london panoramic cityscape

The Great Fire of London

(1666)London

 

 

In the 17th century London was made up of two parts, Westminster and the City of London. The monarchy and Parliament were at Westminster, and the City was the commercial and financial heart. Various parts of London had been burned down many times but there had never been a fire like the one in 1666.
 
Narrow Streets, Crowded Wooden Buildings
The streets were narrow, crowded with wooden buildings and confined within the medieval city walls. Although laws had been passed to ban thatched roofs and limit the distance upper storeys could overhang the street, no-one took any notice of them. The City was also the port of London and warehouses full of flammable materials, were squashed in next to houses and tenements.
 
Fire fighting consisted of two wheeled tankers which had to be filled from the river, grappling hooks to pull down houses or gunpowder to blow them up to make a firebreak. The City of London was controlled by a Lord Mayor whose job it was to direct the fire fighting. Historically the City was reluctant to let the King and his troops in to direct operations.
 
Thomas Farynor's Pudding Lane Bakery
The fire started at 01:00 hours on the 2nd September in Thomas Farynor’s bakery in Pudding Lane. The baker had forgotten to extinguish the fire in the oven. The family escaped over the roofs except for a maidservant who was too frightened. The fire raced through the crowded houses creating a firestorm.
 
Imagine the panic – people loading their furniture into handcarts and hurrying to find shelter in the stone churches, crowds pushing towards the river to get away by boat, trying to get out of the walled city to the fields beyond and the Lord Mayor doing nothing about fighting the fire. By the time he decided to start pulling down the houses to make firebreaks it was too late, the fire helped by a strong easterly wind was overtaking the fire-fighters.
 
King Charles II offer of assistance
King Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York could see the fire heading north and coming closer to Westminster. They offered soldiers to fight the fire but the Lord Mayor wouldn’t let them come into the City. By the night of the 3rd September the fire had burnt down the richer Londoner’s houses, the fashionable shops at Cheapside and the financial institutions such as the Royal Exchange.
 
The River Thames had acted as a fire barrier and therefore the fire was confined to the north bank. However the strong wind was still pushing the fire north and west.
 
Rumours abounded that foreign arsonists were at work but the reality was that the sparks and embers carried by the wind were causing spot fires all over the City. Law and order in the streets had broken down and on Monday afternoon the city gates were closed to stop people fleeing with their possessions and make them stay to fight the fire. The gates were opened again next day.
 
By Tuesday, 4th September the Lord Mayor had left the City and the King had taken command of fighting the fire. Charles made himself responsible for demolishing the buildings and his brother, James, Duke of York was put in charge of operations. James set up command posts on the perimeter of the fire and put members of the aristocracy in charge of them. He then press-ganged the poorer citizens roaming the streets into a well-paid and well-fed team of fire-fighters.
 
St Paul’s Cathedral Destroyed
Despite these efforts, Tuesday saw the worst destruction. St Paul's Cathedral was burnt to the ground within a half hour period – the lead on its roof melting and running down the streets towards the river.
 
The fire created its own wind and started to push towards The Tower of London where the gunpowder was stored. The Tower garrison waited in vain for help from James’s official fire-fighters. They took matters in to their own hands and blew up large numbers of houses around the Tower halting the fire.
 
Tuesday night the wind dropped and by Wednesday, 5th September the fire had been halted. The Great fire had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral and most of the City’s official buildings. It is estimated that 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants were made homeless. It is impossible to know how many died because the intensity of the fire was such that it would have incinerated any bodies.
 
The Great Fire of London changed the face of the City of London forever.
 
Model in the Museum of London
In The Museum of London there is a brilliant model of London on the day the Great Fire broke out. The Visitor can see the fire starting in Pudding Lane and spreading across the City. The roar and crackling of the flames is accompanied by readings of Samuel Pepys’ eye-witness accounts from his diary.
 
Do not forget to visit The Monument which marks the spot where the fire is said to have started and finished.