Everyone’s heard of the Great Fire of London; it’s one of those famous disasters that you grow up hearing about. It’s like the sinking of the Titanic or the 9/11 attacks or the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. However, in most cases, it’s probably likely that you know it was a fire, that it was big, and that it happened in London and…that’s it. So…what was the Great Fire of London and what made it ‘Great’, anyway? Surely a city as old as London has had hundreds of fires. Why should this one stand out and be any different or any more memorable than any of the dozens that had come before it, or that had gone after it?
What was the Great Fire of London?
The Great Fire of London was a massive conflagration that started on Sunday, 2nd of September, 1666 and ended on Wednesday, 5th of September. Burning for four days and three nights, it destroyed four fifths of the ancient city of London, reducing thousands of homes, businesses and public institutions to rubble and ruin. It covered several hundred square yards of the city and it remained uncontrollable for several days, with Londoners’ 17th century firefighting-methods and technology, unable to effectively combat the blaze. Although the fire could have been stopped earlier, the bungling and indecision of the city’s officials caused a citywide catastrophe that left thousands of people homeless and destitute. But what was the cause of all this misery?
The Start of the Fire
“…Some of our mayds [sic] sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast to-day, Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City…”
– Samuel Pepys.
Diary, Sunday, 2nd September, 1666.
The spark that was to ignite one of the most famous disasters in history, was born in the ovens of Mr. Thomas Farynor, official baker to His Majesty, King Charles II. In the 1660s, commercial bakeries had large, open-fire, wood-burning brick ovens, consisting of a small fireplace underneath and a cavity above, and a chimney and flue behind, to carry away the smoke. The fireplace at the bottom was where the burning fuelwood was set and burned, and the cavity above was where the dough was placed to be baked. At the end of the baking day, it was common for bakers and their assistants to rake and remove the ashes from the ovens and to put the kindling for the next day’s fires inside the empty fireplace. The bricks of the fireplace, heated by the day’s baking, would dry out the kindling ready for use the next day.
It is theorised that Farynor had placed his kindling and firewood for the next day into or near his ovens, to dry it out for the next morning’s use and had then retired to bed. Near midnight, the kindling and fuelwood caught fire. The flames, unchecked by the baker and his staff, quickly spread through the kitchen, setting fire to the wattle & daub walls of Mr. Farynor’s home. Farynor and his family (who lived above their bakery), were awoken by the smell of smoke. Finding their way downstairs blocked by smoke and flames, Farynor thrust his wife and children out of an upstairs window onto a neighbouring roof. With his family safe, Farynor made the jump himself, and turned back to help the family’s servant-girl to safety. The maid, too frightened to make the jump from the windowsill to the roof next door, was the fire’s first victim.
Downstairs, the flames spread rapidly. Houses in Stuart London, much like in the Tudor period before, were made of wattle and daub, materials used in construction for centuries before. A typical Tudor or Stuart-era building had strong, wooden beams creating the framework of the house, and then reeds which were interwoven between the beams and longer, upright reeds (forced into the ground), to create a rudimentary wall. These reeds or ‘wattles’, were then strengthened with a substance called ‘daub’, which was made up of…ehm…animal droppings…straw and water. Mixed correctly, ‘daub’ became a bit like plaster and once it was slapped onto the walls (by hand!), it would dry hard and solid. It was then painted or whitewashed over, eventually creating a structure that would look something like this:
A typical ‘wattle and daub’ house. The wattles are plastered over and filled in by the daub, which is then whitewashed. The thick, dark, oak beams give the house its strength.
Although they were cheap and easy to make, wattle and daub houses had one big problem…they were incredibly vulnerable to fire. The wattles, the oak beams, the floorboards and even the daub itself, were all amazingly flammable, and in the summer of 1666, houses were baked dry until just the tiniest spark could turn them into raging infernos. Thomas Farynor’s bakery (located on the aptly named Pudding Lane), was just one of thousands of similar structures that could be found in nauseating abundance in Stuart-era London.
The Fire Begins to Spread
Farynor and his family (with the exception of the housemaid) had escaped unscathed from their burning home, by running across the rooftops and then descending to the street below. Their house was not so lucky. Within minutes, first one, then two, then three, then the entire block of houses, was on fire! There hadn’t been a drop of rain in weeks, and the thatched rooves of the houses were as flammable as tissue-paper. All it took was one stray ember to set the roof on fire! With Mr. Farynor’s building burning like a bonfire, stray embers were everywhere, and nearby houses were soon raging infernos. People, roused by shouts and cries of alarm, quickly evacuated their homes, taking with them, whatever valuables they could lay their hands on at the time.
