The Great Fire of London was a major fire that swept through the City of London from September 2nd to September 5th, 1666, and resulted more or less in the destruction of the city. (Before this fire, the fire of 1212, which destroyed a large part of the city, was known by the same name.)
The fire of 1666 was one of the biggest calamities in the history of London. It destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, 6 chapels, 44 Company Halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St Paul's Cathedral, the Guildhall, the Bridewell Palace and other City prisons, the Session House, four bridges across the rivers Thames and Fleet, and three city gates, and made homeless 100,000 people, one sixth of the city's inhabitants at that time.
The fire broke out on Sunday morning, September 2, 1666. It started in Pudding Lane at the house of Thomas Farrinor, a baker to King Charles II. It is likely that the fire started because Farrinor forgot to extinguish his oven before retiring for the evening and that some time shortly after midnight, smouldering embers from the oven set alight some nearby firewood. Farrinor was woken by the fire at around 1am. He managed to escape the burning building, along with his family, by climbing out through an upstairs window. The baker's housemaid failed to escape and became the fire's first victim.
Within an hour of the fire starting, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth , was woken with the news. He was unimpressed however, declaring that "a woman might piss it out."
Most buildings in London at this time were constructed of highly combustible materials like wood and straw, and sparks emanating from the baker's shop fell onto an adjacent building. Fanned by a strong wind, once the fire had taken hold it swiftly spread. The spread of the fire was helped by the fact that buildings were built very close together with only a narrow alley between them.
- "Then, (says a contemporary writer,) then the city did shake indeed, and the inhabitants did tremble, and flew away in great amazement from their houses, lest the flames should devour them: rattle, rattle, rattle, was the noise which the fire struck upon the ear round about, as if there had been a thousand iron chariots beating upon the stones. You might see the houses tumble, tumble, tumble, from one end of the street to the other, with a great crash, leaving the foundations open to the view of the heavens."
The progress of the fire might have been stopped, but for the conduct of the Lord Mayor, who refused to give orders for pulling down some houses, without the consent of the owners. Buckets and engines were of no use, from the confined state of the streets.
As stated, the fire consumed a staggering 13,200 houses and 87 churches, among them the beloved St. Paul's Cathedral, but incredibly only 9-16 people are known to have died.
The destructive fury of this conflagration was never, perhaps, exceeded in any part of the world, by any fire originating in accident. Within the walls, it consumed almost five-sixths of the whole city; and without the walls it cleared a space nearly as extensive as the one-sixth part left unburnt within. Scarcely a single building that came within the range of the flames was left standing. Public buildings, churches, and dwelling-houses, were alike involved in one common fate.
Aftermath and consequences
In the summary account of this vast devastation, given in one of the inscriptions on the Monument, and which was drawn up from the reports of the surveyors appointed after the fire, it is stated, that "The ruins of the city were 436 acres (1.8 km²), viz. 333 acres (1.3 km²) within the walls, and 63 acres (255,000 m²) in the liberties of the city; that, of the six-and-twenty wards, it utterly destroyed fifteen, and left eight others shattered and half burnt; and that it consumed 400 streets, 13,200 dwelling-houses, 89 churches [besides chapels]; 4 of the city gates, Guildhall, many public structures, hospitals, schools, libraries, and a vast number of stately edifices." The immense property destroyed in this dreadful time cannot be estimated at less than ten millions sterling. Amid all the confusion and multiplied dangers that arose from the fire, it does not appear that more than six persons lost their lives. As destructive as the immediate consequences of the fire were, its remote effects have benefitted subsequent generations: the complete destruction of the Great Plague, which, only the year before, swept off 68,590 people. Most of London's public structures, the regularity and beauty of the streets, and the great salubrity and extreme cleanliness of a large part of the city of London are due to this.
