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What has become known as the Great Fire of London started (according to contemporary evidence) in the Pudding Lane bakery of the Royal Baker Thomas Farynor, baker to King Charles II. On the night of Sunday 2 September, 1666 a fire broke out that was to rage for four nights and four days and would destroy an area one and a half miles by half a mile of the City of London. The exact location of the bakery in Pudding Lane is unknown, as is the cause of the fire; popular opinion believes that sparks from a neglected oven set fire to a nearby woodstack.
Although the fire destroyed so much of London, it caused very few deaths. There are records of only five deaths, but it is believed that eight people died. The fire was very hot and caused a lot of damage but it took hold slowly and there was plenty of time for people in its path to remove themselves and often most of their belongings to safety – leaving the fire for someone else to put out. Even Thomas Farynor and his family escaped, losing only their maid to the fire (she was too scared to climb out along the roof to escape). One other person died in the fire itself, one person died of smoke inhalation, and two others died when they fell into cellars while trying to rescue their belongings. Numbers of deaths from the fire were not officially recorded, so we have only the evidence of those who were there and recording the fire.
The Spread of the Fire
In the 17th Century the most common building material was timber covered with pitch. Buildings had thatched roofs, and straw was laid on floors and stored in outhouses and stables. The long hot summer that had contributed to the spread of the plague the year before, and another hot dry summer in this year had left the buildings bone dry. When the bakery caught fire a strong breeze fanned the flames to adjoining properties, which included riverside warehouses and the wharves. These were packed with the sailors' tools of the trade – timber, spars, ropes, tar and turpentine. These not only burned well and with intense heat, but also prevented anyone from trying to fight the fire from the Thames – the only source of water that would have been large enough for the job. As the wind continued blowing, sparks from the fire were settling on more nearby buildings, setting them alight too.
With no central fire brigade there were laws that stated that parishes should provide buckets, ladders, squirts and fire hooks. Traditionally fires were put out by local people, using leather buckets of water, and beating out the fire with staves. Axes, ropes and iron fire hooks were used to pull down nearby buildings if the fire threatened to spread. However, much of the equipment was neglected and rotten, and with no access to the Thames, there were not enough water supplies to make use of what was available. The fire continued to spread, not as one massive fire, but a series of fires around the City.
It went from Pudding Lane towards Fish Street and London Bridge. It moved along Thames Street into Old Swan Lane, St Lawrence Lane and Dowgate. It was burning steadily towards the north and west. It spread from Cheapside towards the Thames, along Cornhill, Tower Street, Fenchurch Street, Gracechurch Street and to Banyard's Castle (built by a follower of William the Conqueror to defend the western side of the City, it stood by the side of the Fleet River1 on the west). On its way down Cheapside it came across St Paul's Cathedral which was covered in wooden scaffolding. The fire took hold there, too.
By Monday the fire was burning in Ludgate, into Fleet Street and had burned down the Old Bailey. Newgate and Billingsgate were gone and the lead from the roof of St Paul's ran down the streets. The smoke was reaching 50 miles outside of the City. That night four fires all met at the corner of Cheapside, but by Tuesday morning the wind had died down a little and the fire stopped at Fetter Lane in Holborn. It was still going in the east by the Tower of London and to the north by Cripplegate.
When the fire was first reported, Lord Mayor Bludworth was not overly worried or impressed. He suggested that 'a woman might piss it out'. Luckily Samuel Pepys (who gave us our most valuable record of the fire) understood the severity of what was happening and rushed to Whitehall to tell the King himself. King Charles II sent orders to the Lord Mayor that surrounding buildings should be pulled down to create a fire break. This was standard procedure for fires at the time, but it was already too late. The wind continued to fan the flames, sending them west towards St Paul's, leaping from street to street with flames creating a wall 300 feet high.
On the second day it was suggested that buildings on either side of the Fleet river should be pulled down. This was not believed necessary as it was unthinkable that the fire would spread that far. 24 hours later it did not seem so outrageous an idea and soldiers and civilians began to clear a passage along the river to try to starve the fire of fuel. As the flames were still being driven by the wind, sparks and embers were blown across the Fleet as far as Salisbury Court. The fire swept down Ludgate Hill leaving the house clearers to fall back before the scorching heat, their work a waste.
The King's brother James, Duke of York, commandeered groups of sailors in an effort to control the fire. They used gunpowder to blow up buildings in its path which created much larger firebreaks and saved the Tower of London. This eventually contributed to the end of the fire four days later. The wind had also dropped, so it lost intensity and broke up by Temple Church near Holborn Bridge. It left smaller fires that people were able to put out, although it would be some time before the last of the flames were extinguished.
By the time the fire was totally put out, 373 acres inside the City Walls and about 63 acres outside the walls had been reduced to a waist-high wasteland stretching from the banks of the Thames to Smithfield. The damage caused by the fire changed the shape of the London skyline forever.