It was around this time that Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was roused and alerted about the fire. He surveyed the unfolding catastrophe, famously uttered that “A woman might piss it out!”, and then went back to bed, leaving the people of London to their fate and ignoring the crackling of the flames and the billowing smoke.
17th Century Firefighting
These days, we have all kinds of things to fight fires with: Fire extinguishers, high-pressure hoses, aerial water-bombers and fire retardents. Back in the 1660s, Londoners had to make do with buckets, archaic and ineffective water-pumps and water-squirts, to combat a blaze larger than anything that they’d had to deal with before! In the 17th century London, the main way for firefighters (or rather, citizens and soldiers, as actual firefighters didn’t exist), to combat a fire, was to create firebreaks. This isolated the fire and prevented it from spreading. The contained fire could then be drowned by bucket after bucket of water. One of the big problems with this method of firefighting, was that to create the firebreaks, it was necessary to tear down buildings in the fire’s path…private buildings. People’s homes and their shops and their businesses. Obviously, nobody wants their homes torn down, even if there is a fire on the way, and to override this, the firefighters needed the permission of the Lord Mayor. Bloodworth considered such actions to be unnecessary, so for several hours, the people of London fought a losing battle with a fire that was by now, totally out of their control.
The main combatants against the Great Fire of London included ordinary civilians, trainbands (militia-groups) and city watchmen. These three groups of people, later assisted by soldiers, had to fight a fire that by now, was covering several city blocks. The main firefighting tools of the day were buckets, made of either leather or wood, which were slung, hand-to-hand, in long bucket-brigades, water-pumps, which were huge, wooden water-barrels on wheels with hand-pumps and a leather water-hose, and the water-squirt, which was a big, metal syringe which could take up to three men to operate. While all of these firefighting tools were good against small blazes, they were useless against huge infernos. Bucket-brigades couldn’t deliver the water fast enough, mobile water-pumps were slow and cumbersome to move, and the water-squirts were too cumbersome for one man to operate and at any rate, had about as much power and effectiveness as a “super-soaker” water-gun!
One of the water-squirts or water-squirters used to fight the Great Fire of London.
The Great Fire of London
By dawn on the 3rd of September, the fire was well and truly out of control. Farynor’s bakery, along with the homes and businesses of hundreds of other Londoners, were now reduced to rubble and ashes. London Bridge, located a few streets away, was a blazing holocaust, and people who lived on the bridge fled their homes southwards, away from the flames. London Bridge in the Stuart Era had several shops and houses built upon it and this made it a great firetrap. Fortunately, breaks in the buildingworks, which allowed people who crossed the bridge, to look out between the buildings and over the water, acted as firebreaks, preventing the spread of the fire southwards. This came at a cost, though. The fire had destroyed the waterwheel at the north end of London Bridge, cutting off the firefighters’ main source of water to fight the blaze. Without the waterwheel (which pumped water up from the tidal River Thames, to street-level, several feet above), Londoners faced a serious shortage of water to put out the fire.
A Blast from the Past
Finally given permission to start ripping down buildings, firefighters and soldiers started pulling down or otherwise destroying buildings which stood in the fire’s path. King Charles II himself was alerted to the presence of the fire and wasted no time in rushing to the aid of his subjects, taking part in the firefighting efforts himself, by manning bucket-lines and helping to pull down buildings. The king’s presence amongst his subjects was a big morale booster…especially when the king pressed gold coins into the hands of his subjects whom he believed were working particularly hard to fight the fire, as an incentive to work even harder and not to give up the fight.
In a risky move, permission was granted to access the powder-stores of the Tower of London. In the 1660s, the Tower of London was still a working military base, and barrels of gunpowder, stored there since the end of the English Civil War, were now rolled out into the streets of the English capital. The idea was to use the gunpowder as an explosive to bring down buildings faster and more effectively, to create better firebreaks. This was a hit-and-miss method of firefighting which didn’t always work. Usually, people brought down houses using long firehooks – long poles or ropes with hooks on the end of them. The hooks would be attached to rafters or the rooves or windowsills of houses and then teams of men would pull the wooden frames out, causing the house to collapse.