The following remarks regarding the fire are recorded: "Heaven be praised (says Mr. Malcolm, "Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of London in the Eighteenth Century," vol. ii. p. 378.) old London was burnt. Good reader, turn to the ancient prints, in order to see what it has been; observe those hovels convulsed; imagine the chambers within them, and wonder why the plague, the leprosy, and the sweating-sickness raged. Turn then to the prints illustrative of our present dwellings, and be happy. The misery of 1665 must have operated on the minds of the legislature and the citizens, when they rebuilt and inhabited their houses. The former enacted many salutary clauses for the preservation of health, and would have done more, had not the public rejected that which was for their benefit; those who preferred high habitations and narrow dark streets had them. It is only to be lamented that we are compelled to suffer for their folly. These errors are now frequently partially removed by the exertion of the Corporation of London; but a complete reformation is impossible. It is to the improved dwellings composed of brick, the wainscot or papered walls, the high ceilings, the boarded floors, and large windows, and cleanliness, that we are indebted for the general preservation of health since 1666. From that auspicious year the very existence of the natives of London improved; their bodies moved in a large space of pure air; and, finding every thing clean and new around them, they determined to keep them so. Previously-unknown luxuries and improvements in furniture were suggested; and a man of moderate fortune saw his house vie with, nay, superior to, the old palaces of his governors. When he paced his streets, he felt the genial western breeze pass him, rich with the perfumes of the country, instead of the stench described by Erasmus; and looking upward, he beheld the beautiful blue of the air, variegated with fleecy clouds, in place of projecting black beams and plaster, obscured by vapour and smoke.
"The streets of London must have been dangerously dark during the winter nights before it was burnt; lanterns with candles were very sparingly scattered, nor was light much better distributed even in the new streets previously to the 18th century. Globular lamps were introduced by Michael Cole, who obtained a patent in July, 1708.
"We conclude the illustrations of this day with a singular opinion of the author just quoted. Speaking of the burning of London, he says, "This subject may be allowed to be familiar to me, and I have perhaps had more than common means of judging; and I now declare it to be my full and decided opinion, that London was burnt by government, to annihilate the plague, which was grafted in every crevice of the hateful old houses composing it."
The fire had a marked and varied impact on English society: see Charles II of England, Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, Ursula Southeil.
After the fire, a rumour began to circulate that the fire was part of a Catholic plot. A simple-minded French watchmaker named Robert "Lucky" Hubert, confessed to being an agent of the Pope and starting the fire in Westminster. He later changed his story to say that he had started it at the bakery in Pudding Lane. He was convicted, despite overwhelming evidence that he could not have started the fire, and was hanged at Tyburn.
Christopher Wren was put in charge of re-building the city after the fire. His original plans involved rebuilding the city in brick and stone to a grid plan with continental piazzas and avenues. But because many buildings had survived to basement level, legal disputes over ownership of land ended the grid plan idea. From 1667, Parliament raised funds for re-building London by taxing coal, and the city was eventually rebuilt to its existing street plan, but built instead out of brick and stone and with improved sanitation and access. Christopher Wren also re-built St Paul's Cathedral 11 years after the fire.
Lessons in fire safety were learned, and when the current Globe Theatre was opened in 1997, it was the first building in London with a thatched roof since The Fire.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London, known simply as The Monument, was designed by Wren and Robert Hooke. It is close to the site where the fire started², near the northern end of London Bridge. The corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane where the fire ended was known as Pye Corner, and is marked by a small gilded statue known as the Fat Boy or the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, supposedly a reference to the theory expounded by a non-conformist preacher who said
the calamity could not have been the sin of blasphemy for in that case it would have began at Billingsgate, nor lewdness for then Drury Lane would have been first on fire nor lying for then the flames would have reached the City from Westminster Hall. No, it was occasioned by the sin of gluttony for it began at Pudding Lane and ended at Pye Corner.
John Dryden commemorated the fire in his poem of 1667, Annus Mirabilis. Dryden worked, in his poem, to counteract paranoia about the causes of the fire and proposed that the fire was part of a year of miracles, rather than a year of disasters. The fact that Charles was already planning to rebuild a glorious city atop the ashes and the fact that there were so few fatalities were, to Dryden, signs of divine favor, rather than curse.
There had been much prophesy of a disaster befalling London in 1666, since in Arabic numerals it included the number of the Beast and in Roman numerals it was a declining-order list (MDCLXVI). Walter Gostelo wrote in 1658 "If fire make not ashes of the city, and thy bones also, conclude me a liar forever!…the decree is gone out, repent, or burn, as Soddom and Gomorrah!" It seemed to many, coming after a civil war and a plague, Revelation's third horseman.
This is an extract from the Diary of Samuel Pepys:
"By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the bridge!"
- Hanson, Neil (2003). The Dreadful Judgement.
- Robinson, Bruce. Red Sky at Night. BBC's History website. —an account of the Great Fire.
- Farrinor's name is variously spelled Farriner, Fraynor, Farryner, or Farynor.
- The Monument stands 61 metres (202 feet) tall, the height marking the monument's distance to the site of the king's baker Thomas Farynor's shop in Pudding Lane, where the fire began.
- In 1986, the Baker's Company issued a public apology for the fire.
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