The fire had destroyed 13,200 houses from 460 streets, 87 churches, 44 Livery Company Guild Halls, Bridewell Hospital, Custom House, St Paul's Cathedral, the Royal Exchange and most of Baynard's Castle. Three City gates, Newgate prison, four stone bridges, six consecrated chapels, the Sessions House, the Guildhall (with its courts and offices), Blackwell House and Poultry and Wood Street compters2 were also destroyed.
100,000 Londoners were left destitute and another 100,000 homeless. Many camped out in Moorfields under canvas and there were lots of makeshift shelters erected around the City.
The damage was valued at £10,730,500 at a time when the annual income for the City was £12,000. Samuel Pepys wrote 'It has been computed that the rents of the houses lost by this Fire in the City comes to £600,000 per annum'. Estimates of £2,000,000 worth of private goods and stock were lost. Official figures claim the loss of £150,000,000 worth of wine, tobacco, sugar and plums. Money lenders and bankers profited from the fire, as people needed to quickly replace what they had lost, but the greatest financial loss was the king's. He lost the revenue from customs duties because the fire disrupted trade.
A specially appointed 'Fire-Court' was constructed from the legal profession to work out who owned what, and they worked very quickly to sort out the mess.
Six 'commissioners for the rebuilding of the City of London' were appointed and architect Sir Christopher Wren and surveyor Robert Hooke made a preliminary survey. Architects had clamoured for years to redesign and plan a more elegant London and Wren came up with a number of detailed plans. They resembled planned cities such as Paris and New York. Many of the designs resembled grids, with intersecting thoroughfares and great avenues linking the public buildings. John Evelyn's design resembled a giant chessboard, with 12 large squares. He had also written his own account of the fire.
Unfortunately for them, property owners insisted on keeping their buildings exactly where they were to begin with and restoring trade was considered more important than starting from scratch. Streets were widened here, and straightened there and houses were constructed of sturdier materials, but that was it. The original Roman street plan, with its overlaid medieval influences, still survives. Roman Londinium was unearthed during the rebuilding.
The Fleet river was dredged and the 2,100-foot lower section of the river was deepened and widened into a canal 50 feet wide. Wharves were constructed on either side and high bridges crossed it. The silt kept building up as fast as it could be cleared however. The locals would not stop chucking their rubbish into it. Maybe the elegant new designs that the architects had dreamt of would have been wasted on the inhabitants.
Several quays were improved and house building was to be improved. All houses were to be of brick or stone. Those on the main roads had to be four storeys high, those in 'streets and lanes' three storeys and in by-ways just two.
By 1669 Guildhall had been refurbished and by 1671 9000 dwellings had been rebuilt. Some of these were taken over by immigrants to the City as the original inhabitants had found alternative rooms. The surveyors had calculated that it would cost £3,900,000 to rebuild the dwellings, £2,000,000 for public and municipal buildings and £2,000,000 to rebuild St Paul's. Private buildings had to be repaired from the owners' pockets, but the work such as the rebuilding of the churches was paid for by a tax on sea coal.
People began to think about insuring their properties against fire damage. The insurance companies realised that for them to stay in business people needed to be employed simply to put out fires.
Many Londoners believed that Catholics had gone in with the French and started the fire. Robert Hubert, a French silversmith and watchmaker, confessed to starting the fire. He was found guilty at the Old Bailey despite changing his story. He initially claimed that he had started the fire in Westminster (where the fire had not reached), then changed it to the bakery. He could not describe the bakery, or where it was, but was sentenced to hang at Tyburn anyway.
William Lilly, a famous astrologer, had predicted a fire the year before. He was summoned to face the special committee set up to investigate the cause of the fire in the Speaker's Chambers at the House of Commons. Lilly convinced the committee that there was nothing sinister in his prediction, and Hubert faced the executioner alone.
Still the hatred of the Catholics continued. 'Priests and Jesuits' were ordered to leave the kingdom, and when further fires broke out in 1676 they were accused again. Two years after The Monument was opened an inscription was added near the base. It read 'The burning of this Protestant City was begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction…' It was removed in 1685 after King James II came to the throne (he was Catholic). It reappeared in 1689 when Protestant rulers came back to the throne, and was eventually removed for good in 1831.
The enquiry finally found that the fire was caused by 'the hand of God upon us, a great wind, and the season so very dry'.
Plague never returned to London after the Great Fire, and many thousands of lives were saved as a result. The fire destroyed large areas of communal living which were less than sanitary and killed many of the rats and fleas that were spreading the disease. However, there is no evidence that it was the fire that caused the disease to die out in London. The Plague started to retreat eastwards across Europe from the late 17th century onwards.