1666. “London was, but is no more.”
It was a year with a special number. A year that carried a lot of ominous superstitions. And for thousands of Londoners who lived in that very year, it would prove to be life-changing.
For in the autumn of 1666 a massive and sweeping flame swept through London, consuming everything in its path and causing mass devastation. It will be remembered as one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of England’s capital.
But there had to be more involved with it than just an eerie, devilish number, right? Medieval buildings and open flame are never a good combination, and human factor is often the key fault.
So today we’re dissecting the tale of the Great Fire of London . We’re going back to 1666, luckily only figuratively, as we follow the spreading fires in order to recount one of the biggest disasters in the history of London.
Prelude to the Great Fire of London
In September of 1666 London was recovering from the last great bout of the Bubonic plague . In 1665, Yersinia Pestis had once again ravaged this densely populated city, taking many lives and worsening the situation in every aspect.
The Great Plague , as it was called, although weakened was active through 1666 as well. It came with the rats and was transmitted by the bite of a rat’s flea – in that year, only, it had taken some 70,000 lives in London. London’s citizens were in a dreadful state and desperate – but thoroughly unaware of what awaited them next.
Collecting the dead for burial during the Great Plague. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The city of London, in 1666, had two faces – the city proper, the core that was surrounded by the old city wall; and its poorer districts and slums, which huddled on the other side. These slums were often squalid, poor, and very densely built up – congested homes often piled on top one another, separated only by a maze of narrow cobbled streets.
Most of these outer suburbs were built in an old fashioned manner – from materials like wood, mud, and thatch. The law fought to forbid these building materials, particularly the thatch roofs, but with little success.
And due to these facts, small fires in London’s suburbs were a commonplace occurrence. A number of preventive measures existed – watchmen patrolled the city with the sole purpose of spotting flames, the militia was to help in emergencies, and the citizens themselves were organized to quickly put out fires by working together.
In summary, the slums of London were rife with illegal building materials and activities. Overcrowded and overbuilt, they housed numerous bakeries, smithies, foundries, and other fire-hazardous jobs – all of which were prohibited but allowed by means shady and unknown. All of this provided a great background for what was about to occur in that fated year of 1666.
The Rising Heat: The Beginnings of the Great Fire of London
Since November of 1665, an exceptional drought was dominating the London area, making everything dry as a desert. On top of that, the summer of 1666 was extremely hot. But in spite of it, Londoners (those not afflicted by the plague) were still keeping with their old habits.
One such Londoner was Thomas Farynor – a baker from a small street called Pudding Lane . Around 2 AM, early Sunday, September 2 nd, 1666, his small bakery went up in flames. Unable to quench the flames, the Farynor family escaped – all except their maid.
The fire began spreading fast, partly due to the help of a strong eastern wind. The thatch roofs, timber frames, and wattle-and-daub facades all quickly caught fire. The nearby citizens failed at every attempt to douse the flames and the militia had to be called.
The first thing they suggested was demolition. This was a standard procedure at the time. The firefighters would use long hooks to pull down burning buildings, and that way create an effective ‘firebreak’ that would help contain and extinguish the flames.
Firehooks, a normal firefighting method, were not used to contain the Great Fire of London. (Bishonen / Public Domain )
This is where the first misstake occurred. The tenants rose in protest – they wouldn’t allow their houses, even those not aflame, to be razed down. The firefighters, or the militia men, in turn summoned the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth.
The fact was that Bloodworth was a notoriously incompetent man, a man in an official position without much knowledge of how to run it. The mayor was presented with an emergency decision – and he promptly panicked.
The firefighters urged for demolition in a last ditch attempt to sustain the blaze that was now quickly getting out of control. The gathered citizens, on the other hand, protested the demolition. And Thomas Bloodworth decided not to allow the demolition for the time being. He would later fully succumb to panic.
Throughout that day, the blaze spread with incredible speed. The winds helped it spread and by midday on Sunday the attempts at extinguishing the blaze were abandoned. Great masses of citizens were evacuating the slums and making the firefighters’ attempts difficult.
Once the full scale demolition of houses was ordered, it proven to be too late. In the following years, many chroniclers blamed Mayor Bloodworth and his hesitation for the scale of the blaze.
All throughout Sunday and into Monday, the blaze took on truly biblical proportions. The fire was so large and so out of control that it created a whole set of effects that only helped spread the fire.
Scalding hot air rose in billows above the flames and rushed through the tunnel-like narrow streets, creating a sort of vacuum. This helped the wind to have an adverse effect on the fire – it acted as billows, adding oxygen and spreading the flames further.
And wherever the blaze spread, the incinerating rain of embers followed closely. The conflagration continued to spread to the north and west.
The Losing Fight – Tuesday, September 4th, 1666
The blaze was an out of control beast – an inferno of unseen proportions that slowly swallowed the city of London. Monday saw its spread to the very center of the town – the flames began reaching the merchant and financial districts. The officials and the bankers frenziedly fought to save the stockpile of gold. This was a large part of London’s wealth and was thus of big importance.
Cheapside, the street that was the financial center of London at the time, quickly fell in flames. The notable loss was the Royal Exchange, a magnificent building and the very core of commerce. It was a smoking ruin in a matter of hours.