Fleeing the Fire
By the afternoon of the 3rd of September, London was well and truly ablaze. The docks were on fire and the barrels of oil, wine, pitch and resin which were stored there, burned and exploded from the heat of the flames. Terrified Londoners fled from their homes, taking with them their most treasured belongings. With London Bridge now closed to traffic, people were forced to cross the river by going down the steps near the riverbank and paying watermen (the men who operated private river-ferries) to save their lives and their worldly goods. Watermen quickly raised their prices as the fire progressed, trying to make as much money as they coud of off the desperation of their fellow citizens. More people fled out of the city’s gates to the fields nearby, to escape the flames, smoke and the sound of the collapsing buildings. Strong winds and high temperatures fanned the fire rapidly northwards and westwards.
The Fires of Hell
“…The fire coming on in that narrow streete, on both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan [sic] cheese, as well as my wine and some other things…”
– Samuel Pepys.
Diary, Tuesday, 4th September, 1666.
The 4th of September was the most devastating day of the Great Fire. High winds and temperatures had made it utterly uncontrollable and time and time again, the fire jumped firebreaks made by soldiers and army officers who attempted to fight the fire with military efficiency. Charles II continued to rally his subjects to extinguish the flames by assisting them personally in their duties and by continuing to reward those who worked especially hard, with generous tips of gold and silver. The king placed himself in more danger on this day than in any other because of how fast the fire was spreading. This day saw the destruction of the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was being restored by Sir Christopher Wren at the time. The wooden scaffolding around the building meant that the cathedral, made of stone and therefore thought impervious to flames, caught fire, destroying several hundred valuables stored therein for safekeeping during the blaze.
“…The stones of Paul’s flew like grenados [sic], the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them…”
– John Evelyn.
Diary, Tuesday, 4th September, 1666.
In a turn that must’ve scared thousands, the winds changed later in the day, and the fire started burning backwards along the way it had come. Although it had burned westwards for the past two days, it now burned, heading eastwards, towards the Tower of London and its valuable and dangerous stores of gunpowder. Guards at the tower awaiting orders from the Duke of York (later James II, and Charles II’s younger brother), finally decided that they could no longer hang around to wait for royal permission and took matters into their own hands. They rolled out the gunpowder and blew up several buildings in quick succession, thus halting the fire’s spread to the East.
The End of the Fire
The Great Fire of London finally ended on Wednesday, 5th of September. On this day, the winds subsided and the firebreaks had effectively starved the inferno of its fuel. With the fire beginning to die out, it was easier for firefighters now, to close in on individual blazes and extinguish them with buckets, water-pumps and water-squirters. Moorfields, then a public park on the outskirts of London, was turned into a refugee camp for the homeless, with tents and temporary housing set up there to house the newly destitute. King Charles II visited Moorfields once the fire had been successfully extinguished and encouraged his subjects to leave London and to start lives elsewhere, away from the destruction of their nation’s capital. How many people acted on the king’s suggestions of relocation, is unknown.
Once the fires were out, rebuilding London became everyone’s chief priority. There were several plans drawn up for the reconstruction of the city, but the bold new plans and layouts, which favoured wide roads, central squares, large public parks and large, open, welcoming avenues, were largely ignored by the city’s officials. While King Charles himself admired several of the new suggestions, he bowed to the pressure of the city’s government officials, who stressed the necessity of rebuilding the city as quickly as possible, as opposed to redesigning it from the ground up. As a result, London was rebuilt on virtually the same lines as it existed on, before the fire and London’s basic street-plan has remained unchanged for the past, nearly 400 years.
King Charles and Sir Christopher Wren, who was one of the architects who had submitted plans for a ‘new and improved’ London, did manage to keep some of their ideas, much to their relief and to our safety. The king decreed that houses should be made as fireproof as was then possible; thatched rooves were banned outright within the city of London, and buildings made of wood and wattle and daub were discouraged or made illegal, in favour of buildings made of safer materials such as stone, slate or brick. Houses which still had thatched rooves had to have these rooves replaced with roof-tiles, slate or shingles, to prevent the risk of the house catching fire in the future.
The Great Fire of London also saw the rise of insurance companies. After the Great Fire, fire-insurance companies sprang up all over town, and they issued various marks (metal plaques) which their customers could purchase and affix to the outer walls of their houses. In the event of their houses catching fire, the company would help to put out the fire, or if the house was destroyed, to compensate the homeowner for the loss of his home and contents.