The Great Fire of London – 1666

It is no exaggeration to describe the fire which started in London on September 2nd 1666 as 'Great'. The city had suffered large blazes before and after, including those started by the aerial might of the Nazi war machine, but none came close to the four days and nights of constant fire which raged through over four hundred acres of densely packed housing, stores and workplaces. While few died, anywhere up to 200,000 people suddenly found themselves homeless and often destitute, while religious fears and paranoia tinged the whole catastrophe with an air of anti-Catholic hatred.
England's great capital city was put on the verge of ruin by a conflagration that literally burnt itself into popular memory.

The Waiting Disaster
In 1666 London's medieval streets were narrow and the buildings close, most constructed from timber, wattle and daub, plaster and pitch and filled with the equally flammable essentials of everyday life: straw, tallow and firewood. In and around these materials were the candles and hearths of every home and business, each one a potentially dangerous spark. Londoners didn’t need hindsight to see the Great Fire of London as inevitable: people were worried, not just about a major fire, but about something so large it wiped London out entirely. Daniel Baker predicted such in 1559 and the fears were still strong in the 1660s, when the king himself asked London's mayor to reform the building regulations and tackle the threat of fire.

The Fire Starts
In the early hours of September 2nd 1666 a fire began at a bakehouse in Pudding Lane.

We don't know exactly where this building was in the Lane; it is supposedly 62 meters from the base of the fire Monument - but evidence from contemporary accounts (both eyewitness reports and later parliamentary findings) leaves us in no doubt that the fire began there. The bakehouse was owned by Thomas Farriner (also spelt Farynor), a baker to the king, and historians are confident that he, or one of his staff, failed to douse their ovens properly that September night, leading to an ember blowing out and igniting nearby straw.

On this, contemporary opinion was not so clear cut (see below).

The Fire Spreads
Farriner, his family and staff were awoken around 1am by the smell of smoke; all fled apart from a maid who was too scared to either clamber over the rooftops with them or jump. She stayed and died, the first human casualty of the Great fire. Sparks from the bakehouse showered surrounding buildings, igniting stable materials out in a yard at the Star Inn in Fish Street. Soon after the Church of St. Margaret caught alight and fire spread to the buildings in Thames Street, riverside warehouses packed with products like timber, coal, oils, tar, spirits and other combustibles. Here the fire caught such hold, gained such strength, that the attempts of ad hoc civilian groups to douse the flames with Thames water failed against overwhelming heat. By 4.00 am Parish Constables had awoken the Mayor of London, Thomas Bludworth, and brought him to the scene. His comments about the fire can't be repeated here, but he was openly derisive; he was also too scared to order the demolition of nearby buildings to create firebreaks and he soon returned to bed.

Strong winds both fed the fire and carried the sparks further and further.

By 7:00 an estimated three hundred buildings were ablaze. Shortly after, London experienced its one stroke of luck. Most of London’s bridges bore buildings down either side and the fire was easily working its way along London Bridge, from where it could ignite the South of London. Fortunately, a fire thirty-three years previously had left a gap between buildings, a gap which the fire wasn’t yet strong enough to cross. The fire thus stopped halfway across the Thames, burning itself out before it could go further and saving the South. The same did not happen to the north, east and west.

Why The Fire Spread So Quickly
The fire spread in two ways: by igniting what was next to it and constantly spreading outward, or 'jumping' outward thanks to the strong wind, which carried burning embers across gaps.

In contrast, London's population had two ways to combat the flames: use water – whether from buckets and pumps – to douse the flames – or create firebreaks by quickly pulling down a line of buildings and clearing the timber, thus effectively starving the fire of material.

The fire was too strong and the technology too basic to move the quantity of water needed, so the population initially had to try making firebreaks using ropes, hooks, any working animals they could keep calm and their own strength. Unfortunately, the firebreaks proved inadequate. The winds were now strong enough to carry embers across huge gaps - a contemporary figure claims across the space of twenty houses – and for the first couple of days people simply couldn’t create firebreaks fast enough and far enough to stop the flames advancing.

People Add To The Woes
People also caused a problem, often refusing permission to their houses to be destroyed. Mayor Bludworth initially refused to order firebreaks for fear of who would pay compensation. Even when King Charles II ordered the population to make breaks, others refused; people wanted the houses in front of their used as a break and their saves. The diary of Samuel Pepys – the man who initially informed Charles II of the situation – records the Mayor saying later in the day: "Lord, what can I do? I am spent, people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it." A third method was proposed during the evening of September third, supposedly by the navy, but it was swiftly rejected by homeowners; it involved using gunpowder to quickly create large empty spaces.

