Did You Know That The Great Fire Of London Killed But Only a Few?
The latter part of the Seventeenth century was not kind to Londoners. The Great Plague of London, which had broken out in 1665, had barely come to an end when the Great Fire engulfed the city on the 2nd of September, 1666. But it was a catastrophe waiting to happen, as London’s medieval houses were still mostly made of oak wood, and were clumped close together on either side of narrow streets. The poorer houses were water-proofed with tar, which made them burn very easily. There were no fire brigades in the 1700s, and individual people instead doused fires with buckets of water and archaic hand pumps to fight flames.
How It All Started
On the evening of the 1st of September, 1666, Thomas Farrinor, the royal baker, went to bed without properly extinguishing his oven. Sparks emanating from the burning embers ignited firewood lying close by, and by the wee hours of the morning, Farrinor’s house was on fire. Farrinor and his family managed to escape through an upstairs window, but an assistant died in the blaze, the first victim of the fire.
The Growing Blaze
The fire soon spread to neighboring houses and then across the street. Sparks set ablaze straw and fodder in the Star Inn stables, and from there the fire spread to Thames Street. The riverfront warehouses along the Thames were filled with flammable materials like oils, tallow for candles, coal, and spirits. As the buildings caught fire, some of these materials exploded, and turned the fire into an uncontrollable inferno. Up until now, neighborhood bucket brigades were doing their best to douse the flames, but now rushed home to evacuate their own families and their valuables.
A City Up In Smoke
The dry summer winds did their best to spread the fire as far and as quickly as possible. Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodsworth delayed the tearing down of buildings to create firebreaks, an effective fire-fighting technique of the time. By the time higher-ranking authorities superseded him to order these buildings' demolitions, the fire had gained a momentum that would breach the gaps before they could be fully created. Some people fled through the Thames River, dragging whatever they had been able to salvage, while many took refuge in the hills surrounding London.
The Inferno's Aftermath
The fire ravaged London for five full days before it was brought under control on the 6th of September. The climax came when flames engulfed the Temple area of the London Legal District. The blazing buildings had to be brought down with gunpowder and, before it all ended, the Great Fire had destroyed 13,000 homes, countless public buildings, and almost 90 churches. The most prominent of the latter was St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was at the time already undergoing heavy repairs. Many other historic landmarks were also gutted, and around 100,000 people were rendered homeless. The fire surprisingly claimed very few human casualties though, and the number of dead, depending on the source, was recorded as somewhere between 6 and 16. However, this figure has been questioned, as it may not have effectively counted and included the poor and middle class people of the city.
King Charles II set about rebuilding his capital within a few days. Sir Christopher Wren redesigned and reconstructed St. Paul’s Cathedral, surrounded by many other small, new churches. Having learnt a hard lesson, most of the new houses were built of brick and stone instead of wood, and were separated by thick walls. Streets were made wider, and alleyways were forbidden. However, fire brigades were not established, and London would have to wait until the Eighteenth Century to see a permanent fire department as we would now recognize it.
A Fiery Legacy
A few years after the blaze engulfed the city, a memorial column was erected to the Great Fire of London near the site of Farrinor’s bakery. Simply known as "the Memorial", the column stands 202 feet tall, and is adorned with sculptures and engravings which recount tales of the conflagration. Interestingly enough, an inscription on the Memorial, which was removed in 1830, blamed the fire on the “treachery and malice of the Popish faction,” highlighting the religious tensions seen in England at the time.