The Great Fire of London started on the 2nd September 1666. Let’s remind ourselves of what happened.
In 1666 around 350,000 people lived in London, making it one of the largest cities in Europe. The many buildings which accommodated this population were predominantly made from timber with thatched roofs and were covered in flammable pitch. Buildings were packed closely together, and the city was full of sheds and stables, containing highly combustible hay and straw, which housed the many horses that were used for transportation. The summer of 1666 had been hot and dry, with London suffering a drought, making the city vulnerable to the devastation of a potential fire.
The fire began on Sunday 2nd September in a bakery on Pudding Lane. It was likely started by a spark from one of the bakery ovens and whilst the owner of the bakery, Thomas Farynor, claimed to have extinguished the fire, by 1am his house was engulfed in flame.
To begin with, the fire was of little concern – fires were a frequent occurrence in large cities at the time – but, aided by a strong wind, flames quickly spread down Pudding Lane, making their way towards the River Thames. Here the fire swelled as it met warehouses containing flammable products such as oil and tallow. The fire raged for four days.
Fortunately, due to a large fire in 1633 which had destroyed part of London Bridge, the 1666 fire didn’t spread south of the river. There was no organised fire service in London in the 17th century and so firefighting was fairly basic. Local people would use horse-drawn carts, leather buckets, axes, and water squirts to fight fire but this approach had little effect on the large and rapidly developing fire of September ‘66.
One method of firefighting, the firebreak, did prove more useful. Firebreaks simply involved pulling down buildings to prevent the continued spread of flames but the Lord Mayor of London at the time, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, banned people from doing this. However, King Charles II intervened and ordered the use of firebreaks and the Royal Navy began using gunpowder to quickly destroy buildings and create firebreaks. By Wednesday 5th the wind had dropped, and the fire was largely under control – though small fires continued to break out and the ground remained too hot to walk on for several days afterwards.
The fire destroyed around 13,200 houses, 87 churches, The Royal Exchange, Guildhall and St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had been built in the Middle Ages. As so many buildings were destroyed by the fire many people were left homeless. Temporary buildings were quickly erected but the conditions in these low-quality buildings were poor, and sickness and disease spread easily, leading to a high death rate that winter.
The cost of the Great Fire Of London was estimated to be £10 million – London’s annual income at the time was around £12,000. King Charles II ordered the city to be rebuilt with stone and brick, a process which took over 30 years. After the fire, some businessmen seized an opportunity to provide people with buildings insurance in case of future fires, but at the same time mitigated their financial loss by employing men to extinguish any fires that broke out. And so, the first fire brigades were formed.
To learn more about the Great Fire of London visit https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/museum/history-and-stories/the-great-fire-of-london/