he has the Plague, infects Cyril before dying of it.  Cyril and John Wilkes the seaman fight the Plague with sweating, tobacco, and fresh air.  After this exhausting regimen of treatments, the plague spots abate and disappear completely.  Captain Dave and his family return from the country back to London in November.  On Christmas Eve, a lawyer arrives informing Cyril that he has received an inheritance of a house and land.  It comes from Mr. Harvey, who wishes to do justice by restoring it to the son of the former owner.

But war flares up again between the English and Dutch, and the English fleet is ordered to put to sea.  It clashes with the Dutch fleet for the four-day long Battle of Dunkirk.  Cyril is appointed to a small yacht and manages to reroute a few Dutch fireships during the battle.  Both sides refit their ships and clash in another battle.  After his service, Cyril returns to London only to find that the Great Fire of 1666 has broken out.  Cyril, John Wilkes and Captain Dave’s family work frantically to save a few of their goods from the fire by boarding a ship.  But the Dutch are far from beaten and proceed to land on the coast of England and capture Sheerness.  Again the English fleet meets them in battle.  Shortly after, the peace treaty between the two countries is signed.

This is one of Mr. Henty’s finest books.  Cyril’s hard work and his willingness to sacrifice for others give excellent lessons to the reader.  Wise quotes and maxims are sprinkled throughout the book as well.  It can be read for free at:

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