The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London
In 1666 London was still recovering from the impact of the Great Plague and boasted half a million inhabitants. The wealthy lived in stone houses whilst the poorer residents were crammed in to a warren of cobbled streets and wooden tenements. Such was the overcrowding that the upper floors of the building were constructed to reach outwards over the streets in order to gain more useable space. The filthy streets and rivers were a breeding ground for disease and London was one massive fire hazard.
Eighty thousand people made their home in the City of London, an area which the well-to-do of Westminster rarely visited. They kept their distance from the polluted City which had been so devastated by the Great Plague in 1665.
The Tinder Box
By September 1666 London had been experiencing a serious drought for 10 months and the summer had been a hot one. The city was dry as a bone. Shortly after midnight Sunday 2 September a fire broke out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane. The family managed to escape but their maidservant wasn’t so lucky and became the first victim of the Great Fire of London.
The Missed Opportunity
As the blaze took hold, parish constables arrived to assess the situation. The threat to neighbouring properties was obvious and they declared that they should be demolished to prevent the fire spreading. The residents did not agree and so the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bloodworth, was summoned as he had the authority to order the demolition. Sadly, by the time he arrived on the scene, the fire had already begun to spread and was now threatening the paper warehouses on the river front. Bloodworth refused to order any demolition because the residents of most of the buildings were tenants and he believed that the owners should be informed and would be hard to track down.
By mid-morning the fire had spread considerably and was now burning out of control. Bloodworth had made a poor attempt at orchestrating the firefighting. The King, Charles II, took a trip down the Thames to view the devastation and ordered significant demolition, contrary to Bloodworth’s wishes but it was already too late. The people of the city had largely given up trying to fight the fire and were fleeing the area instead.
Spreading North and South
By Monday the fire was rapidly spreading north whilst its progress south had been halted by the river. However, the houses on London Bridge had perished and the fire was threatening to cross the Thames and ignite the borough of Southwark. There was a firebreak in the shape of a gap in the buildings which proved to be Southwark’s saviour. To the north, the financial heart of the City was now burning including the Royal Exchange.
Organised action to counter the fire had now been initiated. Lord Mayor Bloodworth had left the City but the King pulled rank on the City authorities and put his brother, the Duke of York, in control of operations. He successfully established command posts with couriers in charge who were invested with the power to order demolitions. Firefighters were recruited from men in the street.
Despite vigorous attempt to contain the fire, Tuesday saw even greater levels of destruction. The flames had leapt the River Fleet which it had been hoped would halt the fire in its tracks. A firebreak to the north held fast until late afternoon when the flames leapt across it and Cheapside began to burn. To make matters worse St Paul’s Cathedral, which had been presumed to be safe, was now also burning. To the east, the fire was heading for the Tower of London where there was a significant store of gunpowder. With the firefighters all occupied to the west, the garrison at the tower had to take matters into their own hands and blew up houses in the area of the Tower. Their efforts were successful and the fire’s advance was finally halted.
On Tuesday evening the wind which had been fanning the flames began to drop and the firebreak created by the Tower Garrison had done its work. Some isolated fires were still burning but essentially, the Great Fire of London was over by the morning of Wednesday 5 September.
13,500 houses, 87 churches, 44 Company Halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House and St Paul’s Cathedral had all been destroyed. The three western city gates, Ludgate, Newgate and Aldersgate were also gone. The value of the loss was estimated at £10,000,000 which would be well over £1 billion today. Officially the death toll was in single figures but it is likely that many fatalities were never recorded. Only the deaths of the wealthy were generally recorded at that time and the bodies of many victims could have been cremated in the inferno which reached temperatures of 1700 °C.
The Great Fire of London threatened to overwhelm the City’s economy and resulted in serious social unrest. The King feared a rebellion and urged refugees from the fire to settle elsewhere. The City had to be rebuilt and several extravagant plans were proposed but these were halted in their tracks by protracted arguments over ownership of the land and a shortage of labour. Ultimately the City was rebuilt along the lines of the old street plan but with buildings of brick and stone, wider streets and no structures obstructing access to the Thames. New public buildings were created, most notably Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wren was also the architect of the structure simply known as The Monument which was erected near pudding lane.
The Monument stands at the intersection of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill. It was built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate The Great Fire of London and to celebrate the rebuilding of the city following the dramatic events of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren and his colleague Dr Robert Hooke designed the Doric column which featured 311 steps leading to a viewing platform. A flaming copper urn at the top of the tower symbolised the Great Fire. The column stood 202 feet high and was precisely 202 feet from where the Great Fire started in Pudding Lane.
