- During the first days of September 1666, London suffered a huge disaster.
- It destroyed many buildings, including churches, civic buildings, and homes.
- One-third of the city was destroyed and 100,000 people became homeless.
- It was the worst fire in London’s history.
London in the 1660s
There were around 350,000 people in London before the Great Fire. It was a huge city even then.
A lot of people in London died from the Great Plague. They must have thought that next year would be better, but it was even worse.
People did not know about the dangers of fire. Buildings were made of wood. They had a flammable substance called pitch on them and roofed with straw.
In London, houses were built close together. Some even touch each other. The city was very busy because many people were living there.
Lots of animals lived in London. London had lots of sheds and yards with hay and straw. This was very flammable.
September 2nd: The Fire Begins
The city was experiencing a drought after a lengthy, dry summer. The wooden homes were parched, making them easier to burn.
On September 2nd, a fire started in the King’s bakery of Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane near London Bridge.
Before Farriner went to bed at night, he had inspected his bakery and made sure that all the coals were out. They had been warm from making ship’s biscuit for King Charles II’s navy.
He would later swear that he made sure the ovens were turned off before going upstairs to his apartment. But it seems like an ember was still light and started a fire.
At about 1 a.m., Farriner woke up to find his house on fire. The baker and his daughter only survived because they got out of their home through an upstairs window and went onto the side of the roof. One servant escaped, but the other servant died in the fire.
The area around Pudding Lane was full of warehouses containing things like timber, rope, and oil. These are all things that can easily catch fire, so they were in danger.
The wind was mighty. So the fire spread from house to house. By the time Farriner joined the crowd on Pudding Lane, his home had already been almost completely burned down.
A few neighbors formed a line and threw water on the fire. Most people just stood around or ran home to get their valuables.
The mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bludworth, took no action after he saw the fire. He thought it was so small that it could be pissed out and then went back to bed.
A powerful wind blew the bakery fire. The fire quickly spread to other buildings on Pudding Lane before it jumped to Fish Street. It burned down the Star Inn stables.
When the fire reached a ship’s supply store, it made some tar barrels hot. They exploded and sent more flames into the neighborhood.
The fire went afterwards towards the River Thames. It was a disaster that consumed every building in its path.
One of the first churches in the fire was the Church of St. Magnus the Martyr, burning down. Dozens of riverside guild halls and warehouses also burned down.
The flames also destroyed half of the structures and waterwheels on London Bridge but were halted when they reached a construction gap due to a previous fire in 1633.
Soon the Great Fire of London took hold. 300 houses quickly burned down because of strong winds.
The fire spread through the narrow streets lined with houses. Efforts to keep it under control with buckets of water failed. People were panicking, and the fire continued burning.
September 3rd: Horror Spreads
The Great Fire only got worse on September 3.
The wind blew sparks and embers that started fires. New fires were not close to the primary fire.
Charles II was worried that the entire city would burn. His brother James II, Duke of York, was placed in charge of fighting fires.
The Duke organized fire brigades to save people. The fire brigades used heavy chains, ropes, and grapples to pull down houses to stop the flames’ advance.
Yet the fire was moving so fast that it would keep running over the men as they tried to work. It reached Royal Exchange that evening and then Baynard’s Castle as well.
As the fire spread and grew, people tried to leave the city. They went down to the River Thames and tried to escape by boat.
A man who lived in London at that time, Samuel Pepys, kept a diary. He was a clerk for the Navy. He saw the fire and wrote about it. On Monday 3 September 1666, he put down these words:
About four o’clock in the morning, my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, to Sir W. Rider’s at Bednall-greene. Which I did riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart; and, Lord! to see how the streets and the highways are crowded with people running and riding, and getting of carts at any rate to fetch away things.
John Evelyn was another person who also wrote about the Great Fire. He left us a first-hand account of what happened.
The Mayor of London was ordered to use fire hooks to pull down burning buildings, but the fire continued.
