(The areas of white show you the extent of the fire.)
Today in history, September 2, 1666, the Great Fire of London began. It is known as the most devastating fire in London history which destroyed some 13,000 houses, 87 churches and Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The country’s capital inhabited some 350,000 people at the time. In addition, homes were made of pitch-soaked timber with thatched roofs and tightly packed into small quarters. The tight confines and narrow, winding streets compounded with a dry summer made London a tinderbox waiting for a spark. That spark would come from an unlikely place.
A Baker’s shop in, aptly called, Pudding Lane would go up in flames in the early morning hours of the 2nd. Thomas Farrinor, ironically the King’s own baker, had gone to bed the night of the 1st quite convinced that he had entirely put out his oven. He was wrong. Lit embers took to the firewood besides the oven and his house was engulfed momentarily. While Farrinor escaped, his bakery assistant did not. All too quickly the fire was to claim its first victim but it was just getting started. The fire, which was aided with easterly winds, spread quickly. Warehouses filled with oil, whiskey, coal and all sorts of other flammable materials burnt with reckless abandon. It is around this time that fellow Londoners began to notice the ferocity and danger of the spreading blaze and abandoned their efforts at extinguishing it. Many would run home to save their families and valuables. What could not be carried was buried.
Interestingly enough, it seems evident that fires must have been quite common in central London. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary for that day that he had been told twice of the fire and thought little of it upon both times he reviewed it. The second time he writes “About seven rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window, and saw the fire not so much as it was and further off” and so he returned to the plans of his day. It wasn’t until the fire had committed to its warpath did he seem to truly find interest in its severity. Pepys diary is perhaps the best firsthand account of the Great Fire which we have today though it is with curiosity that one can consider some odd intrigues. If these fires were so commonplace that a man thought it best not to get out of bed, this fire must have truly been a wonder of the day. Either that or it began at exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
“The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruin.” – Samuel Pepys.
It carried down Fish Hill and down to the Thames which acted as a natural buffer. It spread quickly leaving 436 acres destroyed in what must have been days of complete and utter hell. To put the size of the fire in perspective, London at the time was only 677 acres. That means that over 60 percent of the city was either on fire, had been on fire or was to be on fire. But how was a fire of such magnitude meant to be contained much less put out? Well, not easily as one can imagine. There were no fire companies and fire laws were just as medieval as the city they were attempting to save. A common method of this time was demolition. Demolition teams equipped with firehooks or gunpowder would create empty spaces in rows of houses and shops that could burn themselves out without fear of spreading. However, time had been wasted by the indecisive leadership of Thomas Bloodworth, the Lord Mayor of London. Whether he was used as a scapegoat or was a true culprit, we’ll leave that for history to examine. What we do know factually is that Bloodworth refused to allow the demolition of key buildings that could have controlled the fire. In fear of liability, he was later ordered to by the orders of the King himself.
King Charles II answered the call of devastation with ‘with alacrity and vigour” and arrived at the heart of the city that afternoon. A campaign was organized by the privy council and soldiers/volunteers were dispatched to various points to battle the blaze. Primitive fire engines were used which were hardly functional considering the scale of the fire. At its greatest point of escalation, the Tower of London had even been threatened. It wasn’t until winds finally begun to die down that the demolition of houses and shops or firebreaks, had finally become efficient ways of containing the fire. Ultimately, the fire continued to smolder for months but it had done its damage. By result, London as the world knew it was smoke and ash. Now it was time to rebuild and wrestle with the thousands of homeless, the threat of rebellion and become the London we know all know it to be. Ironically enough, the fire did have some benefits. The bubonic plague had returned with a vengeance the year before in 1665. Though the chronicled number is around 69,000, the true number is suggested to be around 100,000. The same heat that made conditions perfect for the fire also helped the plague to spread. Yet, with the outbreak of the fire, it killed many of the rats and thus the fleas they carried. An odd silver lining perhaps but at a tremendous cost for poor Londontown.
“The hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season” – The official inquiry into the Great Fire and its origins.