345 years after The Monument was completed it remains open to the public. Whilst the views from the London Eye and the Shard may be more dramatic, The Monument is still well worth a visit if you don’t mind scaling the 311 steps.
So what of Pudding Lane? This minor street in the city still exists but is flanked by modern buildings and so it is impossible to gain a sense of how it would have looked in 1666. It was named “pudding” as this was a medieval word for the offal which would tumble off of the carts heading down the lane from the butchers in Eastcheap towards the barges on the river. The site where The Great Fire of London began is marked by a plaque on the wall of a building called Faryners House.
Exploring the City
The City of London boasts a history stretching back two millennia. It is a fascinating living museum where historic architecture stands shoulder to shoulder with radical new structures. Hidden alleys wend their way through the square mile and every building has a story to tell. But it can be impossible to find some of the more interesting locations by simply wandering around. Indeed it is all too easy to walk past many of the most interesting sites without even realising it. What you need is an expert guide.
London Walks is an inspired organisation which offers a fabulous array of guided walks around the capital. Every walk is themed and takes you to both well-known attractions and places which you may never have known existed. The guides are simply fabulous and regale you with fascinating stories at every turn. You are guaranteed to learn something new and to see London in a completely new light, no matter how well you may have thought that you knew the Capital. Many of the walks are in the square mile and give you a sense of what The City was like in 1666, The Great Fire of London and how the area was rebuilt.
Visit www.walks.com for details of all the walks on offer. If you do want to learn more about the history of the City including the Great Fire then the following walks are the ones to look out for:
- Secrets and Splendours of St Paul’s
- Plague, Fire and Revolution
- Ghosts of the Old City
- Old London – Secret Places and Hidden History
- The Famous Square Mile – 2,000 Years of History
It costs just £10 to join one of the walks and there is no need to book. All you have to do is head for the designated tube station at the specified time, find the guide (they are usually holding up London Walks leaflets), pay your fee and join the walk. This is the best way not just to see London but to truly experience it. The walks present fabulous opportunities to learn about the history behind the facades.
These days, major catastrophes are covered extensively in the media and the blow by blow accounts are preserved for posterity. Future generations will be privy to the minute details of 9/11, the Gulf War and the recent events in Syria. However, we rarely have access to such detailed accounts of events which took place in the 17th century. It might seem curious that we know so much about the Great Fire of London. The fact that we do is thanks to the diary of Samuel Pepys.
Pepys was a Member of Parliament and naval administrator who kept a detailed private diary between 1660 and 1669. This included eyewitness accounts of the major events of the time including the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. The diary was over a million words long and has provided valuable insight into 17th century life. England was in a chaotic state when Pepys started writing. There had been a period of unrest in the wake of Oliver Cromwell’s death. The monarchy was restored with the coronation of Charles II in 1761.
2 September 1666 Pepys was roused in the early hours of the morning by his servant who had seen a fire in Billingsgate. Pepys initially felt that the fire wasn’t particularly serious and returned to bed. But by the time he awoke in the morning it had become clear that a major event was unfolding. Pepys went to the Tower of London to survey the scene. He was shocked by what saw and set off for Whitehall. He was the first person to report the fire to the King. The following day Pepys himself was forced to pack up his possessions and vacate his home as the fire was advancing rapidly. Amongst his possessions was the precious diary. Amidst the appalling chaos and destruction, the diary had been saved.
Pepys stopped writing his diary in 1669 as his eyesight was troubling him. He could have sought the help of others to continue his work but the diary was actually very private in nature and Pepys had never intended others to read it. It was largely written in shorthand and code and needed transcribing before it was published in the 19th century. Samuel Pepys died in 1703 and bequeathed his personal library, including his diary, to Magdalene College, Cambridge where he has studied as a young man.
The Great Fire of London Stamp Issue
Royal Mail is marking the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London with 6 stamps illustrating key scenes from the disaster. The stamps feature unique graphic novel designs.
First Day Cover
The First Day Envelope features a panoramic illustration of the city of London ablaze, with St Paul’s Cathedral at its heart. The titling replicates the graphic-novel-style treatment that appears on the stamps. The included information card continues the unique design approach used on the stamps, by focusing on key events from the start of the fire until its end, and the future regeneration of London.
Illustrated by graphic-novel artist Leigh Gallagher, the presentation pack continues the unique design approach of the stamps and focuses on key events from the start of the fire until its end and the rebuilding of London.