With mayor Bloodworth’s incompetence to lead the firefighting operations, and his apparent fleeing from the city, King Charles II appointed his own brother, the Duke of York to lead and organize the efforts. This he did with moderate success.
But by nightfall on Monday, the fire viciously and completely consumed Baynard’s Castle – a historic royal palace and a counterpart of the Tower of London . And the following day brought even more devastation.
Great Fire of London in the year 1666. (Mabrndt / Public Domain )
For it was Tuesday that would really give the definition of Biblical proportions to the blaze. The Duke of York fought to halt the flames spread westward, in hopes of saving the Palace of Whitehall. He and his team had to flee as they failed to contain it, actually being outflanked by the spreading flames. And it was on Tuesday evening that the flames reached the historic Ludgate, and beyond it, the old St. Paul’s Cathedral , a building of great significance, which was built by William the Conqueror several centuries before.
The scaffolding around the cathedral was immediately ablaze, and soon after the wooden beams and the roof. Eyewitness accounts reported the unreal magnitude of the blaze that enveloped St. Paul’s. And fate had it that in the crypt of the cathedral were stored enormous quantities of books.
The flames quickly found their way below and the entire stock erupted in an unthinkable blaze. In no time, the cathedral of St. Paul was no more.
Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in ruins after the Great Fire of London. (Bishonen / Public Domain )
It was not until Wednesday that the fire began subsiding. The winds were gone, and the firebreaks effectively helped to put the greatest flames out. But even so, smaller fires remained and not until March, nearly half a year later, the last embers were completely extinguished.
The Aftermath of the Great Fire of London
In the aftermath of the fire London suffered immense social and economic burdens. The destruction was unbelievable, as the final toll included over 13,000 homes, 35 churches, the historic St. Paul’s Cathedral, the city’s financial center, and many other important buildings. All were gone. Moreover, the blaze left some 80,000 refugees behind – those citizens who lost their homes.
The spread of the Great Fire of London. (Bunchofgrapes / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
As far as the casualties go, it is amazing that only six victims were reported in the entire blaze. While this is possible, it is also widely debated that the death toll was much higher. The fact is that many of London’s poorest citizens, from the slums, were simply not included in the count, as well as the theory that the excruciating heat of the fire completely cremated a large number of the victims.
Chaos and anarchy ensued immediately after the blaze. Scapegoats were sought and the distraught citizens found them in foreigners, particularly the Dutch and French people. Since England was at war with France and the Netherlands a rumor spread during the blaze that spies from these countries were setting fires on purpose. This was, of course, false but nonetheless caused mass hysteria and lynching of Dutch and French citizens who were in London at the time.
Legal disputes were also a-plenty – landlords and tenants, and other citizens too, all disputed over rebuilding and plots. This resulted in setting up a special ‘Fire Court’ which moderated these disputes legally and with success.
But either way, London had to be rebuilt. This was a great financial burden on the government. Several proposals were offered, some of them so radical that they would have completely changed the outlines of the city.
In the end, the task of a complete redesign proved to be impossible. Instead, the buildings were rebuilt roughly where they once stood, and thus the city plan remained almost unchanged. Some crucial differences were implemented though one of which was a highly developed firefighting system. And perhaps the most important was the fact that the buildings were rebuilt from brick and stone in order to minimize the threat of fire.
John Evelyn’s plan, never carried out, for rebuilding a radically different city after the Great Fire of London. (Bishonen / Public Domain )
But in every catastrophe some good things can be found. For Londoners it was the fact that the excruciating heat of the blaze had a purifying effect – by sweeping through the city it cleansed it from the rats and plague bearing fleas. The Great Plague of 1665 was taken away by the intense flames.
For some this was divine intervention . For others it was God’s wrath. Many believed that the fire was a punishment for the sinful lives of the Londoners.
But whatever they believed one fact remained the same. Fire ravaged London had a long path of recovery ahead of it. And in the end, it did recover – rising from the ashes of the great fire like a phoenix, emerging in a new and modern light.
The Result of the Great Fire of London
1666 was more than a year with a devilish number. It was fated, a vicious turning point in the history of one of the world’s most magnificent cities, a cleansing fire that paved the way for a new epoch in London’s ongoing life.
Although costly and devastating , it was a wake-up call – a way for Londoners to realize that it was time to change. To change their habits, their homes, the building materials. It was also a precursory event to the rise of the more modern firefighting methods and the inventions of more elaborate and efficient fire engines.
Divine wrath or not, this fire cleansed the city in more ways than one – the searing flames burned away all traces of Yersinia Pestis, the deadly plague. But either way, 1666 will remain burned into the memory of Europe and all Londoners.
The LONDONERS Lamentation, a broadside ballad published in 1666 giving an account of the Great Fire of London, and of the limits of its destruction. (Ycdkwm / Pubic Domain )
Top image: The Great Fire of London on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666. To the left is London Bridge; to the right, the Tower of London. St. Paul’s Cathedral is in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames. Source: BevinKacon / Public Domain .
Alagna M. 2004. The Great Fire of London of 1666 . The Rosen Publishing Group.
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