September 3rd
By midnight September 2rd/3rd the conflagration had spread along half a mile of riverfront and was moving outward west and north to the city walls. Citizens started to flee en masse, taking what they could carry, burying the rest or hiding it in sewers and abandoning their doomed homes. The hills surrounding London were soon filled with refugees watching their city burn. Accounts claim that, even at midnight, the flames kept London as bright as the day.

The fire spread throughout the 3rd, despite the efforts of the Duke of York – who was given command of fire-fighting that morning – and better organisation.

The Royal Exchange (400 meters north of Pudding Lane) was on fire by 2:00 pm, Lombard Street, the financial heart of early modern London, turning to ash by 3:00pm and Castle Baynard at Blackfriars (over 1000 meters west of Pudding Lane) was ablaze by 9:00 pm. The only success came at Leadenhall in the north-east, were a combination of low wind and the leadership and wealth of one citizen – which enabled him to hire sufficient labour to create a working firebreak – stopped the blaze advancing.

People Seek A Scapegoat
Chaos, panic and fear were rife, but fire wasn't the only cause. A hundred years previously Henry VIII's break with Catholicism had prompted decades of religious strife, leaving a largely Protestant London that lived in fear and suspicion of Catholics. Fifteen years previously Parliament had executed King Charles I; monarchy had only returned to England six years before the fire.

In addition, in 1666 many worried that Dutch and French forces would attack the country, while the date itself – 666 – panicked others.

As the Great Fire raged, seemingly destroying London's capital city, xenophobia, paranoia and religious bigotry were fanned as much as the flames. The fire was the work of Catholic spies or French agents, it was God's punishment for killing the king or turning from the Pope, it was the embodiment of every anger and hatred people had.

Many did remain calm, seeing the fire as little more than a random act of God, but suspected foreigners and Catholics were attacked and real foreigners and Catholics were locked up for their own protection.

September 4th
By sunrise September 4th, the fire was at its peak, an estimated ten times as strong as twenty-hours previously. The success at Leadenhall was repeated on the 4th by other teams working in the west - one led by Samuel Pepys – who now used gunpowder to clear great gaps. The Customs House may have gone, but the fire was stopped before reaching the Navy Offices and The Tower of London, home to a gunpowder store which would have done much more than burn. However, in the north the flames remained unchecked, raging across Cheapside and the city market, and in the east they jumped across the River Fleet in spite of attempts to clear the bridge and nearby buildings. Some flames reached the Temple – well over a mile from Pudding Lane and the fire's easternmost extent - but they were initially doused. By the midnight of the 4th/5th September, St. Paul's Cathedral was surrounded and literally melting: the lead roofing flowed down the streets and building stones exploded from the heat.

September 5th: The Fire Is Contained
On the 5th two events conspired to save London: firefighters started to actively, some might say overzealously, use gunpowder to clear (perhaps excessively large) firebreaks and, more crucially, the powerful east wind dropped, robbing the fire of much vitality. Firefighters were finally able to effectively douse and contain the blaze and throughout the day London's great conflagration was broken into more and more smaller, isolated, fires. There was still a great struggle – Pepys reports than even the King was seen helping – but the tide had turned, at least for as long as the wind abated. At around two a.m. on the morning of the 6th flames returned at The Temple were, famously, locals dealt with the fire after making sure excitable teams with gunpowder couldn't get near!

Small fires still burnt by midday on Thursday 6th 1666, but they posed little risk of spreading to new areas. The Great Fire of London was officially considered to have been extinguished after four and a half days.

The Damage
Up to 430 acres were affected by the fire, much of them within the city walls. Over 13,000 houses, 87 parish churches, 6 chapels, 3 city gates, four bridges, 52 guild halls, a prison and many famous and important buildings had been destroyed, leaving ten of thousands homeless and ruined. Contemporary estimates claim the damage to buildings neared eight million pounds, along with over £2 million worth of goods; the city government's annual income was just £12,000. In contrast, and even though we don't know the exact figure, the death toll was low. Official records cite only five deaths - the Farriner's maid, a shoemaker, an old man who died trying to get a blanket from St. Paul's Cathedral and two people who fell into cellars – but figures eight and seventeen are often given. The true number might have been more, but nowhere near the three thousand supposedly killed by a fire in the thirteenth century.

