How Did the Great Fire of London Start?
The Great Fire of London began by accident in the house of King Charles II’s baker at Pudding Lane, near London Bridge, on September 2, 1666. At the residence cum bakery of Thomas Farriner (or Farynor) shortly after midnight on Sunday, 2 September a fire broke out and spread rapidly west across the City of London which continued till Wednesday, 5 September.
The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. It threatened but did not reach the aristocratic district of Westminster, Charles II’s Palace of Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants.
The major firefighting technique of the time was to create firebreaks by means of demolition; this, however, was critically delayed owing to the indecisiveness of Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bloodworth. By the time that large-scale demolitions were ordered on Sunday night, the wind had already fanned the bakery fire into a firestorm that defeated such measures. The fire pushed north on Monday into the heart of the City.
The death toll is unknown but traditionally thought to have been small, as only six verified deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded, while the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims, leaving no recognizable remains. A melted piece of pottery on display at the Museum of London found by archaeologists in Pudding Lane, where the fire started, shows that the temperature reached 1250 °C.
Order in the streets broke down as rumours arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England’s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War; these substantial immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence. On Tuesday, the fire spread over most of the City, destroying St Paul’s Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II’s court at Whitehall, while coordinated firefighting efforts were simultaneously mobilising. The battle to quench the fire is considered to have been won by two factors: the strong east winds died down, and the Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to create effective firebreaks to halt further spread eastward.
Although it was the worst fire in London’s history, it performed a great service, for it cleansed the city after the Great Plague, which had rampaged through the country since 1664. During the Plague more than 75,000 people in London died and many thousands more fled the city, leaving parts of it deserted.
The fire raged for four days and burned the whole city except for the north-eastern and extreme western parts. The royal exchange, St Paul’s Cathedral, nearly all civic buildings, 87 churches and about 13,200 houses were destroyed. The social and economic problems created by the disaster were overwhelming.
Evacuation from London and resettlement elsewhere were strongly encouraged by Charles II, who feared a London rebellion amongst the dispossessed refugees. Despite numerous radical proposals, London was reconstructed on essentially the same street plan used before the fire.
Schemes were put forward for reconstruction, notably one by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren; but there was not enough money to replan the city entirely. However, many improvements were made. Streets were widened, many houses were built of brick, markets were enlarged or resited, and Sir Christopher Wren’s genius created the beauty of a more splendid St. Paul’s and 49 new churches.