September marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666. This fire, which destroyed the homes of an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people, raged for nearly five days.
Now, 1666 seems so very, very long ago, but the circumstances surrounding this moment in history are very familiar. The world had been through a massive pandemic, the Bubonic Plague, in 1665, just the year before, and much of the destructiveness of the fire was blamed on a hesitant and weak politician and foreign actors.
That all sounds familiar, right? We have a pandemic and massive wildfires happening in 2021 and we have our fair share of political problems and blaming. The one thing history will definitely teach you is that the way humans react to the forces of nature and other crises is fairly similar throughout the generations.
The Great Fire of London started on a Sunday in a bakery on Pudding Lane. There are many possibilities for how the fire actually got started, but the fact that it spread so far and so wide throughout the city had to do with a couple of different issues.
The first was the architecture and city planning in London at the time. Fire was an issue that people were aware and cognizant of, and even though building with wood and thatch had been largely outlawed, the poorer parts of the city still used these more inexpensive materials as well as something even worse, tar paper, to construct their homes.
And just like the urban infill building practices that we see today, the city was so crowded that people back then started building vertically with the higher floors being wider than the bottom floors, so much so, that the upper floors of buildings might protrude so far as to nearly touch or kiss the neighboring buildings across the street. There were also houses built directly on the London Bridge, which is interesting and amazing. I would have loved to have seen that.
This overcrowding, combined with a long, hot, dry summer previously, and a Lord Mayor that was hesitant to act made London a veritable death trap. There were also many foundries, glaziers and other businesses with combustible materials, and to make matters worse, the population had an excess of gun powder, often in private homes, left over from the English Civil War.
The people that suffered the most, not unlike today, were the poorest. The aristocracy had fled to their country homes during the pandemic (also sound familiar?) to avoid catching the Bubonic plague, and so crowded living conditions were deadly both in terms of health, but also destruction by fire.
The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was an ineffective politician who waited way too long to give the order to start pulling down houses. During this time in history, they had some rudimentary ways of pumping water to fires, but the streets were so crowded and the fire was moving so fast that this was not an option. What would have worked, is a fire fighting method that involved using hooks and other tools to literally bring a house down. I am including a picture of this practice. It was helpful in that it created a “firebreak” or a way to stop the fire.
The Great Fire of London raged on for days and while there are few accounts of deaths, we don’t know if all of those killed- especially the poorer folk- were accounted for. We do know that camps had to be set up for the survivors.
While King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York eventually overrode the authority Lord Mayor of London and worked hard to pull houses down and fight the fire, the final ending did not come until the fire began approaching the Tower of London on Tuesday where a garrison used gunpowder to blow up houses quickly and stop the forward progression of the fire. By the end of the day on Wednesday, four days after the fire started the previous Sunday, the fire was officially over and London was devastated.
Samuel Pepys, an author and politician, who kept a diary at the time wrote that it was, “…the saddest sigh of desolation that I ever saw.”
In addition to blaming Sir Thomas Bloodworth, many people also blamed the Catholics and foreigners and even spread rumors about the fires being part of an invasion attempt. I guess fake news is not a new thing!
It took a long time to rebuild the great city of London, but if there is one bright note to this tragic event, some historians believe that the Great Fire paved the way for better and more sanitary building standards in London and issued in a greater focus on new fire fighting methods like creating fire fighting brigades.
There is a monument that was built to remember the property and lives lost in the Great Fire, if you travel to London, you can see it today on Fish St. Hill.
To learn more about the Great Fire of London, please visit these resources:
- Wikipedia: The Great Fire of London
- Museum of London: The Great Fire of London, 1666