While there are many myths and untruths about the Great Fire of London there is no doubt that it was the largest fire of its kind ever seen in the UK and perhaps worldwide. From a very humble beginning, the fire soon took hold and vast areas of London were destroyed in a matter of four days, although the aftermath lasted for very much longer.
We hereby list a summary of the main events, reasons for the massive destruction and the lessons learnt by the fire.
London in the 1600s
London in olden times was a City which took on a life of its own with houses and slums appearing on each and every street corner. At the time of the Great Fire, London was already five times the size of the nearest city by population and equalled the total population of the top 10 additional cities in the UK. To say that the area was cramped would be an understatement and while there had been a number of laws introduced regarding the materials to be used for housing, these will ultimately ignored by many.
Many people may not be aware that the Great Fire of London was not the first major fire in the City as there had been substantial blazes before then but lessons had not been learnt. By the time of the Great Fire of London on 2 September, 1666 the City was literally ripe for such a fire due to the close proximity of slums, substandard housing material and the make-up of the streets. London had been allowed to expand without due care and attention, planning permission was negligible and it was literally a free for all at the time.
The start of the Great Fire of London
As history shows, the fire broke out at the Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane just after midnight on Sunday, 2 September 1666. What started as a small fire in the bakery was to become the largest ever fire in UK history and claim the lives of thousands of people. While the family who lived in the bakery managed to escape to the house next door via their upstairs window, the same could not be said of their maidservant who became the first victim of the fire.
By all accounts it took over one hour for the local police to turn up to the bakery at which point they were just about to demolish the houses next door in order to create a fire break and kill the fire stone dead. However, when the homeowner’s next-door threatened to stop the demolition of their homes the Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth was called to the scene. Sir Thomas was often seen as a “yes” man and when presented with his first major decision he took the side of the homeowner’s proclaiming that as the landlords could not be located at short notice the houses could not be demolished. This was the turning point of the Great Fire of London.
The fire progresses
As the option of creating an early fire break had been dismissed there was nothing in the way of the fire as it took hold of the bakery. The homes either side in pudding Lane were soon the blaze as residents clambered to pull their belongings from their homes and try to escape to safety. However there were substantial winds at the time and these soon whipped up the fire which began to spread at amazing speed.
The problem was that many of London’s homes at the time had been built with substandard materials which were paper thin and very flammable. What should have been a small victory fire soon turned into the largest fire London had ever seen and it soon became apparent that no lessons had been learnt from the earlier serious fires throughout London.
By 7 AM on the Sunday morning the fire had reached London Bridge and homes around the region were ablaze with many Londoners begging the authorities to instigate a number of fire breaks. While initially many Londoners attempted to distinguish the fire themselves this was impossible and when people fled their homes the streets became crowded and fire fighters were unable to gain access quick enough to dampen the blaze.
As the fire progressed more and more people fled to their local parish churches, but on day two and day three many of these churches were under threat themselves and evacuations were taking place on an ongoing basis. Londoners who had taken their belongings to their local parish church were often forced to leave them as they literally fled for their lives. Many homes contained flammable materials in their cellars which exploded as the heat continued to grow and London continued to burn.
Unrest in the City
As the City continued to burn rumours circulated that foreign nationals had been creating their own fires throughout the City as many had been forced to live in slum areas. This created a very aggressive and unhelpful environment in the City which did not assist the firefighters and the authorities. In total 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches and St Paul’s Cathedral were destroyed by the Great Fire as 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants were displaced and left homeless.
The situation was further inflamed by the loss of many local authority buildings which were destroyed thereby taking out the communication network of London.
Quelling the fire
By day four much of the City was ablaze and as the fire continued to march towards the inner-city financial area concerns were at their highest. The use of gunpowder to create fire breaks was the main factor in preventing the fire hitting the financial area of the City which in itself would have created further mayhem.
It was estimated at the time that the loss of property and possessions was in the region of £100 million (do not forget this was 1666) although this was later reduced to a suspect £10 million which would be the equivalent of around £1 billion today.
When you consider the loss of houses, Paris churches, the Royal exchange, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bridewell Palace and other focal points of old London the decision not to demolish the houses either side of the Thomas Farriner’s bakery proved to be a very costly mistake. There are no official estimates regarding the number of dead as many were illegal immigrants and nobody knew the real numbers involved. Due to the heat created by the fire many bodies were literally burnt to oblivion and left nothing for the authorities to work on.