Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London was a major fire that destroyed much of central London. It lasted from September 2nd to September 5th 1666. It arrived right after the Great Plague of London (1665-1666).
Before the Fire
London was only just recovering from the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), a disease that killed approximately 100 000 people in the city (15% – 20% of London’s population).
The city – which had many wooden houses – had had many fires before, including one is 1632.
London was also a worldwide leader in coal, cotton, oil, sugar, and alcohol, all of which were highly flammable and stored in flammable buildings.
There was no fire department at the time, only trained locals.
London was one of the first cities to have fire engines, but these were early models. Many did not have wheels, and they did not have hoses. They were not very effective. Stopping fires was often done by destroying nearby buildings so the fire had nothing to burn (‘firebreaks’).
The fire happened in a time of major change for Britain: as well as the Great Plague, the country had been a republic from 1649 to 1660. Charles II had only recently come to power.
The Great Fire
The fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane.
Usually houses were destroyed in order to stop large fires. In this case, however, destruction was slow.
One case of slow decisions was the very beginning of the fire: the neighbours of the bakery did not wish for their homes to be destroyed, and by the time the Mayor arrived (who could order houses to be destroyed) the nearby buildings were already on fire. When looking at the fire, the Mayor is reported to have said ‘A woman could piss it out.’
It is believed over 13 000 houses were burnt down, many government buildings, and the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Nobody knows the death total from the fire, although it is thought to have been small. Only six people were official recorded as dying from the fire, but many poor people at the time were not officially recorded as London residents, and other bodies would have been burnt up by the fire.
Documenting the Fire
At the time, London was one of the major cities in the world. Many great writers and artists lived there. Samuel Pepys’s account of the fire is one of the most famous, but others wrote about it, and painted it.
After the Fire
The destruction of so many houses made many people in London refugees. Some of these people had only recently come back to London after the Great Plague. The conditions in the refugee camps were so bad that Charles II took control of events, hoping to stop republicanism returning.
Looking for a scapegoat (someone to blame), a Frenchman named Robert Hubert was executed for starting the fire. Hubert had claimed to have started the fire, but records later proved he wasn’t even in London when the fire started.
It is tempting to think the fire helped stop the plague, but the plague was already finishing when the fire began.
London was quickly rebuilt, not least to help Charles II avoid major unrest. The disasters of the Great Plague and the Great Fire meant authorities build a cleaner, safer London.