The Plague
Common lore claims the Great Fire stopped the plague in London, saving more lives than it cost. While the fire clearly did have some effect on retarding the plague by driving out or killing the flea carrying rats, historians don't believe fire was the sole reason. Many of the embryonic suburbs and most affected parishes also recovered from plague in 1666 without the aid of cleansing flame and even a geographically wider explanation – the bitter 1665/6 winter – isn’t accepted as effective enough.

The real reason is probably a combination of many factors and the fire is simply a coincidence.

The incentives to rebuild quickly were huge, and not just because of the thousands who needed re-homing. London was England's capital city, the third biggest in Europe, the hub of the nation's prestige, government and economic power.

To have left it in ruin, to have rebuilt slowly or unsurely, would have been to damage England on many levels. For example, custom duties gathered by the king fell over £200,000 in 1667; unsurprisingly, he was a major driving force behind the reconstruction. The drive to rebuild was also present in architects and civic leaders, many of whom had dreamt of wiping London flat and designing a glorious, modern city.

Christopher Wren submitted a massive and elaborate plan full of grand boulevard's and glorious buildings, but ideas on this extreme were quickly rejected. People may have lost their homes, but they still had their land and most were determined to either keep it or only sell for a reasonable price. While the legal wrangles, time and cost associated with a clean sheet were prohibitive, few wanted a return to the pre-fire days of tightly pack wood. Compromise was the answer, and it was decided upon by a special commission created by the King, enforced by an act of Parliament - the 1667 Rebuilding Act – and enacted by the City administration. The medieval street plan remained, but the main roads which were widened and every size of buildings subject to officially determined dimensions: thickness of wall, limits on storeys (two on normal streets, three on larger ones and four on the most important), types of material etc.

Builders Make A Statement
In addition, the King and the London Corporation initiated three grand structures to show the world how London was back in business. The Royal Exchange and a new Customs House had vital economic functions, but the Monument – sixty-two metres of Doric column with a sculpted flaming top – was pure symbolism. Wren provided the column, which is supposedly as high as the distance between the Monument and Farriner's bakery, and Robert Hooke the sculpture. Wren contributed much more, including fifty-one churches and a new St. Paul's Cathedral, creating his reputation as the architect who built London.

The Fire Court
A Fire Court, created specifically to judge arguments arising from the fire, smoothed the reconstruction, dealing with around 1500 cases: roughly one for every ten affected buildings!

Many disputes were between land-owners and tenants or borrowers and lenders, but some people managed to avoid the judges. In a case which is still notorious, Humphrey Henchman – the Bishop of London – charged stationers a storage fee on £200,000 of books and papers they had in St. Paul's Cathedral, even though it and the stock had been totally destroyed.

By 1671 over nine thousand buildings had been finished, London had an entirely new look and relatively little had been spent in doing it. Parliament had certainly needed some help in remaining interested, and St. Pauls had yet to be rebuilt, but London's return to life had been remarkably quick. For many Londoners this was a different, positive, sign from God.

Hunting For A Scapegoat
Although some people recognised that the fire was an accident, and although Parliamentary and other investigations came to the same conclusions, many continued to search for a scapegoat. They found one in Robert Hubert, a Frenchmen who for some reason confessed to having started the Great Fire; at first he said he'd started it in Westminster, which the fire never even got near, but then changed his mind and opted for Farriner's bakery instead. Despite not even knowing where the bakery was, what it looked like or how to get there, hubert was found guilty and hanged.

Few contemporaries believed that Hubert was guilty and many further accusations were raised in the following months, but he was doomed by a combination of two factors: people wanted, perhaps needed, someone to blame and Hubert was foolish enough, and foreign enough, to fit. In addition, the group judging him contained three members of the Farriner family. They vehemently denied any wrongdoing and claimed to have doused the ovens properly, but for that to have been true – for the Great Fire to have been someone else's fault – they needed a scapegoat.

Catholics remained the favoured villain and accusations against them were added to the Monument in 1668: "...the most dreadful Burning of this City; begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction." Aside from the four years of James II's rule in 1685-89, the inscription remained until 1830.

Bludworth's initially dismissive attitude saw him slandered as a Catholic who conspired to help the fire, and the fire itself soon became a key feature of anti-papal propaganda.

Long Term Consequences
London was the largest city in Europe by 1700. Huge amounts of migrant labour had been required for rebuilding and much of this stayed in the city, while large amounts of refugees stayed where they had fled; both factors created suburbs, a vastly extended city and a large market for trade and industry.

This infusion of life made up for the damaged caused by plague in 1665 and, coupled with the money spent on rebuilding, reinvigorated the economy. Had London not suffered the Great Fire it almost certainly wouldn't have grown to the size and wealth it did by the start of the eighteenth century.