The Great Fire of London of September 1666 was one of the most famous incidents in Stuart England. It was the second tragedy to hit the city in the space of 12 months. Just as the city was recovering from the Great Plague, the inhabitants had to flee the city once again – this time not as a result of a disease, but the result of as human accident. The Great Fire of London, arguably, left a far greater mark on the city when compared to the plague.
The facts about the fire are simple:The fire started in Pudding Lane The fire started in a baker’s shop owned by Thomas Farriner – who was the king’s baker His maid failed to put out the ovens at the end of the night. The heat created by the ovens caused sparks to ignite the wooden home of Farriner. In her panic, the maid tried to climb out of the building but failed. She was one of the few victims of the fire. Once it started, the fire spread quickly. The city was basically made out of wood and with September following on from the summer, the city was very dry. Strong winds fanned the flames
Despite the evidence to the contrary, the Lord Mayor was not too concerned by what he was told. "A woman could piss it out" was his apparent comment when he was told that the fire was a cause for concern.
Those who could get out of the city did so. Many gathered on nearby heaths such as Hampstead. Here they were safe but they also got a good view of the destruction of the fire.
In 1665, during the plague, the king, Charles II, had fled London. Many would have liked to have done the same and few criticised the king when he did leave for the countryside. However, in September 1666, he stayed in London and took charge of the operation to save the city. His plan was to create fire- breaks. This required knocking down perfectly good buildings but starving the fire of the wood it needed to burn. Charles also ordered that navy rations stored in the docks in the East End should be given to those who had fled the city.
The heat created by the fire was so great that the lead roof on the old St Paul’s Cathedral melted. Many saw the lead flowing down the streets. It is said that many pigeons lost their lives as they refused to leave their nests and their wing feathers got burned and they plummeted into the fire. But the actual human casualty rate was remarkably small with possibly only 5 people dying in this fire.
The greatest fear the authorities had was that the flames might cross the River Thames and set fire to the south side of the city. If it could be kept north of the river, then the authorities could claim a victory. In this they were successful as the weather gave them help. The wind that had helped the fire spread, turned on itself and drove the flames back into what had already been burned. Therefore, the fire had nothing to ignite and the fire died out.
The Great Fire had burned down 84 churches and the old St Paul’s. However, it had also destroyed the filthy streets associated the Great Plague. The Fleet, a ‘tributary’ that flowed into the Thames, was nothing more than an open sewer associated with disease and poverty. The fire effectively boiled the Fleet and sterilised it. Slums were simply burned away. In this sense, the fire did London a favour and it was now up to the city’s authority’s to re-build and re-plan the city. This task was given to Sir Christopher Wren.
As with the Great Plague of 1665, a great deal of information we have about the Great Fire comes from Samuel Pepys who kept a diary of the event. For the September 2nd entry, he wrote:
"September 2nd: 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."