The Great Fire of London (1666)

In the latter years of the 17th century, London had grown in size to become the largest city in London, with an estimated 80,000 inhabitants.

The city was surrounded by a ring of suburbs where many people were known to live.  The City of London had become the commercial heart of the capital, and was by far the largest market and busiest port in England.

The layout of the city was one of narrow, winding and cobbled alleys, and many buildings were constructed from wood with thatched roofs.  So fires were common in the city, which were known to house the poor, with their open fireplaces, candles and ovens.

In those day’s there was no fire brigade to call in for help, yet the River Thames would have been a great help, for those who lived on the river’s edge.  Yet they ran a service known as “Trained Bands” who watched out for fires, and the public banded together to fight fires.

1666, had been a long and dry summer, and buildings were tinder dry.  In the early hours of Monday 3rd September, at Thomas Farriner’s Bakery in Pudding Lane a fire broke out.

It took an hour before the parish constable arrived, to find neighbours dousing the fire with water, but observed it was having little effect on the flames as it licked at the adjoining houses.  He wanted to demolish the adjoining houses, but the householders protested.

The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Blood, was summoned, for he had the authority to order the destruction, as a matter of law.

By now more experienced firefighters were battling with the fire, but wanted him to order the destruction of adjoining properties.  Yet he refused to give the order, as many of the properties in question were rented, and finding the owners could be difficult at such short notice.  He made a comment “Pish! A woman could piss it out” and left… I bet he regretted his decision that day.

On the Sunday after the outbreak, Samuel Pepys a senior Naval Officer at that time, observed from the Tower of London: Some churches, about three hundred houses had been destroyed, and some houses on London Bridge had been completely destroyed whilst others still burned.

So it was, Samuel Pepys made a report to the King and the Duke of York, of what he observed.  The order was given to pull down the burning houses, and any adjoining houses to stop the spread of the fire.  By mid-morning, attempts to put out the fire had been suspended as people gathered together their belongings, and headed away from the fire.

King Charles II sailed down from Whitehall to inspect the scene for himself.  The Lord Mayor had been ordered to pull down the houses, but many were still left standing, forcing the King to order mass destruction of property to the west of the fire… yet, it was too little too late, it was obvious the fire was now out of control.

Some eighteen hours after the alarm had been raised; the fire had become a raging firestorm, burning anything that stood in its way.

By dawn on Monday 3rd September, the fire was expanding towards the north and west, and south of the banks of the River Thames.  Then later turned north, heading for the financial part of the city; home to the banking institutions.  This led to a rush upon the banks, and the removal of the gold; the wealth of the city and the country lay in its strong rooms.

The Royal Exchange caught fire by mid-afternoon, and within hours is was nothing more than a smoking shell.

Boats and carts laden down with peoples goods, headed out of the reach of the fire, to the open fields and beyond, where tents and shelters were being erected … what a spectacle what a backdrop … as London burnt.

King Charles put his brother, James the Duke of York in charge of operations to stop this fire and save as much of London.  He pressed ganged lower class people into the job, paying them well and feeding them, thus creating teams of fire fighters, battling against this raging fire destroying the heart of the city.  His actions won him the hearts of the people, in his defence of the city.

On Tuesday 4th September, James believed he had created a natural firebreak, as his fire fighters made their stand at Fleet Bridge down to the River Thames, and his River Fleet would form a firebreak.   As the fire approached, a gust of wind helped the fire on, and it jumped over his men, and they were forced to run for their lives.

No one believed St.Pauls Cathedral would fall foul to this fire.  Yet early evening it licked at its walls, then melted its roof tiles, within hours it was nothing more than a ruin.

The fire was on a direct course for the Tower of London, with its large stores of gunpowder.  The garrison knew what would happen if the fire reached the gunpowder.  So they created their own firebreak against the oncoming fire by blowing up houses on a large scale in the vicinity to halt the advance of the fire.  By Wednesday 5th September the firebreak began to take effect as the wind died down.

The Great Fire of London saw the destruction of 13,500 houses, 87 churches, The Royal Exchange, St.Pauls Cathedral, Bridewell Palace, City Prisons and the list goes on.  London was destroyed by natural causes, but loss of life was few, according to the records only sixteen died.

King Charles II appointed six commissioners to redesign the city, built out of brick with larger roadways.  Sir Christopher Wren was appointed to design and oversee the construction of 50 churches and St.Paul’s Cathedral, which must be considered one of his highest achievements.

The Great Plague of 1665, ran rampant across the City of London, and is responsible for the deaths of some 200,000 souls.  In 1666 fire ravaged London, destroying much of its unsanitary houses, rats, fleas and diseases.

London was rebuilt, and so a new era began in its life.

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