The Great Fire of London of 1666

The Great Fire of London of 1666

London was only just starting to recover from the Great Plague of 1665-6 when it was cruelly hit by another catastrophe: the Great Fire of London of September 1666.

Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane was the starting point for the fire. Farriner’s maid did not put out the bakery’s ovens when closing up; the ovens’ heat created sparks which ignited Farriner’s wooden home. Parish constables and fireman wanted to demolish neighbouring houses to stop the fire spreading. However the neighbours resisted this order, and the Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth was called to resolve the dispute. He forbade the demolition of the houses and claimed that “a woman could piss it out”. This turned out to be a disastrous decision.

With the city being constructed out of wood that had been dried by the hot summer months the flames spread quickly and easily.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Old St Paul’s Cathedral in Flames during the Great Fire of London
Wenceslaus Hollar, Old St Paul’s Cathedral in Flames during the Great Fire of London

Many fled the city or gathered on green spaces such as as Hampstead Heath. During the Plague of 1665, Charles II, the king at the time, promptly left London. However, by September 1666, he had returned and took control of plans to combat the blaze. His strategy involved the creation of fire-breaks by demolishing many buildings.

The fire’s heat was so intense that even the old roof St Paul’s Cathedral, which was made of lead, melted. Apparently many pigeons died because they refused to leave their nests. In contrast, however, the number of people who lost their life was remarkably small, with only an estimated eight deaths.

The authorities were terrified that the fire would manage to cross the River Thames and start causing havoc to south London. Luckily, the weather gave the authorities a helping hand. The wind that had fanned the fire across the city turned on itself; the fire was driven backwards across already incinerated ground, the flames were deprived of flammable material and the fire died out.

The Great Fire destroyed the old St Paul’s Cathedral and 84 churches. However, it was not all bad news. The fire also destroyed areas affected by the Great Plague. There were no more major outbreaks of the Plague after the Great Fire, and some historians claim that the conflagration helped prevent further outbreaks by destroying flea-infested rats and houses. However, this thesis is contended.

Parts of the city of London were now ripe for rebuilding, with Sir Christopher Wren entrusted with the job.

Samuel Pepys’s diary provides much of the known evidence about the Great Fire.  His entry on 2 September read as follows:

"2 September: Jane (his maid) comes and tells us that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down by the fire… poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside, to another…I saw a fire as one entire arch of fire above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses are all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made and the cracking of the houses."

MLA Citation/Reference

"The Great Fire of London of 1666". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.