The Great Fire of London:


Where the Fire Started:

The Great Fire of London began on the night of the 2nd September 1666, as a small fire on Pudding Lane, in the bakeshop of Thomas Farynor, baker to King Charles II; at one o'clock in the morning, a servant woke up to find the house on fire and the baker and his family escaped, but a fear struck maid perished in the blaze.

In 1066 most London houses were made of a wood and pitch construction, which was dangerously flammable, so it did not take long for the fire to spread; it leapt from the bakeshop accross to the hay and feed piles in the yard of the Star Inn at Fish Street Hill and from there spread to the Inn itself; the strong winds that blew that night sent sparks that ignited the Church of St. Margaret and from there it spread to Thames Street, with its riverside warehouses and wharves filled with fuel for the flames, such as hemp, oil, tallow, hay, timber, coal and spirits along with other combustibles.

The citizen fire fighting brigades had little success in containing the fire with their buckets of water from the river and by eight o'clock in the morning, the fire had spread halfway across London Bridge; the heat created by the fire was so great that when St Paul’s Cathedral caught fire the lead roof 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; the only thing that stopped the fire from spreading to Southwark, on the other side of the river, was the gap that had been caused by the fire of 1633.



Why the Fire Spread:

At the time the standard procedure to stop a fire from spreading had always been to gain permission to destroy any buildings that were in the path of the flames; this was done in order to create fire breaks and deprive the fire of fuel; however, on that night the Lord Mayor Bludworth, who's permision was required for the destruction of any buildings, did not seem to be unduly concerned on being informed of the fire, and despite the evidence to the contrary, stated that "A woman could piss it out"; his apparent unconcern, hesitancy and worry about the rebuilding costs of any buildings that he ordered destroyed meant that by the time that a Royal command, carried by Samuel Pepys, actually arrived on the scene to destroy any appropriate buildings, the fire had gone too far out of control to be easily stopped.

The Trained Bands of London were called in to demolish the buildings with gunpowder, but the fire was now spreading so fast that the rubble from destroyed buildings was taking too long to be cleared before the fire reached it, and the rubble in many cases actually helped the fire to spread; the fire blazed unchecked for another three days, until it halted near Temple Church; then, it suddenly sprang to life again, continuing towards Westminster; the Duke of York, later King James II, had the presence of mind to order the Paper House demolished to create another fire break, and the fire finally died down.

The Times History of London. London: Times Books, 1999:

Although the loss of life was minimal (some sources say only sixteen perished), the magnitude of the property loss was staggering. Some 430 acres, as much as 80% of the city proper was destroyed, including 13,000 houses, 89 churches, and 52 Guild Halls. Thousands of citizens found themselves homeless and financially ruined. The Great Fire, and the fire of 1676, which destroyed over 600 houses south of the river, changed the face of London forever. The one positive effect of the Great Fire of London was that the plague, which had ravished London since 1665, diminished greatly, due to the mass death of the plague-carrying rats in the blaze.

Charles II appointed six Commissioners to redesign the city; the plan provided for wider streets and buildings of brick, rather than timber; by 1671, 9000 houses and public buildings had been completed; Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and oversee the construction of nearly 50 churches, not least of them a new St. Paul's Cathedral, construction of which began in 1675; the King also had Wren design a monument to the Great Fire, which still stands today at the site of the bakery which started it all, on a street now named Monument Street.

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