People who had to leave their homes because of a fire or storm chose to bury or hide their valuables that they couldn’t carry. Pepys buried his cheese and wine and moved his other things to Bethnal Green.
Pepys spoke with the Admiral of the Navy, and they agreed that they should blow up houses in the path of a fire. They thought this would create a space where it would be hard for the fire to spread from house to house.
September 4th: The Fire keeps Spreading
By the 4th of September, half of London was on fire. The king joined the firefighters. He passed buckets of water to them to put out the fire. But it didn’t work.
People used gunpowder to blow up houses that would otherwise be in the fire’s way. They tried to create a bigger break so the fire could not reach more homes.
The sound of the explosions caused a lot of people to think that there was a French invasion. This made people even more scared.
As the fire spread, so did the rumor about what caused it. England was at war with the Dutch, and people in London began to say that an enemy or Catholic terrorists could have set it.
Mobs with guns went to the street and attacked people who had accents.
A man was attacked when a mob thought he had fireballs. They thought they were fireballs and didn’t know they were tennis balls.
London’s Guildhall burned, and most of the other buildings were on Cheapside.
Many people took refuge in St. Paul’s Cathedral. People thought it would be safe because of the stone walls and broad plazas.
Around 8 p.m., that church also caught on fire, and people had to run away. The church’s roof was made of lead. The fire melted the roof, and it flowed down the streets in a stream. The streets turned red from the fire. The great cathedral collapsed.
St. Paul’s was one of the last buildings destroyed in the Great Fire. That evening, the strong easterly wind that had been feeding the fire finally stopped. That allowed people to make progress with their firebreaks.
September 5th: The Fire Abates
The Tower of London’s garrison used gunpowder to stop the fire in the other part of the town. Luckily, the Tower of London did not burn down in the great fire. Fire posts were set up around the city to fight the fire. 130 men were at each post.
The Great Fire of London was eventually brought under control on September 5th by afternoon.
However, small fires continued to break out. The ground remained too hot to walk on for several days afterwards.
Only 20% of London was left standing. All the civic buildings were destroyed, as well as 13,000 private dwellings.
“London was, but is no more,” were the words that Evelyn wrote down. The devastation from the fire was small. Only 4 people died officially, but many believe the number is higher because those cremated by the flames weren’t counted. “
436 acres of London were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people became homeless.
There were eighty-nine churches, the Guildhall, other buildings, jails, and markets became just burnt-out shells.
King Charles gave the firefighters a lot of money. 100 guineas. They shared the money to honor them for being brave.
The Parliament blamed the fire on the “hand of God upon us, a great wind and the season so very dry.” But many people in London thought that an arsonist caused it.
In the witch hunt, Robert Hubert, a Frenchman, falsely confessed to bombing the bakery.
Hubert was not in London when the fire started. But he was still hanged. Despite all evidence to the contrary, rumors that the fire was a product of foreign or Catholic intrigue would endure for decades.
The Great Fire destroyed many things, but it also cleaned up the city. There was too much dirty stuff on the streets, making people sick. The fire got rid of all that to build a new London.
Sir Christopher Wren
Sir Christopher Wren was tasked to rebuild London after it was destroyed by fire. He rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In memory of Sir Christopher, there is an inscription in this church. It reads, “If you seek his monument, look round.” The cathedral survived the Second Great Fire, the World War II bombing over London.
Wren rebuilt 52 of the City churches. He gave the City of London what it is today.
A map was made that showed Sir Christopher Wren’s plan to rebuild London after the Great Fire. On the left side of the painting, there is an image of the Tamesis god named after the river Thames. The Phoenix on the top symbolizes that London will rise from its ashes.
After the fire, people had to live in tents that were not good. There was a lot of diseases, and many people died.
After that, greedy business people saw a chance to make more money from insurance. They did this by employing men to put out fires. That is why the first fire brigades were formed.
The Monument is a column built near the place where the fire started to commemorate that event. You can visit it today.
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