The Great Fire of London

The worst fire in London’s history, the Great Fire of London, occurred between September 1–6, 1666. A substantial portion of the City of London was destroyed, including most municipal structures, the ancient St. Paul’s Cathedral, 87 parish churches, and over 13,000 homes.

The fire started accidentally on Sunday, September 2, 1666, at the king’s baker’s home in Pudding Lane, close to London Bridge. The fires, which burned throughout Monday and Tuesday, were aided by a strong east wind. The fire died down on Wednesday; it was put out on Thursday, but on Thursday night, new flames broke out in The Temple. Gunpowder instantly destroyed several homes, which led to the eventual control of fire. In Samuel Pepys’ diary, the fire is described in great detail. The river was crowded with boats transporting people and as much of their belongings as they could rescue. While some sought safety in the hills of Hampstead and Highgate, Moorfields served as the primary haven for homeless Londoners.

The Great Fire of London starts in the early morning in King Charles II’s baker’s home on Pudding Lane, close to London Bridge. The fire quickly moved to Thames Street, where combustible-filled warehouses and a strong easterly wind turned it into an inferno. More than half of London was burned when the Great Fire was finally put out on September 6. Amazingly, just 16 fatalities were reported.

A catastrophe loomed with the Great Fire of London. The majority of the dwellings in medieval London in 1666 were composed of oak wood. Some less wealthy homes had tar-covered walls that prevented rain but made the buildings more flammable. Back then, community bucket brigades equipped with water jugs and crude hand pumps were used to combat fires in congested streets and closed housing. Although residents were advised to examine their houses for potential hazards, there were many negligence cases.

This happened on September 1, 1666, when the king’s baker, Thomas Farrinor, neglected to put out his oven properly. He went to sleep, and at midnight, sparks from the embers that were still burning burned the firewood that was next to the oven. Soon after, his home caught fire. A bakery assistant was the first casualty, but Farrinor was able to flee with his family and a servant out an upper window.

Straw and feed in the stables of the Star Inn caught fire as sparks from Farrinor’s bakery leaped over the street. The fire started at the Inn and quickly spread to Thames Street, where waterfront warehouses were stocked with combustible items, including coal, tallow for candles, lamp oil. These buildings caught fire or detonated, escalating the fire into a raging inferno. Locals carrying buckets gave up trying to extinguish the fire and hurried home to rescue their family and property.

The summer had been hot and dry, and a strong breeze had just fanned the flames more. City officials attempted to demolish structures and provide a firebreak as the blaze progressed, but the flames frequently engulfed them before they could finish their task. People fled, carrying their belongings into the Thames River, while the homeless sought shelter in the hills outside of London. Thirty miles distant, light from the Great Fire could be seen. The fire slowed down on September 5 and was contained on September 6. That nightfall, the Temple (the legal district) had another outbreak of flames, but the explosion of nearby structures put them out.

In addition to roughly 90 churches and dozens of civic buildings, 13,000 homes were destroyed in the Great Fire of London. Many other important historical sites, including the former St. Paul’s Cathedral, were destroyed. There were reportedly 100,000 homeless persons. King Charles II immediately began to reconstruct his city. Hundreds of smaller satellite churches surrounded a new St. Paul’s Cathedral by renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren. Most new homes were constructed of brick or stone and divided by stronger walls to avoid future fires. Streets were widened, and narrow alleyways were prohibited. But London did not have permanent fire services until the 18th century.

Within a few days of the fire, three distinct proposals for the city’s reconstruction—by Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, and Robert Hooke—were given to the king. However, none of these ideas to regularise the streets was chosen. Therefore the existing lines were nearly always kept. However, Wren’s greatest achievement was the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the numerous satellite churches positioned all around it. Hooke’s more menial role was to construct the homes in his capacity as city surveyor.

The Monument, a column built in the 1670s close to the fire’s origin, honors the Great Fire.

A memorial column honoring the Great Fire of London was built close to its origin in the 1670s. Robert Hooke presumably created the Monument, but some accounts give Christopher Wren credit. The column is 202 feet above the ground and has engravings and sculptures that depict the fire. A plaque atop the Monument (removed in 1830) attributed the Tremendous Fire to the “treachery and malice of the Popish faction,” even though an official investigation into the tragedy found that “the hand of God, a great wind, and a particularly dry season” caused it.

They finally apologized to the lord mayor for starting the city on fire in 1986, London’s bakers. Thomas Farrior, a member of the Worshipful Company of Bakers, was found guilty of starting the Great Fire of 1666, and a plaque commemorating this fact was unveiled in Pudding Lane by the group.

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